Wishing Away the Wish List

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I’ve buried my phone at the bottom of my purse so I can try to ignore the calls, emails and texts from well-meaning relatives, all of whom are asking: Where is the Christmas list?

They want suggestions for what to give the kids, the more specific the better. If I say, “Maybe a Lego set?” they’ll ask, “Which one?”

I don’t know which one. I still haven’t given much thought to holiday gift shopping. I despise the charmless Amazon wish list, it’s true, but my reluctance to create — on command — a catalog of child-appropriate gifts is more than just resistance to materialism.

I think it’s about longing: to be taken care of, to let someone else do at least part of the planning. I may be an adult, but some part of me still has a child’s desire to wake up, starry-eyed, and find that gifts have materialized under the tree — surprises chosen with love and obtained in secret, waiting to be opened in wonder. We don’t outgrow that.

Then there’s the guilt, of course. I suspect our relatives wouldn’t need ideas for what to give our children if I did a better job of keeping in touch during the rest of the year. If we visited more often — if I were a better daughter and sister — they’d know all my kids’ hobbies and wishes, and I would know theirs. (I haven’t asked anyone what to give them this year. I hope they don’t hate their gifts, but I really do enjoy putting a little imagination into it.)

This is also a practical matter. To compile an itemized inventory of wished-for things and divvy it up among grandparents and aunts and uncles would require time, of which I have no surplus. Tonight, for example, I have four events to attend — two optional-but-encouraged work functions, a fund-raiser for my children’s school, and an already rescheduled social gathering. I don’t know if our 13-year-old son’s soccer game will finish in time for the first event or at what point in the evening my husband’s meeting will let out so that he can come home to watch our 10-year-old daughter.

I don’t know what anyone’s going to eat for dinner or when, much less what everyone’s getting for Christmas.

Maybe I’m having a misplaced and cranky response to the rise of entitlement culture. There’s a transactional aspect to giving now, a way of forcing a script onto what used to be spontaneous. This has trickled down from wedding and baby gift registries to birthdays and holidays, not only for adults but for children, too. Online personal registry services have evolved to serve the demand. Giftster.com, for example, allows you to “rate items to see what is most wanted, add links to your favorite stores, and post your preferred colors, sizes and activities.” God forbid someone show you generosity you didn’t explicitly request.

Where’s the line between writing a letter to the North Pole and forking over an itemized file of material desires? The former seems sweet; the latter feels like handing someone a grocery list.

Plus, if you ask only for things you know exist, how will you ever be delighted by something you couldn’t have fathomed?

The emphasis on the things themselves suggests that the holiday’s success or failure — as if a holiday could be a success or a failure — hinges on the rightness of the gifts. In fact, that’s what retailers would have us believe. Before the last gingerbread crumbs have been swallowed, the post-holiday sales pipe up, “Didn’t get what you really wanted? Let’s fix that.”

Still, it’s my job as a parent to orchestrate all the steps that make Christmas look like magic, and that means I have to make the decisions. We’re lucky to have family who love our kids, who want to do something nice for them, and I know it’s ungrateful not to return their calls. So I dig the phone out of my purse.

“Anything is fine, really,” I try to tell my mom. “They like everything. Maybe clothes?”

“That doesn’t help me,” she says.

That’s when I realize she’s feeling some variation of the same thing I am: Help me. Make this easier, please. Tell me what to do.

At the end of the school day, my daughter climbs into the car. Thanks to her brother’s sports schedule, she has done homework on bleachers and back seats for three of the past four nights. “What’s for dinner?” she asks.

“I’m not sure yet,” I say. “What are you in the mood for?”

“Whatever,” she says. “You pick.”

She wants me to decide. I want someone else to decide. My mother wants me to decide. We don’t grow out of this either, apparently.

I make a decision: No events tonight. Not one, not two, not three, not four. I make the calls and beg off. “I’m sorry. I wish I could come.” And it’s true; I wish I could be many places at once. But I can’t.

We go to the soccer game. We come home. I make spaghetti. Father and son hang out after homework and talk about whether the deer in our yard have enough to eat when it turns cold. My daughter and I share a blanket on the sofa. She’s braiding the fringe when I ask, “If Mimi” – her grandmother – “wanted to give you something you really liked for Christmas, do you have any ideas for her?” She looks up and ponders for a moment, then says, “Maybe a few yards of fabric? I want to make a cape.” I reach for paper and pen, start making a list. That wasn’t so hard. “What else?” I ask.