The author’s son, with his present on Christmas morning 2012. (Photo by Marie Hickman)

The first few Christmases after my divorce, I went overboard on holiday gifts for my only child, who was 8 when we split. Flush with guilt and restorative alimony, I bought my boy whatever caught his eye in a given year: the latest Legos, a top-notch movie camera, a professional metal detector, a remote-controlled helicopter.

I gave in far too easily to the begging and pleading. He needed, desperately, each and every one of those items. Sometimes I bought him gifts in advance, telling him Santa was keeping a tally. That was promptly forgotten when December rolled around. Most of these gifts gathered dust, shoved in the closet about the same time as our artificial tree. I sold the metal detector to a co-worker at half price; my son still hasn’t noticed it’s gone.

The rest of the year, he heard me complain about this, sometimes loudly. And, as my credit card bill stretched me thin until June, he heard me complain about that, too – sometimes very loudly. I am sure that is what unraveled his belief in Santa, not the stories from his friends’ older siblings. He knew long before I told him.

For a few years, I tried a different tactic: educational and enrichment gifts only. There were science experiments in a box, more books than we had room for, and the accoutrements of new hobbies. Dad, who lives in another state, supplied all the gaming systems I refused to buy.

When my son was 12 and just three guitar lessons into a future as the next Jimi Hendrix, I bought him his most expensive present yet: a Fender Stratocaster. I not only scouted out the perfect cherry red model he’d seen on some YouTube video, I found ever-bigger boxes to nest it in so the contents would come as a total surprise.

He had not asked for this guitar, but I knew he wanted it, and man, was I going to deliver! When he woke up that Christmas morning and saw a box as big as the tree he looked at me, bewildered. “You bought me a refrigerator?”

He opened it very gingerly, peeling the paper off in tiny strips, as if he were afraid it might explode. When he finally unearthed the sleek, cherry-red marvel, he paused, strummed a few dissonant chords, and then burst into tears. He did not tell me why he was crying, but he truly sobbed. He was unusually quiet as we headed to the airport three hours later so he could catch a flight to spend Christmas night with his dad.

I proceeded cautiously: “Are you sad you have to split Christmas day with both parents this year?” He shook his head. “Are you sad you don’t have Christmas with us all together anymore?” No, he said, “I get to have two Christmases.” I tried again: “Did I get the wrong color guitar?”

I just didn’t get it.

As he got ready to board the plane, he turned to me and said, “Do you really want to know why I was crying? I didn’t want you to spend so much money.” I watched as the flight attendant took him down the jet bridge. It was my turn to cry. I had made a big deal about turning out the perfect Christmas year after year, as if that mattered.

A few months into the New Year, I had a cancer scare that set me back a few thousand dollars in tests. I refinanced my house and made some needed repairs. The restorative alimony went away. Life curtailed my holiday largesse. What my son said finally sunk in.

I sat him down and gave him my mom-ifesto. I apologized for complaining about gift costs, and did something I should have done from the beginning: I set a budget. He would not get whatever he wanted. He would get what meant the most to him, and we would spend within our means. We would embrace the seasonal theme of giving.

I told him I would auto-deposit $10 a week into a secondary bank account and that was what I would spend on him. I made it clear he would have to earn his own money for the gifts he wanted to give others. And I told him we would find a charity to help.

Just the act of setting boundaries and putting some of the onus on him changed his expectations immediately. When he needed a smartphone for a youth trip to Japan last summer, he earned half the money washing cars, and told me the other half would come out of the holiday fund.

We have arranged to help a local charity wrap presents for struggling families this year, and we use some of the Christmas savings to buy gifts for a needy family we know personally. We will do some baking together to create presents from the heart, and visit some nearby light displays. These will be “gifts of memories.”

Memories.

When I took my son to the airport last week so he could spend Thanksgiving break with his dad, I reminded him of our plan, and joked about the Great Guitar Debacle of 2012. “Actually, I want a violin,” he said. I gave him a look. “Just kidding,” he said. “I’m going to learn to play that guitar next year.”

He may or he may not, but I realized then and there, on Concourse E, that I had been trying to lay fancy paper and hard-to-open bows on something I never wanted him to open: my guilt and sadness over the divorce. You can’t rewrap a family that has come undone, but you can teach your kids that the best gifts come by setting expectations.

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