My parents cancelled Christmas when I was 8 (and I’m glad they did)

By: Jessica Vomiero on December 24, 2019
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I remember how much my siblings and I complained the day my mom told us that we wouldn’t be getting Christmas presents, even though it wasn’t intended to be a punishment. My parents had decided that instead of getting each other gifts, we’d be “adopting” a family of six through our local church. The family also had four kids, all close in age to us. I was about eight years old the first time my parents tried this experiment, my sister and two brothers were five, four and one. 

When my mom took us shopping at a local Walmart to buy presents for the unknown family, none of us were happy. In addition to forgoing our own presents, my mom wanted each of us to pick out a gift for the child of the mystery family which was closest to us in age. I didn’t make that shopping trip any easier for my mom. Despite the protests from my siblings and I, the Vomieros would go on to adopt a family for three straight Christmases, and each time, the four of us would get no presents. 

But despite a rocky first year, my siblings and I actually came to appreciate it. I was only eight years old the first time we participated in the program, and by the time I turned 11, I felt like it was my job to be supportive of my mom and dad when my younger siblings complained. Part of it was the guilt my younger self felt at seeing their discouragement when my siblings inevitably protested the idea. Beyond that, though, each year that we didn’t get any Christmas presents, it seemed to matter a little less that we didn’t have another toy that would only break in a few months. As my sister got a little older, despite being the last one to hold out, she eventually got on board as well.

While it took a few years for me to be supportive of this exercise, today I’m grateful for the three years we adopted a family. While we didn’t get any Christmas gifts, we were left with a lesson about the true meaning of giving, and being content with what we had. 

The Vomiero 6

My family and I have always been unusually close. Jokes were always flying back and forth and we’d all laugh and talk over each other straight through most meals. It wasn’t as if we never fought. In fact, we often fought and made up several times over the course of one dinner. Bringing friends home to meet “the Vomiero 6” as we called ourselves, always resulted in a surprised and slightly scared insistence that — while, yes, our family was very nice — we were “a lot.” And, to be fair we were. Things have toned down as the majority of us have passed through the teen years, but the biggest reason we enjoyed each other’s company so much (and still do) is that we believed that everything we needed to be happy was sitting around the dinner table. This sentiment was a factor in my parents’ efforts to downplay the value of “more stuff” everyday, especially at Christmas time. And, much to their dismay, there were many days where we didn’t just fail to thank them for imparting that lesson — but we actively fought them on it. 

Their choice to do this, and to have all their kids participate, had a positive impact on several areas of my life. I spend a lot of time thinking about how my parents’ emphasis on people over things impacted my view on the world and approach to relationships. I only recently began to realize how it may have impacted my financial decisions as well. 

When my mom took us shopping at a local Walmart to buy presents for the unknown family, none of us were happy

For starters, I’m definitely a saver rather than a spender. I put off purchasing new things until the old things I have are falling apart and begging to be retired. I’m a heckuva bargain-hunter, and I pride myself on it. I justify every purchase I make before I make it, asking myself every time whether the physical, emotional or entertainment value it may bring is worth the cost. More than simply saving money though, I get a lot of comfort from the simple things that make my life better, like the bagel with butter and dark roast coffee I buy from Tim Hortons’ on Mondays (the coffee pods haven’t been restocked in the office yet), or the L’Oreal foundation I’ve been using since university because it matches my skin tone perfectly. I develop an attachment — almost an affection — for the things that, when I put them all together, make up my life. They’re valuable, not because of what I spend on them, but because they give me a sense of home. 

The few Christmases where we received no presents from my parents were representative of the lesson they tried to impart to my siblings and I as we grew up. 

Things don’t make you valuable; you give them value. And what they taught me was that the items we purchased for the children we never met were valuable and special because we chose to give them away. 

Things don’t make you valuable. You give them value

In my adult life, one of the only times I feel comfortable spending a lot of money without counting every cent is when buying presents for other people. Beyond the price tag though, when I buy someone a present, I feel that it should reflect who they are or what they need at that point in their lives. When they open it, I want them to know not only that I bought them something, but that I took the time to think about what they might want, how they would use it, and whether they’d be able to tell by looking at it in a month that it was from me. The presents I give to others are far more valuable to me than anything I might buy for myself. 

It would be false to say that my parents simply taught me how to save money. Rather, they taught me how to value the things that I had, and that the greatest way to give something value was to use it to make someone else happy. They did their best everyday to instill in me that what made a person special, worthy, valuable and loved came from inside them — not from inside their wallet. 

It’s a sentiment I’ve heard many friends, relatives and coworkers espouse, but one that I’ve rarely seen internalized.

Now, were they always successful? Absolutely not. The four Vomiero kids were just as tyrannical and gift-obsessed as other kids our age. Additionally, I acknowledge that I had the privilege of growing up in a happy home where my family had the luxury of trying to deliver these lessons, rather than worrying about putting food on the table. When we received nothing for Christmas from my mom and dad, it wasn’t because we couldn’t afford it. It was to help others and prove a point. 

Still, I genuinely believe that the effort my parents put into deemphasizing the role of “more stuff” in our lives has not only helped me to be a more financially-responsible person, but it’s allowed me a greater sense of peace in my life. Peace in knowing that my finances don’t place any limitations on my happiness, peace in knowing that the best way to give something value is to use it to make someone else’s day, and peace in knowing that everything I really need is already sitting around the dinner table.