Oddchester: Dollar store gifts rich in tradition
Editor's note: This Christmas column originally ran in Rochester Magazine in 2012.
A decade ago, when daughter Hadley first realized that she wanted to choose her own Christmas gifts for her parents and grandparents and cousins, we took her to the dollar store and let her choose one gift for each.
Two agonizing hours of decision making later, we left with — and I'm guessing on most of this here— a pack of black licorice, party straws, footie nylons, a scented candle, a Mylar balloon that said "Fun Times!" a calculator with giant buttons, and a VHS tape with episodes from season one of "Benson."
The next December, Hadley, age 4, begged us to again take her Christmas shopping at the dollar store. Lindy and I, though, still harbored painful memories of watching her spend 20 minutes deciding between a bag of Maple Nut Goodies and Circus Peanuts. So, we ignored her, hoping she'd forget about it.
Lindy and I have not always agreed on every parenting method, but we've regularly joined together when it comes to ignoring the kids if they ask about topics we're not prepared to discuss. If you want to see a person's countenance go completely blank, just watch Lindy's face when 5-year-old Emma asks where babies come from.
Hadley was a persistent child. All she wanted for Christmas, she told us, was "to get gifts for Mommy and Daddy and everyone else."
It would have been one of life's adorable moments, and I'm sure other parents would have broken down and said something like "Oh, Sweetie, that's the most precious thing any child has ever said! You're our precious, precious angel!"
Instead, Lindy and I both pretended we hadn't heard.
Hadley eventually wore us down, and we again took her to pick out Christmas gifts.
Two agonizing hours of decision making later, we left with — and I'm guessing on most of this here—a bag of tea lights, a DVD of "Ernest Goes to Camp," a photo frame with silk flowers glued to it, footie nylons, and a box of cereal that looked like Trix but was called "Circus Balls."
Lindy and I had balked at the second year of dollar store shopping because we knew that two consecutive years of any family activity threatens to turn it into a "tradition." This was no exception.
To this day, the kids still Christmas shop — one gift per person — at the dollar store.
Two years ago, they started buying, for each other, the Grab Bags — brown paper bags stapled shut and stocked with a mystery assortment of items that, on their own, do not live up to dollar store standards.
Sure, the kids get gifts for Christmas that are more expensive, but they've never laughed harder — or gotten more pleasure in giving — anything as much as the Grab Bags.
Last year, Hadley's Grab Bag from Henry consisted of an open container of Magic Art Dough, one plastic Army guy, a single hard candy, and a pair of slippers (two different colors, both left feet).
I know this because I just asked Hadley and Henry, and they remembered every single item, a year later.
The tradition has carried over to other holidays. Last year, for Mother's Day, I bought Lindy a pair of hanging flower baskets from all of us. These were $30 per basket. Twenty times the cost of what the kids would have spent — total, between the three of them — at the dollar store.
On Mother's Day morning, when I told the kids, proudly, that I'd splurged this year, the two older kids were visibly disappointed.
The youngest, daughter Emma, 5, burst into tears. "But I ALWAYS get her bath salts or a candle!" she said. "ALWAYS!"
I took them to the dollar store. And, there, they agonized over what to buy their mother, thoughtfully searching every single aisle.
We were there for an hour. Finally, with Emma unable to make a decision, I told her she could buy both the bath salts AND a candle.
She wanted no part in choosing two gifts. We always pick just one gift, my 5-year-old daughter explained to me. That's what makes it special.
So I stood there and waited, as Emma smelled every candle and studied every pack of bath salts, trying to pick out that perfect, $1 gift.