Monday, 24 December 2007

Thank You For Christmas

We have a weird custom in our family: we get our kids to write thank-you notes for their presents on Christmas Day.

It started the Christmas our eldest was four and a half and her sister was sixteen months. On Christmas morning, my husband and I watched as they savaged a pile of gifts from us and other far away family members. We looked at each other uneasily: you hear people going on about how Christmas is all for children and how much fun it is to watch the little ones opening their presents, but we actually found it pretty awful. Our children were turning into greedy little consumers right before our very eyes. Worse still, we had aided and abetted it.

"Who gave you the book about bats?" we asked our eldest a few hours later.

She shook her head. "I don't remember."

"How about the train set? Was that from Uncle Paul?"

We had to ask her twice; she was too busy playing with a puzzle. "Umm...I don't know."

We were mortified: How could we possibly write thank-you letters when we couldn't even remember who'd given our kids what? I'd been trying to keep a record of who got what and from whom, but the kids had plowed through their presents so fast I'd managed to lose track.

"Christmas," my husband muttered despairingly. "Greedfest is more like it."

I felt exactly the same: clearly for our kids, the day was nothing more than a present-opening event. There was little gratitude shown, little sign that the day meant anything other than an opportunity to receive gifts and treats. Lacking direction, our kids had behaved perfectly naturally. We had to do something to civilize them.

And that is when the inspiration came to us: We were already teaching the eldest to read and write, so why not start her on simple thank-you notes? She would be responsible for remembering who gave her what gift; we would suggest a few ideas about how and what to write, then nag her to do her duty. It took a couple of months, but by her fifth birthday, the eldest could manage a few shaky lines. That Christmas, she wrote her first thank-you notes in pencil, copying what we told her to write in a wobbly, endearingly clumsy hand:

Dear Auntie Bertie,

I just love the cute cat pajamas you sent. Thank you so much!

Have you had a good Christmas? We have had a wonderful one!

Love XXX ---

We were thrilled with this, and as soon as the youngest had learned to print, we started her too. When nagging the kids to do it turned out to be a pain, we came up with an even better plan, one which had the added benefit of slowing down the whole gift-opening process: we had the kids write a note for every present they opened, as they opened them.

Believe it or not, this method has worked brilliantly for us. Faced with a huge pile of presents and the knowledge that they won't get to open more unless they produce, the kids keep those notes coming. Before each gift, we talk about the giver and how that person is special. I know: it sounds obnoxiously smug and smarmy, but instead of a dizzy, thirty-minute orgy of gift-opening, we have managed to stretch Christmas Day out to a good eight-hour session. Stationery piles diminish; carefully printed letters pile up. Photographs of aunts, uncles and cousins are pulled out and examined; anecdotes of funny events are recalled. Remember the first time you met Auntie Leslie and you threw up all over her in the back of the car? Remember the time Uncle Gustavo let you eat eight bananas all in one go?

Shortly after moving back to the U.K., we spent Christmas with my husband's family down south and had to abandon this custom. The next year, we were invited down again, and once again, thank-you notes had to wait until we got back. On the way home, one of the kids said wistfully I wish we could do that thing with the letters again. Do you think we could do it again next year?

Sure, maybe she was just saying that because she knew we wanted to hear it. Maybe both kids are making a virtue of a necessity and only going through the motions of being grateful, but even if that's the case, it's good enough for us. The next year, we stayed home and wrote our Christmas thank-you notes again, and we've done it every year since.

We'll be doing it this year, too: thank you for Christmas.

And on the subject of gratitude, thank you all very much for reading and commenting on my blog. Merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you all!


Carole said...

It is unfortunate that I read this after my kids are grown and gone. This is one of the best things I have ever read on thankfulness and how to truly remember.

Merry Christmas to you and yours. May you have a very wonderful 2008.

Carolie said...

Wow, Mary! I thought I had the Strictest Mother in the World! When we were old enough to print, we had to finish our thank-you notes or we couldn't stay up on New Year's Eve (though at that age, we rarely made was the being ALLOWED to that was important!)

As we got older, we were to write them Christmas afternoon before we were allowed to play with what we'd gotten for Christmas. Santa was always very considerate, and left us new packets of stationery in our Christmas stockings.

We never got to do the whole "gift-opening free-for-all" that our friends told us about. We three would enter the living room AFTER our parents had their coffee, AFTER the King James version of Luke's nativity story was read in ponderous tones,(and admittedly, after we'd been allowed to ravage our Christmas stockings, filled always with a couple of cheap, small toys, a packet of stationery, an orange, an apple, some nuts, some chocolate, a candy cane and a new toothbrush!) and were steered towards the one or two unwrapped gifts from Santa. Then we had to endure the excruciating process of TAKING TURNS opening gifts. It was required that we sit and watch as each family member selected a gift, prodded it, guessed at the contents, announced the giver, opened it (we could, of course, tear the paper), exclaimed over it, passed it around, etc. Then it was someone else's turn. I really do think that's why all three of us get such a charge out of giving gifts now...I had Christmas with my brothers at Thanksgiving, because none of the three of us wanted to ship our gifts to one another...we wanted to SEE each other open the gifts!

I think I told you that when I was a freshman in college, I wrote a note to thank the wife of the college president for having hosted an ice cream social for the entire incoming freshman class. She said it was the ONLY thank you note she'd ever received from a student, for anything, in fifteen years as the president's wife. Yes, for the next four years, I was well-paid, first choice babysitter and housesitter for their family!

What an absolutely wonderful tradition you and your family have begun. I've never heard of it being done as you do. I especially love that you discuss memories of the giver and bring out photos of Aunt Gertrude and Uncle Albert. You never cease to impress me, my friend.

Love and best wishes to you and your family for Christmas and the coming year.

Carolie said...

p.s.--I have to say that I thought the loneliest Christmas I'd ever spend in my life was the year I was with the circus, and called my family while standing at a payphone in the snow in NYC. My brother read Luke's nativity story to me over the phone before they went in to open gifts, and I cried and cried, all alone in the big city. (Yeah, I know...poor me. I had a job and a loving family, and would've served myself better to find somewhere to volunteer for the day!)

I was wrong, however, about it being the loneliest Christmas possible. The loneliest Christmas I ever had was during my brief first marriage, after my stint with the circus. We drove to Miami to have our first Christmas with my sister-in-law and her family. I could handle not being with my family. I could handle traditions being different. What I couldn't handle was that the two children got up at 5am, and opened EVERY SINGLE GIFT they'd received before anyone else was awake. When the rest of us got up, the two kids were eating cereal and watching cartoons amidst a pile of torn wrapping paper and discarded gifts. I was devastated.

The best Christmas so far? Two years ago, right before we left for Japan, my husband and I joined my mother, my stepfather, my father and my stepmother at my step-grandmother's nursing home (did you follow all that?) We all sang, Mom handed out baked goods, Dad danced with the more mobile ladies, I told stories, my stepfather played the banjo and fiddle, my stepmother played the piano,and my brother sang "Once in Royal David's City" in a voice that is still clear and pure, though lower than when he was a boy chorister. The very best present for me was watching my gallant husband holding hands with addled old ladies, telling them truthfully and with great sincerity that they were beautiful and he was so very glad to be allowed to hold their hands and gaze into their eyes.

Ok, ok, I promise to go make another blog to talk about this stuff, and to stop hijacking your comments!

Kara said...

Thank you notes are a requirement in my family too. We even write and send them to each the same city. Ahhh propriety. It's so in right now.

Merry Christmas to you too!

Kim Ayres said...

You don't have to thank us for reading your blog, we have to thank you for entertaining us with your superb writing - I'm so glad you started it up :)

debra said...

We've also had our kids write thank-you notes. #2 daughter's birthday is 4 days before Christmas. She is certain that having to write notes is cruel and unusual punishment. She is wring thank you emails this year. I guess some acknowledgment is better than none.
#1 daughter is home from college. #2 daughter can't wait for her to go back, since #1 daughter hasn't adjusted to being home yet.
I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas, Mary

Brian said...

As an only child in the depression years and with few relatives,my thanking people for presents was confined vocally to parents and grandparents only.

Our own three children lived first right next to their paternal grandparents ( my wife was an orphan ) so Christmas at their place did not require notes. Even when we lived some hundreds of miles away, we travelled back, first by train then later by car, to spend Christmas in my home town with them,

As grandparents ourselves we now live close to most of the family, spend Christmas together, and as there are few of us, once more thank you notes are unnecessary because of personal contact.

For the pair of grandchildren that live at a distance, there is always the mobile phone, and any gifts to them are gratefully acknowledged through that.

As for such things as formal readings etc, our family's Oz attitude has always been, grab a beer, eat hearty, and talk cheerfully. Nothing especially stuffy about our approach, which is I suppose to be expected among our highly irreligious family.

Season's greetings to all.

Brian the patterjack

Eryl Shields said...

Merry Christmas and thanks for the gorgeous writing.

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

What Eryl said. Always a pleasure. From my house to yours I wish you all the warmth and joy of the season.

Paul said...

Merry Christmas, Mary!

Hope you have a good one

Paul x

-eve- said...

Oooo... this is a really good idea...! Yes, it's a good lesson, plus, one should be polite and say thank you :-)

The Anti-Wife said...

My mom tried really hard to instill the gentle art of thank you notes into me without any success at all. I'm a hopelessly bad communicator except for e-mail. What a wonderful tradition for your children.

Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year to you!

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Our kids aren't always as grateful as they ought to be, but I can honestly say that this custom has worked for us and is worth at least giving a shot.

I hope you had a good Christmas, Carole, and a prosperous, healthy 2008 -- especially Nebraska!

Carolie -- My mother ended up nagging us incessantly to get ours done, but I think our way ensures a better result and -- eventually -- less maternal input.

Your thank-you note story is so good you ought to write a blog entry about it -- really! I know that the custom is seen as largely outmoded, but I've always liked getting thank you notes myself. My parents were about as informal as they could be, but this was something they were sticklers for. If I ever neglected to write any, it was all my own fault.

The experience you describe of the children waking up and opening up their presents on their own would have bothered me a great deal. We also opened our presents one by one, everybody focusing on one person at a time. Christmas breakfast was a meal we all ate together, and the entire day was shared, too.

I love the image of your husband dancing so gallantly with all of those old ladies. I hope when I get old and wrinkly some young fellow will spin me around the dance floor a few times and murmur sweet nothings into my ear. The whole experience sounds like a great Christmas -- and yes, there is another blog post that I will be looking forward to reading!

Kara -- I'm torn between feeling cheered that propriety is still around and desperately not wanting to do something that is considered IN. Tell me you were joking!

Kim -- You got me started on this blogging business, so I do appreciate you reading my posts! And thank you for your kind words.

Debra -- In another year or two, that will be us! Our eldest insists that the younger will pine for her when she goes off to university, but I am wondering if she won't just appreciate her almost only-child status.

Yes, e-mail thank-yous are better than none at all. Before we adopted our Christmas Day thank-you system, we sometimes resorted to it ourselves.

Brian -- Perhaps because our family was spread out all over the U.S. -- California, Kentucky, and Florida, mainly -- we wrote a lot of thank you letters from a very early age. When our kids were small and we lived in Japan, we wrote thank you letters to people in five different countries and it was one of the ways we managed to keep in touch. Perhaps that is why we have taken this so seriously. We're hardly formal, though, and don't expect the kids' notes to be either. We just want them to be grateful and to value the giver as much as the gift. Our kids do write to one of our friends in Wales on the eldest's mobile phone, but we still send her a thank-you note just the same.

Eryl -- Thank you, Eryl, and the same to you! Hope I see you soon, too.

Sam -- I hope you had a better Christmas than we did here, and I'll bet it was warmer!

Paul -- Happy New Year to you, Paul, and I hope your novel revision is going well. I have just started mine...

Eve -- We mainly want our kids to think about the nature of Christmas and the people who love them, though we do hope they will be polite.

Anti-wife -- Happy New Year to you, and a belated Merry Christmas.

One good thing about doing this is that the kids can now write letters with relative ease. A lot of their friends are completely thrown by the whole idea of penning any kind of written communication.

Church Lady said...

I remember I wrote something here, but we were dashing out and I had to exit out before I finished. Sorry about that.

But I wanted to say that I love this tradition. It's important to acknowledge and be grateful for the good things in life. I think it helps to teach someone how to focus on the positive.

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Church Lady -- I somehow managed to miss this!