While I was building my police psychology practice when I was starting out, I used to work in a high school as a school psychologist. As part of my program I ran weekly groups for the kids where they could talk and get some advice for minor problems. Often the groups got into major problems and I could come in and help out. I ran about 30 groups a week so it was a pretty big program encompassing over half of the junior and senior classes.
The Letter to Santa
Every other group session I would give them an exercise, and on alternating weeks they would just talk. At Christmastime, I remember the exercise distinctly. It was a fill-in the blanks letter to Santa. It started off “Dear Santa:” and went through lines like “give me _____ to improve my looks, ________ to improve my personality or make my fantasy of __________ come true.” I would get out all the insecurities of adolescence and they would encourage each other and find out even the prettiest people or the best athletes were insecure about something. I would close every letter with a P.S. which said “Thank you Santa for bringing me ______ and ______ last year.” It was cute, fit the season and got out some good therapy stuff. But I didn’t expect the result I got.
Almost all of the kids could not fill in the last two blanks! Some could get one, but two was very rare. Much to my surprise, they would easily write down their fantasy (sometimes I wish they hadn’t), but would never be able to remember what they had gotten last year from their parents. It was explained that they were just to write what their parents had given them, and none could do it. This was an affluent school, and these kids got major gifts, but that was not one of their memories. So I started asking questions and many could tell me Christmas traditions in their family, such as singing carols or visiting a poor family with gifts, but none could remember what they had gotten, unless it was an activity gift like going to a ballgame with their dad or something.
I don’t know why I was surprised. I can remember grandpa’s Christmas ravioli, we’d stay up late at night making them and we’d get to taste on raw if we were good. I remember the late night card games when we were kids where we always seemed to win at the end; and I remember the little homemade Christmas ornaments all the neighbors used to give each other — so simple and beautiful. But I only remember two gifts throughout the years. I got a drum set in first grade. I remember it because I played it non-stop for days – just banging my heart out. I loved those drums. Funny, when I went back to school after the break, I came home and my mother said burglars broke in the house and stole my drum set. Nothing else, just my drum set. I also remember a 007 briefcase that used to shoot little plastic bullets out the side of it. My brother hit me with one of the bullets in the eye. The Christmas burglars came back for that, even though we had moved. How’d the burglars know! Never did figure that out. Maybe that is why I became a police psychologist—to catch criminals.
My brother had a cool tradition at Christmas. Every year he would tape and interview his kids at holiday time asking them who were their friends, what they were learning and what they wanted for Christmas, etc. When they got a little older, each Christmas we’d watch the tape from 5 or so years before and the present tape. What a great little gift for all of us, including the kids, to see the kids growing up on tape each year. They’re now around 4+ and my niece’s kids watch it. This is a great tradition.
My clients have gotten their teenager a car. They feel it will get him away from the video games. He not a real hard worker, doesn’t try too hard in school, never had an after school job. He used to be into skating, but it was too much work, so now he is a video whiz, in fact skipped school a few times when new games are released. But he is an ace at video games. Ninety percent of what the parents talk about in therapy is the misery the kid is putting on their lives. I will have to tell them of the Christmas burglars.
3 Simple Steps to a Tradition
1. Enjoy the Season, Not the Day — Make the buying of the tree a big event. Keep Santa Claus alive even after the kids are grown. Get together with neighbors before Christmas/Hanukkah. Invite neighbor over to light a candle and have a glass of cider. Go caroling. Make special foods over a period of weeks. This is a glorious time of year. Enjoy every moment of it.
2. Time Gifts — Kid and adults remember and react to gifts of time. Thinks about making purchases of ball games, concerts, shows, vacations, anything that will take a little pleasure away from an item that you bought. Christmas and Hanukkah are times of great anticipation; keep that alive by giving a gift of time in the future.
3. Friend in Need – I didn’t make this one up, but Christmas/Hanukkah is a time to share your good fortune with others, even if that good fortune doesn’t have any money attached. Adopt a family, buy a random gift for a kid with parents struggling, cook something and bring it to others in need. I used to throw huge parties in my younger days and tell people instead of something for me, bring a toy that I can give to a child in need at Christmas. We are all in this world together, do you part to make someone happier.
Some gifts last!! It will be what you do at a holiday season that makes a difference, not what material things you give. We tend to forget that this time of year. We get caught up in the commercialism of the holidays and forget to start the traditions. Start a new tradition this Christmas or Hanukkah and see where it takes you. You will like the outcome. Have a great holiday season this year.
Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D.
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