Playing Hooky for Santa

A Christmas shopping strategy to help you avoid the crowds and make better memories.

A busy commercial street with the word WARNING on it.
The mall on December weekends is a war zone.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by iStock.

When it comes to Christmas cheer, I like to think that I could give Will Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf a fair fight. The tree goes up right after Thanksgiving, and every year I do my best to festoon it with even more lights. I can’t have too many decorations, send too many Christmas cards, or blast the Christmas playlist too often. Do you have a holiday ringtone? Mine is “(It Must’ve Been Ol’) Santa Claus.”

I even love the shopping! Puzzling out the perfect gift for hard-to-shop for relatives, solving the problem of uneven-present piles for my three kids by buying MORE just for balance, exploiting my Amazon Prime membership by making multiple orders in one day—I find joy all of it. But there are some aspects of gift-buying that even I will acknowledge are less than ideal. Shopping in person puts me in the holiday spirit—the decorations, the music, the peppermint mochas at Starbucks—but the mall on December weekends is a war zone. Filling your cart online is the easy, breezy alternative, but you lose that festive feeling of Christmasing in public.

Fortunately, my husband and I have hit upon a solution to this dilemma, and it has become one of my favorite traditions. We take a weekday in early December, play hooky from our respective jobs, and take a leisurely approach to loading up on gifts. A few years in, I cannot imagine surviving gift-acquisition without this strategy—if you are able, I suggest you take it up as well.

When we first started this tradition, I was antsy to be productive, to cross names off lists and quickly fill the trunk of the car with boxes and bags. It was quite in keeping with my typical, hand-paint-your-own-garlands quest to have a perfect Christmas. But eventually my husband gently suggested that it should just be a fun outing. We visit out-of-the-way local stores, or check out a new shopping center that just opened. We have long lunches. We get ideas for gifts that we’d have never considered if we were rushed at a crowded mall or would have thought to look for online. For example, one year we figured out that the toddler-sized air-hockey table at Pottery Barn Kids was almost as expensive as a full-sized air hockey table at a sporting goods store. I would have never in a million years written down “Air hockey table” on a list of ideas. But five years or so later, that air hockey table is still the dominant feature of our “formal” living room, and the kids are now tall enough that they don’t have to stand on stools to play it.

This relaxed approach to Christmas shopping has gradually softened—and improved—my orientation to the whole holiday season. My desire for Christmas perfection comes from my parents, who, though they never had lots of money, somehow always made Christmas spectacular. In terms of gifts, yes, but also in the careful attention to detail my Mom exhibited with decorating and cooking, and the traditions we enjoyed. I loved that my parents went all out, and I want to instill the same joy in our three sons. However, it’s important to consider what they are actually going to remember. They’ll remember that we drink hot chocolate and watch the Polar Express while we decorate the tree, not whether the garland is perfect. And that we had time to go see the holiday displays at the museum and the zoo rather than frantically running to one more store.

I admit to hanging on to a few hang-ups. Our tree has to be perfect, and I will never apologize for my wrapping obsession. But I only just got the outdoor lights up halfway through December. I know we’ll bake cookies at some point, but I haven’t found crazy new recipes or bought all the ingredients. It’s possible that some gifts will reach their recipients after Dec. 25. And I’m OK with that.

This is the first year since we started our shopping tradition that we didn’t visit a toy store. Sure, since we have three boys, almost everything that doesn’t break passes down to the next kid. But a big part of it is that they’re old enough that they don’t want too many toys anymore. When your kids are little, you think that the years of dolls and trains and cursing that you forgot to buy AA batteries will unfold before you forever. In reality, you are an eye’s-blink away from dealing with sullen clerks at Hollister and buying YA dystopic fiction. My advice? Slow down, and focus on building the memories that really matter while you can.