December 7, 2012

Why We Do Not Make Wish Lists by Stacy Trasancos

Although I appreciate elaborate decorations and traditions, I have never been gifted with skills to perform these things in my home well. My heart is a simple one, one that seeks all things fundamental. There is one simple choice our family has made over the last ten years that has changed our entire experience of Advent and Christmas. It surprised even me.
We do not make Wish Lists. Let me explain.

It starts out innocent enough. When the baby’s first Christmas finally gets there, you are ecstatic about surprising him with the bright new baby toys on Christmas morning. With genuine glee, you watch as he fumbles with the wrapping paper, and you watch every sweet reaction as he discovers the new toys before him for the first time. When she is two, you just know she will play with that first doll forever, and it is a milestone you will never forget. When she is three, you wait with palpable excitement to capture her delightful squeals as she walks down the stairs and discovers the Dream Land of Toys that awaits her. And so it goes.

By the time they are four or five, the compiling of the Wish List is an annual event. “What do you want Santa to bring you, honey?” They know by then that Christmas morning is the one morning of the whole year when grand dreams of toys and candy come true; so by six, seven, eight, nine, ten, they slowly evolve to anticipate that Wish List for months in advance. “What shall I ask for? This is my chance, make it big!” It is still so fun to fulfill their little dreams, still relatively easy to buy them just what they want, and still worth it to see the joy and smiles on their faces Christmas morning. You live for it every bit as much as they do.

At eleven and twelve, he starts to show interest in electronics. By thirteen and fourteen she has developed her own taste in clothes which, to your chagrin, is not consistent with your taste in her clothes, but oh what does it matter? It is Christmas. Give her something special. Get him the big game system. They are only fourteen once.

By fifteen they make the Wish List and give you the specific order, “Do not buy me anything but what is on this list. Do. Not.” A little taken back, you try to excuse the behavior because, after all, they are spreading their wings and becoming independent. You negotiate; some things you might buy her, some things are off the table. And so it goes.

But it is too late. An expectation of getting the Wish List fulfilled has taken hold. Now so accustomed to that adrenaline rush on Christmas morning with all its dream-come-true satisfaction, the ripened teenager not only plans for the Wish List all year long, he plans for the negotiating too. She asks for things he knows are off the table, but as a tactic to wear you down so the thing she really, really wants, but knows you cannot afford, might just appear Christmas morning. You feel guilty for saying no to so many things, so you give in and buy the expensive items. He needs an iPhone 5, never mind that he doesn’t even know what the iPhone 5 does that the iPhone 4 does not do. She needs the $50 t-shirt with skull and cross bones because it is just what kids wear, “Come on Mom, get with it. Throw in a spike belt too.” When it gets to the point where you realize Christmas is out of control, alas, it is too late. What happened incrementally over all those years cannot be undone without fights and tears, and familial discord.
Why do you think grown men and women knock each other down on Black Friday each year just to buy items they think they cannot live without? Why do you think malls are packed with people spending money they do not have? Gift-givers need to be the Dream-Maker as much as the Wish List-Maker needs to have the Dream Land. Who is Christmas all about anyway?

I have watched this happen more times than I would like to admit. When my husband and I began raising our young children (which grew to five in number very fast) I also started out, as most mommies do, with the obligatory Christmas Wish List. I fussed over just the right gift to get our babies, and our parents and relatives; I fussed and fretted, and fretted and fussed. After a couple of years, my husband made the observation that I hated the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and he was right. I did. I dreaded it all year long. When I converted to Catholicism, and understood that this time was also the time of Advent, I had an epiphany. The season is about the gift of Christmas, the gift of salvation, purchased for us by an innocent and helpless child, born poor in a stable and laid in a manger. And that is the thing.

Gifts are supposed to be received, not demanded.

With children now from one year old to nine years old, I have never once allowed a Wish List since our oldest was two and I had my epiphany. When the kids got old enough to see their friends doing it and asked if they could make a list too, I told them that if they made a list it did not mean they would actually get anything on it. When commercials come on, even now, and they want a flashy new toy, we tell them every single time, “You do not need that.”

“But can I have it?”

“Sure, when you can buy it for yourself.”

Now, I know that sounds harsh, but we say it in a light-hearted way and with loving intention. The point is – the children do not know what it means to compile a Wish List. It has affected so much beyond Christmas; in general it is instilling in them an understanding that making demands is simply inappropriate. We tell them, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” That is a life lesson. It is true of everything if one is to grow in virtue. I want our children to learn to appreciate what they are given in life, now and as adults, whatever it is, whether they think they like it or not. There is always some good to see in anything you are given. I want them to understand that the beauty of a gift is that someone thought of you more than they thought of themselves. I want them to see every gift as an act of kindness, and I want them to eventually realize that perhaps the giver sees something in them that they have not seen in themselves. No one made a Wish List for Redemption, but the human race pined for it nonetheless.

Has this hard line been worth it?

Absolutely. It is my number one biggest Advent change that sets our entire home in the proper mood for the coming of Christ. In fact, I get all of my Christmas shopping done in less than an hour on the day before Thanksgiving (Yes, I do!) so I do not even have to participate in the shopping madness, and I do not spend very much money. We get the kids one gift each, of our own choosing, and a pair of pajamas – and they love it. This simple refusal to allow a Wish List extends to birthdays, dinner, clothing, and anything else, and it frees our whole family to focus on the real Gift of Christmas.

The gift we have received in return is that together as a family we know the gift of redemption is the greatest gift ever given by our Creator to all mankind, and every morning of the year becomes that Dream Land, it becomes that mystical, awesome experience that some people only think exists in material shiny form one day a year. When you think about it, every morning is Christmas morning for a believer, and I cannot think of a better way to celebrate Advent than to know that we are preparing our hearts for the entire year – and lifetime, and eternity – to come.

 Stacy Trasancos, Ph.D. is a scientist turned homemaker and joyful convert to Catholicism raising her family in upstate New York. She is pursuing a MA in Theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, and she is a Chief Editor at Ignitum Today and a Senior Editor at Catholic Lane. She writes about all that she is learning at her blog, Accepting Abundance.

For more posts on Advent traditions and reflections check out the Advent series.


  1. I'm speechless and at the same time throwing my arm up in the air doing my best Arsenio-style: Woot! Woot! Woot!

    An elegantly simple gem of a post! Thank you, Stacy.

  2. "No one made a Wish List for Redemption, but the human race pined for it nonetheless."

    Wow. Thanks Stacy for the wonderful food for thought this Advent morning.

  3. This is my favorite blog post so far! We never wrote wish lists growing up. And Christmas was always amazing and joyful! I do NOT like writing wish lists for Christmas. My husband's family does it, but mine still does not. I like surprising my family on Christmas. My husband writes his Christmas list every year, but I am going to try to buy something for him every year that is not on it. Because every since we've been married, he has guessed every gift I got him before I was able to give it to him. Same with birthdays. Last year I got so upset, I cried my eyes out when he "jokingly" guessed what I got him. I was also 9 months pregnant, but nonetheless I was very upset. I hope to surprise my husband this year, since I didn't go off of his very long list. I 100% agree with this post! I think I might show this post to my husband! Thank You!

  4. Love this idea! Never made the connection to Black Friday - that's really insightful. Thank you!

  5. Thank you all for the comments! I didn't want this to sound bossy, but it really has made a difference. I didn't know to do this with my older two children and they suffered as a result.

    Mia, I was just like your husband at first, but eventually I saw things differently. My poor husband. :-)

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