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The Best Last-Minute Gift Idea Ever (That Involves Zero Stuff)

It's our family's best holiday tradition

Published on: December 30, 2013

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Our three kids pile into bed with us on Christmas morning, even now that they’re basically enormous. After a quick snuggle, they run to the tree, saving the envelopes for last. The three of them admire these bastions of reliability, each containing about a dozen slips of paper, a mixture of the steadfast and surprising.

"What did you get?"

"I love this one!"

"Oh OH OH! I found a new one! Guys guys LOOK!"

It’s Christmas Coupons. The nontraditional Christmas present that is our family’s best tradition.

How it started

Because my husband and I had our kids ridiculously young, there wasn't another grandchild for miles. Eldest bore the doting of all the grandparents back then. I would regularly watch her take a deep breath and soldier on, determined to open all these goddamn presents so we would let her take a nap.

As the kids and gifts multiplied, I wanted, like just about everyone in my circles does, to figure out how to stem the tide of items. To shift just some of the Christmas morning focus onto the delight we can find in the non-material world.

Because it's hard to live in a material culture and not want a lot of material. It’s an obscene problem, of course: In a city where thousands of children will go to bed hungry tonight, my holiday struggle is to keep our house from becoming so overloaded with unnecessary objects that the easiest solution might be just to burn the whole mess to the ground.

In my fantasy, we start over simply: Four walls and a roof. Clean, white beds. Good sheets, if possible, because they feel so nice. A way to make decent coffee, of course … aaaand we're off to the races.

Our Christmas Coupons help remind us about other things we can give. Plus, they’re really fun.

The coupons grew as the kidlets did. Back when we were still reading aloud to Eldest, she got a few of these each year:

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By the time Youngest was receiving that one, Eldest was old enough for the grand prize of privilege coupons, one a year if you’re lucky:

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Now, the thing about a coupon like this is that it has to be honored on both sides, or it’s out of the rotation. Middlest was 9 the first time we laid Get Out of Bed, FREE on him, and his behavior for the next two days was … unfortunate. So he didn't get one in the next year’s envelope. By the time we gave it another chance, our boy was a prince, a strategic genius. "Can I help with dinner, Mom?" he asked the next evening, and that one’s been a lock ever since.

Coupon strategy

As a parent, a big reason I say no to stuff isn’t that what’s being asked for is so ridiculous, in isolation. It’s that I don't want to start a tidal wave. If I respond even once to pleading for a school-night overnight, I have resigned myself to a life of being begged at — and I'm just not up for it.

But sometimes, I really wanna do the crazy-fun stuff. So I have to find a way to draw a box around it, set it apart, make it immune.

Enter coupons. Redeeming a coupon is not a begging. It is a treasure, used once and then torn up, case closed. Coupons give everyone just the right amount of control. Anthony and I get to give as many as we’re willing to honor and define how they’re used. And then the kids get these wild privileges, or things they’d never think to ask for.

Some coupons are just an excuse for fun:

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Some are for services that would be a bummer as a requirement, but become kind of a blast, really, given as a gift:

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Kids keep getting older

Last year, only two-thirds of our children piled into our bed on Christmas morning. Our son was far away, working in Chile, halfway through his gap year. But he was with us all the same, checking out the coupons his dad and I had emailed:

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I love giving Christmas Coupons, but the best part is honoring them when cashed. The kids tell me coupons are their favorite part of Christmas. What they might not know is that they are my favorite, too.

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