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The Gift of Experience

By Susan Dowse

The feeling starts in early November. It’s triggered during the first post-Halloween trip to Starbucks, when the stacks of red cups and Boney-M CDs have appeared overnight. It’s a soupy mix of comfort, connection, accompanied by a weird desire for egg nog, then peppered with a light dose of dread. With that first red-cupped Americano and storefront glimpse of tinsel, the ‘to-do/to-buy list’ starts percolating in my head.

Admittedly for our family, the list is weighted differently. Both our kids have late December birthdays, 10 days apart on either side of Christmas. In addition to standard year-end fare – school Christmas parties, piano recitals, school concerts, work deadlines, family visits and trips, and actual Christmas – we have birthday parties and family birthday dinners to contend with, too.

In the last few years I’ve felt a bit done. Not with the celebrations and rituals…or the birthdays, but with all the stuff I feel inclined to buy to honour the spirit of Christmas. I want to peel away everything in the search of a different, more authentic, holiday spirit.

In the past, my husband and I have talked about it. Let’s pare back, we’ve said. Let’s ask our extended families to pare back. We don’t need more Polly Pockets, flannel pyjamas, or small kitchen appliances. But when push comes to shove, the traditions we are embedded in seem to win. And we let it wash over us, because in our hearts we know it comes from a place of love.

But through the eyes of our kids—overwhelmed by “wants” and the thrill of tantalizing presents stacked under the tree and the first rips of paper, so quickly forgotten, through no fault of their own—what I am learning is that holiday ‘giving’ rituals don’t actually teach our daughters about the gifts of gratitude, giving, and the simple joy of togetherness.

This year we are determined to try a different approach. Within our immediate family, we will give one gift only: two nights together in the mountains, where we will skate, toboggan, sleigh ride – steeped in the white winter fray between cold and coziness. We’ll also adopt a faraway family in need. This will shift the flow of abundance toward those who really need it and create room for different discussions with our girls, discussions about giving and supporting and seeing the world beyond themselves.

How will it play out? Will our family Christmas traditions and narratives begin to shift? Can we take steps away from having and towards doing? I hope that in exploring the gifts of experience we can connect in a deeper way and feel the joy that comes from offering and togetherness. This, I want my girls to know, is where the truest spirit of the holidays lies.

Susan Dowse is a working mom who lives in Calgary with her husband and two young daughters.  During the day she works as a public and regulatory affairs consultant. Off hours and when not chasing madly after her kids, she’s into fitness, triathlon, and food. She is a book club drop-out and rarely gets all the laundry put away. She doesn’t shovel snow. Susan is also a writer and blogs at

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