After Christmas sales: Focusing on real gifts

After Christmas sales: One family couldn't afford to have a Christmas as big as those in years past. Instead of shopping the after-Christmas sales, they turned off the advertising, focused on being together and sharing laughter as one of the best gifts of all.

Dino Vournas/Reuters
After Christmas sales: Retailers promise big deals for shoppers looking to save after the Christmas holiday. In this photo, Robert and Yvonne McGillis take advantage of Target's after-Christmas sales to stock up on wrapping paper, in San Leandro, Calif., Dec. 26, 2011.

If the holidays are over, and parents are still feverishly focused on chasing the after-Christmas sales, all the lessons of love, laughter, and spirit may be trampled in the rush to the register.

I have always been drawn to opposite altars at the holiday: that of my faith, and the one of unending commerce.

For a multitude of reasons, this year we could not afford Christmas as we have known it in the past. That meant getting creative with thrift shop and used book store buys and adding humor in place of cash to the process.

Son Ian, 18, gave his hipster older brother a pair of socks with yellow duckies all over them. The gift was great, but the fact that he wrapped them in a box firmly sealed with duct tape, inside a series of five other boxes, each with its own taunting note, was hilarious. He also gave him a wrapped box cutter to open the final gift as we all wept with laughter at his frustration and said repeatedly, “There better be a PS4 in here after all this!”

That became the running gag of Christmas morning. Each time someone opened a gift they knew came from the thrift or dollar store they said, “This must be the PS4!”

However, in the days before Christmas, I was so miserable over the prospect of not being able to afford a "good Christmas” this year that I felt an urgent need to camp in front of the TV watching “Miracle on 34th Street” (the original version) and “It’s a Wonderful Life” with my kids.

That didn't happen because as Quin, 10, and I sat there waiting for the classic film to begin, advertisers kept blitzing us with what great deals we could have on stuff we still couldn't afford any more the day after Christmas than the weeks before.

The message of after Christmas sales this year seemed to be, “Face it people, you're not getting what you want for Christmas but you can buy it the next day."

I am a consumer from way, way back, raised in New York City in the ‘60s by a fashion designer who pretty much raised me in Macy’s.

However, as a parent, I suddenly realized the film I count on to renew my holiday zeal is about battling department stores – Macy’s vs. Gimbles – and the belief that if we couldn't afford it, Santa would make it appear.

I shut off the TV in despair after the first commercial.

Quin patted my shoulder and dropped the bomb.

“You know there’s really no Santa Claus and that I know that, right?” he said. “Kids in school told me I was being stupid. So I looked it up. There was a Saint Nicholas but he didn't buy stuff and he died. So I know you can’t afford what I asked for again this year.”

By “again this year,” he meant tickets to take his favorite teacher to go see comedian Brian Regan at his annual performance at Chrysler Hall here in Norfolk, Va. Tickets start at $65 each.

Quin, now in fourth grade, has been asking for this since his second grade teacher Juliet Kuehl introduced her classes to the comic’s routines through spelling bees and other school-related funnies.

His request became even more urgent when Ms. Kuehl was switched to teaching fourth grade and became his teacher again this year. Mr. Regan's comedy once again became part of classroom life for Quin.

Humor and Regan's comedy became key to Quin’s social survival because he has Asperger's Syndrome and is frequently on the outside looking in on social unity. Now he had reliable jokes to re-tell and bond with the others.

Asperger kids don’t often have the ability to recognize or understand jokes because it usually requires the more subtle understanding of social nuances that make things funny. Regan is not subtle. He’s a big kid.

A few weeks before Christmas this year, I wrote a note to Regan asking him for an autographed picture for Quin and one for his teacher.

I didn't say I was a journalist, just a mom who needed some help in the Santa department.

Regan responded, via his agent, reserving tickets for Quin and his teacher at the May 9, 2014 show here and promising to send the signed photos too.

When that answer arrived two days before Christmas, I banned TV and we instead watched Regan's routines on YouTube. 

On Christmas Eve, we spent the first real, substantive, holy night all together as a unified family going to church to see little kids dress as sheep for a Nativity play, baking cookies, and opening thoughtful gifts from the thrift shop.

I had been a wreck about not being able to afford "a good Christmas" and thinking about how I might try and “make up” for that when the sales started.

The best gift was one I didn't buy. It wasn't even the actual tickets, but a printout of a faux ticket to Regan's show telling Quin he was getting his laughs straight from the source.

“So I guess I shoulda been sending my Santa letters to Las Vegas (where Regan lives) all these years,” Quin joked.

It’s not about the stuff in the box. It’s about thinking outside the box to make your kids happy at the holidays – or any other time.

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