Kids Opening Christmas Presents: From a Store, But Definitely More

12/20/2011 12:33 pm ET | Updated Feb 19, 2012

By: Kristen Bialik

My sister was talking with a Korean exchange student in her class last week and he observed, "Christmas here is very... how do you say it? ... from a store." Talk about the harsh glow of an outsider's perspective interfering with our twinkling icicle lights. While I reacted to the anecdote in equal parts shame and defensiveness, it did give me pause to think about the culture of gift giving in America during the holidays and the places it holds, both good and bad. What does gift giving give to us?

A lot of things, in my opinion. Things that aren't from a store. With every neatly wrapped or unwrapped present you hand out, you're also giving a palpable chunk of love or friendship. Hence, the fear of giving the "wrong" present. The unwanted gift is, at least to the giver, an act of holiday abhorrence falling just short of "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer," artificially flavored eggnog products, and original Lifetime holiday movies. No gift says, 'Whoops, I forgot about you.' The wrong gift says 'I never even knew you.'

This exists in harsh comparison to what we imagine giving the perfect gift would mean. Giving someone you love the perfect gift says 'I know everything about you. That time you talked about drill bits and I wasn't remotely interested? I listened!' Or even, getting this thing for you is worth it just to see you smile for a second and know I put it there.

Video Collection: Kids Opening Presents

Watching the Network Awesome Christmas home video collection makes it easy to see how we can carry ourselves away with gift giving during the holidays. The moments are so ordinary and yet completely enchanting. There's no flashy lights or fancy camera work, just a lot of sleepy parents and hyped up kids. But you see the work families poured into each other, the reciprocal joy, and an excitement that is so much more real and just as magical as any flying sleigh.

People ask what a fat man in a red suit actually has to do with Christmas, but in our own very strange way, it's a recreation of the birthday boy's very story. It's the story of a man who works all year to shower us mere mortals with gifts. It assures us that someone in the world is keeping track of the good and the bad, and that there will be consequences for each. It's a story of hope in ourselves, that we might deserve such gifts or at the very least, strive to. Giving gifts is an expression of hope that we might lead less selfish lives. It's a gesture in creating new memories, an act of selflessness, and a reminder that we don't always need fairytales to experience magic. Sometimes magic is a sleep-deprived parent curled up with old pajamas and a strong cup of coffee, watching a child who believes in another kind of magic run around screaming, and knowing that the child is smiling, that the parent made it so, even if just for a second.