The Empty Nest Christmas Blues

150 150 Frances
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Dear Kristin,

As the holiday season presses down upon us, I’m once again reminded of how much I hate shopping. I’m the world’s biggest sufferer of Buyer’s Remorse because I regret 75% of my purchases immediately after I’ve made them (except for the books I buy for myself–I almost never regret those).

The dawn of the digital era has made shopping for Christmas gifts even harder, especially when you’re shopping for young people, whose entire lives seem like they’re lived digitally. How do you wrap digital gifts and put them under the tree? How do you gussy up bytes? Exactly where do you stick on the bows?

The other issue that comes up for me–not just with the kids, actually, but Clifton, too–how do you buy for people who have the annoying tendency of saving up their money and buying what they want for themselves? With Clifton, it’s cameras; with Jack and Will, it’s mostly clothes. 

I don’t have the answers, and I’m hoping you do. The boys are getting to the age where–well, first of all, where they’re not boys. They’re young men. You can’t just dump a load of Tonka trucks on them and call it Christmas. But it’s hard to back away from the Christmas morning excess and expectations–look at all of those presents under last year’s tree! So how do we transition to a grown-up Christmas? One that’s more about the experience than the gifts? That’s what I haven’t figured out yet.

I did get a great idea for a gift for Jack, who’s setting up shop in his own apartment. My dental hygienist mentioned that she recently put together a book of favorite family recipes for her adult children–such a great idea! Jack’s always enjoyed cooking and baking, and there are certain dishes I’ve made over the years that he’s loved, including Moo Shu pork, chicken and dumplings, and my super duper lasagne, recipe courtesy of the noodle box. I’m thinking about putting together a gift box that includes recipes and some of the shelf stable ingredients that go with them.

Speaking of Jack, here’s something that might put a damper on our Christmas experience this year: As you know, Jack’s a bartender at a fancy pants inn, and there’s a good chance he’ll have to work all day on Christmas. Last week we had to move our turkey feast to the day before Thanksgiving to accommodate his work schedule; are we going to end up celebrating Christmas on the 23rd? I don’t think I can do it–but I also don’t think I can do Christmas without Jack here. We’ll figure it out, but it might be a very strange holiday indeed.

Tell me about your Christmas transitions now that the nest is empty. What traditions have you held onto, and which ones have you let go?


Dear Frances,

Oh boy, do I hear you on this one! I hate to say it out loud, but I find gift buying very stressful. In the past, I’ve dealt with this anxiety by overbuying. Always worried that one child or another would be less than absolutely delighted on Christmas morning, I would just keep adding things to the shopping cart, much of it completely unnecessary.

I’ve really tried to curb that tendency in the last few years. Although I’ve been told that as soon as kids hit the teenage years, all they want is money, that never happened in our family. And I’m glad, I still want that magical mess of a Christmas morning with lots of presents under the tree and wrapping paper everywhere. I definitely miss the Christmas mornings of our child-raising years, complete with a full morning of putting toys together and always coming up short on the number of batteries required. All those lego sets, Nerf guns, American girl outfits, and so many books. Sigh. But if I’ve learned anything as a parent, it’s that every age had its blessings. So while I miss those days, I’m no longer stepping on legos, finding Nerf darts in the washing machine, or hunting down Samantha’s hair bow.

I certainly don’t have the answer, but shopping is a bit easier these days just because my young adult kids tend to want things with a higher price tag, which means there are fewer gifts to shop for. The problem is that they often don’t know what they want (which I understand because I don’t know what I want anymore either!) I try to get them thinking about it in late October and up the pressure around Thanksgiving. Our formula these days is one “wow” gift (think higher-end clothes, tech or musical equipment, etc.) and a few other fun things to round it out like books, games, wallets, clothes, etc.

Honestly, there are not too many surprises anymore on Christmas morning, unlike when they were little. We all make our Amazon wish lists and send each other links. I know that some people find that a cop-out, but I would much rather get them what they want than try to guess and come up short. I do try to have a few surprises under the tree for each person, just to keep that magical Christmas feeling alive, but it gets harder every year.

One problem that I hadn’t anticipated is how to scale back Christmas giving as the kids leave the nest and are officially “launched” while maintaining the “big” Christmas for the kid still in school. I was actually told by the two oldest kids that it was time to “treat Christmas more like a birthday” for them. (I thought this was a good way to look at it, at least for our family). I’m trying that this year, and I know it needs to happen, but it feels awkward! I don’t want anyone to be disappointed on Christmas!

Over the last few years, I’ve started to ask the kids which traditions they enjoy and which don’t really fit anymore. We’ve let a few things go, including reading a ridiculous number of Christmas books on Christmas Eve, which makes me a little sad. But we still make hot chocolate and walk around looking at the Christmas lights and watch Die Hard (it’s a Christmas movie!). I even decided last year to stop sending Christmas cards, after 25 years! Honestly, that one is a huge relief. I imagine that we will find new traditions that fit this season of life for us, I just need to remember to not hold on too tight to things that just don’t work anymore with three grown kids.

I imagine we will find our way through trial and error through this one. For now, I’m just thrilled that they will all be home for Christmas, and I hope that Jack will be home for yours as well!

xo, Kristin

  • Robin Leftwich

    I agree that gifts for young adults is hard. Mine won’t say what they want, And my husband only likes electronics that he buys himself. It’s hard! My son at home is an aviation and reading fanatic so he is easy, but the step daughter who is back while recovering from surgery won’t say what she wants. So my dilemma, how to give son the great things I bought him while giving daughter less? And we can’t plan when to even do dinner , because we don’t know who will be here when. Grrrrrr! I just keep telling myself that Christmas really means love and hope and it will all work out. It always does!

  • Patty

    I’ve managed to hold on to one of my favorite traditions from when my now in their 20s adult children were just little – we make gingerbread houses. Cover them with candy that everyone is allowed to start eating off the houses on Dec 25. I get a good photo out of it and everyone has some fun. (Or at least pretend they do!!)

    • Laurie

      Together, my husband and I have 6 kids and 4 (might be 5 soon) son or daughter-in-laws and 6 grandkids so we shop ALL year! I hide everything in my sewing room and in November I go through everything and decide who gets what and what else we need to buy. Some years we’ve gone to a play or spent the night in a hotel with a pool instead of larger gifts. I keep saying I’m going to stop doing stockings, but this year it will be mostly fruit and candy in the stockings. I also volunteer at a thrift store so several things have been bought there. And handmade items. And… And….


    YOU guys are preaching to the choir ….

    I never know what to get my 14 year old grandson. He never tells me what he likes. This year is the worse cause I am not allowed to give him “cash. ( Family issues) So he is getting some clothes… but after that ??? what??? I guess that is why so many people have started buying gift cards and dedicated experience card. The gift cards I have to buy are to gaming platform. I am thinking of getting him a subscription to the local gym after I check it out….

    My real problem is the newest member of the family a 12 year old girl, I barely know. When she was younger I got her craft kits from JoAnn but this year she is absorbed into the family more… I have no idea of what to get her … She has little or no interest in crafting any more.. .. She does not seem to enjoy the books I have bought her in the past…She is picky when it comes to clothes. So this year it will be gift cards to local /big box stores so she can pick her own gifts. I am writing a little letter explaining how I was ” thrilled” to get money when I was her age so I could buy what I wanted. She can buy at a store or on line. Hopefully she will like that.


    MY daughter asked me this year … When do grown kids stop getting Christmas presents from their parents….. She is an only child and is nearing the mid 3Os. I use to get her stuff for her home after asking her what she needed or wanted. Our tastes are vastly different so I do not buy her decor stuff. She does get quilts for the house but never for B-days or holidays cause I never get them done on time.

    So how old were you when you stopped getting gifts from your parents for Christmas.


  • Laurie

    Nonnie, I was in my fifties. Mom would get all the girls the same thing and all the guys the same thing. Now she just buys for the great grandkids (18 of them).

  • Tracie

    Christmas is my favorite holiday and it looks very different every year. The best Christmas Day was decades ago when my parents, who had four daughters, welcomed a son into our family. It was a happy interruption to our Christmas plans! The doctor warned my mom that she might want to celebrate Christmas early because her baby’s arrival was imminent, so that year and everyone since then, our family celebrates on December 23 (almost 50 years ago!). Recently I learned that Norwegians celebrate “Little Christmas Eve” on December 23, so it’s a fitting day for our family tradition. My son often works on a holiday or has only that day off and no travel days, so we flex accordingly. Christmas is different with adult children, and yet it’s always filled with love — such a blessing!

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