OPINION: Memories, not material gifts should be our focus for Christmas

AKP Phnom Penh, December 18, 2019 —

(This is an opinion piece from a new father of twins, Mr. G from The Idea Consultancy who ran a short interview with Kate O’Connell, Principal of The Giving Tree International School to get her take on Christmas and parenting.)

As a budding new father of twins, I have felt overwhelmed with the pressure of being given advice on everything by everyone. Friends, family and even strangers recommending a new diet, new educational toys, new smartphones for kids, or a new this and new that. Google and Facebook priming every ad and email to something new I should buy for the kids.

Throw Christmas into the mix and suddenly I’m feeling self-inflicted pressure to make sure their first Christmas would be memorable and even instagrammable. But was this really what I wanted?  I never really celebrated Christmas as the son of a first-generation immigrant in New Zealand, so naturally, I felt a bit lost. I went to find Ms Kate O’Connell, Principal of The Giving Tree International School with over 25 years of educational experience for some advice.

Here enters Kate O’Connell.

Mr. G: What does Christmas mean for you?

Christmas to me is a joyful family time with time-honoured traditions. It is a time to slow down, stop working and spend quality time with your close friends and family. My fond Christmas memories include making cookies with my mom. Picking out a real tree, putting it up and decorating it with ornaments, lights, candy canes and tinsel. On Christmas Eve, we travelled down Candy Cane lane in our city’s park and then returned home to a candle-lit fondue dinner shared with our neighbors.

Mr. G, “I remember my Dad trying his best to make it feel like Christmas after assimilating more into New Zealand, he started buying Christmas ham and made all kinds of interesting Singaporean takes on western dishes. But presents were never a part of our household.”

Mr. G: Is this different from how you see Christmas in Cambodia?

KoC: The Christmas music and decorations come out earlier than at home, seemingly signalling to parents that it is time to shop. When decorations and music show themselves too early, they seem devoid of the sentiments we would feel at home, knowing that Christmas and time together was imminent. At home, decorations would not go up until after Thanksgiving. After a time of giving thanks, it would be a time of giving, (not a time of getting).  In Cambodia, it feels more commercial than sentimental, more of a ‘display’ and call for buying gifts.  On the positive side, there are some opportunities to replicate home-like traditions, for example last year I bought a cookie decorating set from Pelican Food Company and the kids and I had a great time decorating gluten-free gingerbread people.

One of the biggest parenting traps I have experienced personally is wanting desperately to ensure that the gifts I purchase will make Christmas morning a one to remember with smiles and shrieks of joy. It can be very easy to spend more than you planned in pursuit of the perfect gift (or gifts). You can order things online and shipping can add up. The shopping and gift planning can take away from the focus on internal happiness and the joy of giving. And most importantly, good parenting is not synonymous with good gift giving.

That is why I like the rituals, traditions such as watching Rudolph, The Grinch or Frosty curled up on the couch with a nice hot cup of cocoa. Making cookies, and remembering just to spend family time together giving each other your time with the intention of creating great memories.

G: I agree, and it seems that this is not limited to Cambodia, all over Asia we see marketing and consumerism taking over, I definitely want Christmas to be a time just for me and my family. What are 5 takeaways as an educator you would like to tell parents?


  1. Make memories together
  2. Spend quality time together device-free sending the message at Christmas we give our presence (not just presents)
  3. Create your holiday rituals together as a family (Such as Fly Phnom Penh! One of the few great places to spend time together device free!)
  4. Buy locally (Airmiles and packaging ads to pollution and waste)
  5. Consider it a time to teach the difference between the spirit of giving and the spirit of getting, as Christmas has become more about what are we going to get, than what can I give.

Kate shared with me an image which shows an easy-to-use hierarchy of meaningful gifting with less environmental impact. I personally share these beliefs and those at The Giving Tree School, regarding the planet, experiences and opportunities for meaningful interaction. In the future, I will likely still get some Christmas gifts for my kids but will remind them that I do so because the true joy comes from giving, not just because of Christmas. However, I will tell them that I will always be there, with Mom and some delicious Singaporean/Kiwi take on Christmas ham, each and every year, because that’s our Christmas.