Organized people will tell you that it’s wise to get your Christmas shopping done a few months in advance. Pay close attention to the things the people you love are interested in and if you see a sought-after item on sale in July, pick it up and stash it away in a closet for that special someone. That way, when everyone else is madly hunting for the last open parking spot at the mall in the middle of a raging blizzard, you’ll be at home with your family relaxing on the couch, drinking hot chocolate and watching your fifth straight episode of Go, Diego, Go! with your toddler.
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It should be noted that people who are organized are often the ones who don’t have kids. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that once you become a parent, it’s almost impossible to be organized enough to cross holiday shopping off your to-do list a few months in advance. If we happen to be at a mall in the middle of the summer, it’s usually because it’s a scorching hot day and we’re searching for an air-conditioned sanctuary with a couple of sweaty and sticky kids—not to dig through the clearance bins for last season’s action figures and scratch-and-sniff stickers to stuff into stockings.
Besides, if you pick things up for your kids in June or July, there’s a pretty good chance their wish lists will change dramatically over the course of six months. This may not be breaking news, but kids have a tendency to change their minds. A lot. Something they’re completely obsessed with in April is totally passé by the time the school year comes to a close. So imagine loading up on a bunch of those Littlest Pet Shop toys and accessories in the summer, only to have your daughter angrily tell you “Those are for babies!” when she opens up her gift on Christmas morning.
And while she’s crying because of the crappy gift you so carefully sought out, tears will be streaming down your face because the 90-day window to return it has expired. That’s what you get for being a forward-thinker. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.
So I’ve determined that it’s best to get your kids’ holiday wish lists in early November to ensure they’re fresh and relevant. (But make sure your kids aren’t on a post-Halloween sugar high, or they might request outlandishly expensive gifts like a seven-day Disney cruise or a new skirt for their American Girl doll.) It also gives you the opportunity to eliminate the things you don’t want in your house. Managing expectations is a big part of the holidays, so it’s best to be honest (well, as truthful as possible) when you shoot down their ideas and come up with alternative suggestions:
“Hmmm… I heard that Santa isn’t making the voice-changing megaphone this year.”
“They just ran out of rubber bands at the Rainbow Loom factory.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie, but Daddy is allergic to puppies. What about a brand new calculator instead?”
Then there’s the issue of your child discussing wish lists with all of her friends. It’s like a stubborn case of head lice: One friend spreads a bad idea to everyone else in the group. Once you have one kid with the latest electronic gadget on her list, you can guarantee the rest of them will ask for the same thing. The holidays are a good reminder that your child should have more Luddite friends.
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And here’s the thing: When you have a finalized list from your child, you don’t have to rush out to the store like your parents did 30 years ago. Grandparents love to gather everybody around their recliners and regale you with horror stories of how they traded punches and acted like savages to secure the last Cabbage Patch Kids doll in the store. (Those who survived the Tickle Me Elmo phenomenon, however, often decline to speak about it. The wounds are still too fresh.) Fortunately today, gifts can arrive at our doorsteps with the simple click of a button, so we don’t even have to face the crowded mall for the entire holiday season unless we’re desperate for some festive muzak. We can pretty much leave things to the last minute, which is a nice luxury for parents with hectic schedules.
And if you’re anything like me, you’ll also take your own sweet time unwinding after the holidays. I don’t bother taking my lights down until April or May—right around the time those organized people are revving up for next Christmas.
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A version of this article appeared in our November 2014 issue with the headline, "The wishlist," p. 44.