Saskatchewan·Point of View

Giving up store-bought gifts reconnected my family to the true spirit of Christmas

Ten years ago, I threw up my hands in despair at the whole Christmas "thing."

I learned to have a strong idea of the season I loved and wanted

Liz James and her sons Eric (centre) and Anthony (right) show off some of the handmade gifts they made this year. (Chelsea Laskowski/CBC)

Ten years ago, I threw up my hands in despair at the whole Christmas "thing."

I'd spent a particularly stressful season buying, wrapping and bookkeeping. I realized that I'd lost touch with the holiday I loved so much. 

There was a time when I eagerly bounded out of bed on Nov. 1 to see if the stores had put up decorations yet. I belted out Christmas music all season. Now the sight of a twinkling tree just made me feel tired. 

I realized my kids were still of that tender age where I hadn't yet defined how Christmas "should" be. I had a unique opportunity. I explained, a la Whoville, that Christmas doesn't come from a store.

'I get to BE Santa'

I quickly learned that "handmade Christmas" could be even more exhausting than "bought Christmas." After the first year I learned to streamline. Each person picked a type of gift  and made a ton of them. You get what you get. 

I learned to have a strong idea of the season I loved and wanted — beautiful decorations, nice smells in the kitchen, tons of time with my family — and to keep adjusting until I got there.

My kids bought into the idea with remarkable enthusiasm. The toddler declared excitedly "I get to BE Santa" (in our household, we treat Santa as a metaphor more than a literal truth). Both boys spent all of November and December rescuing egg cartons from the trash, colouring them with markers and wrapping them to go under the tree.

One of the handmade gifts Liz James's family prepared for this Christmas. (Chelsea Laskowski/CBC)

On Dec. 24, we went around to friends and neighbours who were delighted to receive partially wrapped bits of trash from exuberant three- and five-year-olds wearing Santa hats. It was all the cuteness of regular Christmas, with far less guilt for getting rid of everything the minute the season has passed.

A couple of years in, I found a five-year-old sitting beside the tree surrounded by piles of gifts. He declared, "Mom, I have more presents than ANYBODY,"  Looking at the piles he'd sorted, I saw that he meant he'd made more presents than anybody. 

I was sold.

I figured it would end when they went to school, but it didn't. They'd return each January to join in the chorus of "what'd you get?" with their heartfelt speeches about creating the Christmas that matters to you. I thought this would get them ostracized for sure, but it gave them a kind of celebrity.

The boys' sense of fairness was helped by the fact that we do presents at other times of the year. I'd see something perfect for them in a store in May and bring it home as a spontaneous gift, especially when travel was imminent. I once overheard one of the boys saying "we don't do bought Christmas, we do airplane Presents."

Liz James (right) and her sons Eric (left) and Anthony (centre) get their fingers dirty making Christmas treats. (Chelsea Laskowski/CBC)

'You're giving someone a part of you'

Last year, it changed. My 13-year-old asked if we could have a bought Christmas, so that he could find out what "normal Christmas" was like. His dad and I had a decision to make. Was handmade Christmas really about no-buying, or was it about intentionality?  

We agreed to give bought Christmas a try.

By mid-morning on Dec. 25, it appeared we'd never go back. The 13-year-old stood in piles of crumpled paper and declared, "What have I been missing?"

To my surprise, this year he asked if we could go "50-50" between the two.  He told me that bought Christmas was "fun, but obviously not for every year," and that it "lacked a personal touch."  His older brother would have skipped bought Christmas completely, because he thought it was "exhausting" and that "making a gift means you're giving someone a part of you."

I have no idea what Christmas will look like for my boys when they're adults.  Or even next year. What I hope is that it will be a conscious choice. I also hope that if — or when — they feel like they've lost the season they love, they'll have the tools they need to find it again.

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About the Author

Liz James is a Saskatoon-based writer who blogs at


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