Hello Santa, Is That Really You?

There is actually snow on the ground now, and my neighborhood has been blinking with twinkly Christmas lights since the day after Halloween, so it looks as if there's no way to avoid it: It's time to go to the mall.

It's not that I don't like to shop. In fact, my husband's least favorite news at the end of a shopping day is, “Honey, I saved $100 at the store.” He knows a day with that much in savings has cost a bundle.

But shopping during the Christmas rush is like playing a contact sport, and not one with pads and helmets, like football; it's more like rugby — a game for the truly deranged.

In the mall, it's easy to get caught up in the true spirit of the holidays — the spirit of competition. The energy coursing through the corridors infects my mood, and before I know it, I'm cutting people off as I barrel through the halls, racing to the checkout lines and shooting other shoppers an intimidating look that says, “You got a problem with me?” In my mind, I sound just like Robert De Niro.

I act this way because I'm still wearing the emotional body armor needed to park my car outside the building.

Driving around for a good 45 minutes, I hum Christmas carols with the radio, generously letting cars ahead of me with a wave and a smile. Eventually, I realize every space toward which I direct my vehicle is poached by drivers taking advantage of my good will.

By the time I grab a spot, I'm shouting, “Not today, pal” to the driver coming toward me, hoping I don't see him inside. Ho ho ho.

I have tried to simplify my Christmas shopping to reflect the “reason for the season.” A few years ago, a friend told me, “If three gifts were enough for Jesus, it's enough for my kids.” Even Jesus probably would have played with the wrappings on the myrrh. He was a real boy, after all.

As my children get older, gift shopping gets more complicated. They want clothes and electronics like their friends, but they still want things they can play with.

One Christmas, my daughter received an elaborate home-design set: three rooms with lots of furnishings, rugs and accessories to create miniature interior-design schemes. It even had electricity, so the lamps lit.

OK, some would call this a doll house, but there were no people. Besides, she was only 12 years old, and she needed something that approximated a toy. She loved it.

About two days after Christmas, I ran into a classmate of my daughter's. “How was your holiday?” I asked.

“Great, I got a cell phone and a DVD player for my bedroom,” she said.

Needless to say, I didn't mention my daughter's interior-designer set. Cell phones are a big gift item these days, but not at our house.

We got a cell phone for our eldest daughter when she started high school. She thought this was totally cool. Armed with her own phone number, she felt mature, on the brink of adulthood, even.

She didn't understand this was just an electronic tether intended to eliminate all excuses for not communicating with her parents. “We don't ever want to hear, 'I couldn't leave the party. I had no way to call you,'” we told her. “This is your escape hatch for any situation.”

We set the rules for cell phone use and let her know the itemized bill would help us track her compliance.

At first, she took the cell phone everywhere, even to church. “We're all together,” I told her. “It's not likely you're going to need to call me from the vestibule to let me know you're safe.”

“Oh, I want to have it, just in case,” she said. In case what? God calls?

Before long, the cell phone became one more item to forget in the morning, like lunch and running shoes and the homework sitting in the printer. Then the inevitable happened: She lost it. I was mad, but in retrospect, this was ridiculous. What did I expect a 14-year-old person would do with a cell phone?

It's probably still buried deep within the dark recesses of my daughter's closet, but we'll never know unless we move. We looked everywhere, especially in the places she said it couldn't be, and after a few weeks, we gave up.

I called the cell phone provider and got a new phone, for free, in exchange for a lifetime commitment to do business with the company, irrespective of whether it decides to fleece me with higher rates.

The bottom line is, I don't want my children thinking cell phones are toys (despite the fact they're programmed with games to pass the time and kill the batteries while waiting to be picked up from school), so there won't be any under the tree.

What will be under the tree remains a mystery, but not for long.

With just 5 shopping days left, it's time to subject myself to the hundreds of renditions of “Let It Snow” piped into the department store (Andy Williams is still my favorite) and while away the hours thinking about each member of my family — who they are, what they'd enjoy.

This is the part of Christmas shopping that makes the trip to the mall so sweet.

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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