Like most married couples who are rich in children but hard up for money, the day after Thanksgiving isn't the big day at the mall that some have made it.

For us, it's garage sales.

We discovered early on the benefit of garage sales. For a few well spent dollars every Saturday morning we were able to maintain a standard of dress and home furnishing pretty close to that of our small-family, two-income neighbors.

We could also spoil our children with just as many toys. Items we had dismissed as stupid, mass-marketed trash suddenly appeared a lot less stupid at only 25 cents to a dollar a piece. And with little or no TV in the house, the children weren't influenced by commercials for the newest fad of the “holiday shopping season.”

Normal childish desire for more! more! more! was adequately met by the hot toys of two, three or five years past, now outgrown by other people's children. Or by toys that were never hot, but always classic: standard items from teddy bears to Tonka trucks. And at other times of the year, what a grand feeling of largesse to pull up to someone's treasure-laden driveway and say, “Hop out, kids, you can each pick out something. Whatever you like.”

Toy-Letdown Syndrome

But we soon discovered how short-lived was the happiness brought on this way. The Wonderful Toy would break. Or cause a fight when one child realized her sibling had picked out something much better. Or give rise to an insatiable urge to collect more of the same sort of item, such that each new acquisition only heightened the feverish longing to obtain yet another. (We have 110 My Little Ponies collected by four daughters as each passed through the 4 to 9-year-old stage. This is still too few for the current owner of the collection.) Or simply cause that emotional crash when, some hours or days later, the child realized that the Wonderful Toy was not the answer to all prayers after all.

My husband soon developed a standard response to Toy-Letdown Syndrome. He'd say, “See! Whenever we buy you something it makes you sad. I guess we shouldn't have given you that toy. Don't worry, we won't get you any toys ever again, and then you won't be sad anymore!” The logic of this refrain would always infuriate the children. It stopped the whining as well.

Until the next time. Occasionally we'd try to make good on this threat, like the time we ignored all pleas and refused to even enter the souvenir shop after a trip to the zoo. “If you look at that stuff you'll feel even worse that we're not buying anything,” we reasoned.

“It doesn't make any difference,” moaned one child as we passed the shop by.”I can even smell those toys from here!” Ebenezer Scrooge could probably learn something about avarice from a six-year-old.

“Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless til they rest in Thee.” In calmer moments I explain St. Augustine's words to the children. They grasp the idea at once, relieved, I think, that Something will eventually fill that heaven-shaped hole in their hearts. This is not to say that they act upon this teaching with a new detachment from material things. Nor do I. But at least we know.

Preparing for Christmas

As little children become big children, putting on the annual Christmas gift extravaganza gets harder. We can't find it all at garage sales any more. I wish at times for the courage of those families who buck the tide and institute a new custom of one gift per person, or homemade gifts only. But I can't. The fun of seeing them gaze at that huge pile of wrapped packages is my favorite toy. Not long ago I expressed concern to one of the teen-agers that we couldn't pull off such quantity of Christmas presents indefinitely.

“Don't worry about it, Mom,” she replied. “You know we can hardly recall any of the stuff we got last year. The best Christmas memories come from lighting the Advent wreath, building the manger, putting up the tree, going to midnight Mass, and stuff like that. You know, all those little traditions. Presents are the least of it.”

Really? This, from one of my little materialists? Maybe our restless hearts are beginning to head in the right direction.

Daria Sockey writes from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.