When I was 6 years old, my parents got me a used bicycle for Christmas.
A year or so later, I badly wanted a Sting-Ray, a tricked-out bike that was wildly popular in the 1960s. So my father took my old bike, slapped a new coat of paint on it, and equipped it with a banana seat, monkey handlebars and a sissy bar.
It didn't matter to me that some friends had new Sting-Rays straight from the Schwinn factory. Or even that my dad put the sissy bar on backward, which exposed me to some teasing before we fixed it. I loved that bike.
So it was for my childhood. We weren't poor. But we always had modest Christmases. And I expected to do the same when I got married 27 years ago.
My wife, Clarissa, had different ideas. She, too, had some modest Christmases growing up. She vividly remembers when she was 14 or 15 years old and her father lost his job in the construction industry. She overheard her parents talking about how broke they were.
So when her parents asked her what she wanted that year, she said, 'Nothing.' When her mother insisted she had to get something, Clarissa asked for socks. 'I felt very good about myself afterward,' she recalls.
But as her family's finances improved, Christmas went back to being a much bigger production. By the time I arrived on the scene, the entire family -- more than 20 people -- would gather at her grandmother's house in Mexicali, Mexico, on Christmas Eve. Around 10 p.m., Santa (my future brother-in-law in a costume) showed up with an enormous bag of presents and stepped into a roomful of children shrieking with joy.
'It was all about the children,' says Clarissa, who thought the experience was priceless. And she has spent hundreds of dollars on presents every year to duplicate it.
I, in turn, kept trying to relive my childhood. When our oldest son turned 5, I got him a used bike for $35. He seemed happy enough with it.
I've had my victories over the years. Still, Clarissa has generally decided which presents our three kids got. And while their take hasn't been outlandish, they have certainly received their share of videogames and other yuletide paraphernalia.
It wouldn't be so bad if it was just the five of us. But there are my parents and my brother's family. And Clarissa comes from a much bigger family, with three siblings, multiple aunts, uncles and cousins, and an ever-expanding population of nieces and nephews. At one point, she was buying presents for close to 30 people, plus friends, neighbors, even the garbage collectors.
That costs money.
One year in the early 1990s, when Clarissa was still working, she recalls spending $2,000 on presents, the Christmas tree, food for family gatherings and the like. Thankfully, I didn't know the extent of it or I would have blown a gasket.
In recent years, as her nephews and nieces have grown up, spending has been more restrained. A few years ago, the adults in her family switched to a gift-exchange system, in which everyone gives a gift to one other person, instead of giving gifts to everyone. That saved a lot of money.
This year, times are tougher. Clarissa's sister works in banking, and one of her brothers does construction. Both industries are laying off workers.
So when Clarissa and I talked a few weeks ago about her family's annual gift exchange for adults, we both thought it made sense to restrict gifts to children. She broached the idea with her family, and it fell flat.
'We have to have something to unwrap, even if it's just the ribbon,' one of her aunts told her.
That was enough for Clarissa. 'If you want to drop out of the gift exchange, go ahead,' Clarissa told me the other day. 'But the rest of us are going ahead.'
Well, I might as well paint a target on myself. Count me in.