Many parents get driven mad by their kids around Christmas. They are so hyped up, so impatient, over-excited, and oftentimes, so greedy, that the threat of cancelling Christmas seems the best weapon to calm them down. When they are little, and still struggling with whether they’ve been “naughty or nice,” this can work. As they get older, a bit more worldly and more cynical, they sincerely doubt the ability of their loving care-givers to pull off such a stunt.
One couple in Sydney, driven to the end of their tether, had no option but to follow through with their threat. Back in 2011, the three children of Melissa Cooke and her husband were behaving appallingly. They were then aged 11, 8 and 6. Not only was their incessant fighting and squabbling and refusing to go to bed going on, there were more serious concerns. It all peaked when one of the kids, having stolen money, bought peanut M&Ms and gave them to a school friend. The other child ended up in hospital because of a nut allergy. The parents were both working full-time and felt overwhelmed with their inability to control the mayhem.
Melissa had been threatening to cancel Christmas, and two days before, she finally did. She persuaded her husband to take down the tree and all the decorations. He was initially a bit unsure, but she insisted. Even with the tree down, the children were none too worried. They didn’t believe for a minute that their parents would actually carry this off.
Come Christmas morning though, there were no presents, no stockings, no nothing. Mrs Cooke recalls how eerily quiet it was in the house, as they heard the children wandering around, floorboards creaking, supposing the gifts must be hidden somewhere. “There was just a deathly silence, I don’t think we spoke that morning” she remembers.
Of course, the parents were punished as well, they missed all the joy of seeing the excited faces and the tearing apart of the carefully wrapped presents. Christmas was ruined. They considering caving in, but they decided to stick to their guns. Christmas was cancelled in the Cooke household.
The stalemate carried on for two more days. On December 27th, the family took off for a camping trip in the outback. Although they never once discussed the cancelled Christmas they did compliment their kids if they behaved and they focused on having fun together. By the time they all returned on January 15th, the presents were finally handed around.
“It was awful,” says Melissa Cooke now, and “I don’t think I could ever do it again.” But she is glad she did and she feels it worked. The enduring legacy is that when she says to her kids she will do something, they absolutely believe her. The family (pictured above) will be enjoying Christmas as normal this year.
Supernanny herself, Jo Frost, would support this tactic of sticking to parental guns. Issuing empty threats quickly becomes ineffective if they are never implemented. To alleviate getting to this point, Supernanny advises that kids gets stressed too. If everyone can slow down, enjoy the occasion for what it is and not strive for perfection, it is a lot easier on all family members. She says to stick to routines, make sure the kids are involved, and to remember the spiritual and wider implications of the occasion.
“‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug” in the opening scene of Little Women. But as Louisa May Alcott went on to show in the chapter, poverty of presents need not mean poverty of love. Christmas in the March house ends up perfectly jolly, and the girls all collaborate to get something for their beloved Marmee, even if she has given away their Christmas breakfast as well.
Whether in genteel dire straits like the March family or not, a lot of stress is caused by all the extra expense of Christmas.
On the opposite side of the world, 20 years previous, another trio of spoilt kids got their comeuppance. Marianne Power, then 14, and her two sisters had always got everything they asked for and then some, and they expected the same. When their Mother told them she was cancelling Christmas they didn’t think for a minute this could be true. They knew their father was sick and there was no money coming in but they still expected lots of presents. They were teenagers, beyond the stage of trusting in Santa, but they still had a long wish list.
That Christmas morning there was not one single gift under the tree. Like the Sydney children, Marianne and her sisters suspected they must be hidden somewhere and they went on a search. When they realized there really was nothing to be found they berated their mom, “You got us absolutely nothing?” Reiterating her earlier message, their mother reminded them they had a clean house, a turkey in the oven and a fridge full of food – and that wasn’t nothing. There was no money for anything else, and that was that. Marianne is now very grateful and thinks it was a wonderful lesson learnt. In fact, she’d go so far as to say that cancelling Christmas was the best thing her Mom ever did.
Martin Lewis, the money guru behind website moneysavingexpert.com, thinks things have gone too far with gift-buying. He thinks the joy of giving becomes a burden when the recipient feels obliged to reciprocate, even when they can’t afford to. Sometimes, he says the best gift is to “release them from this obligation.”
Parents do worry that Christmas can turn their children into materialistic monsters, and many will go into debt to feed their cravings. The average child’s requests list now adds up to a staggering £900 ($1,500) in 2013. This may explain why 37 percent of parents report children being upset because they didn’t get everything they asked for. On top of all that, Deloittes, the accountancy firm, estimate each family will spend an additional £380 ($608) on average. No wonder some parents start to think that cancelling Christmas might not be such a bad idea as the ultimate threat. Not many will ever have the conviction to actually do it though.
By Kate Henderson