She starts Christmas shopping six months in advance; he begins his hunt with six hours to go. She's thoughtful and deliberate; he's wacky and random. How does the marriage of two markedly different Christmas shoppers stay merry and bright come holiday time? Kathryn and Colin Harrison unwrap their secrets.
Father and son sitting on couch opening presents in front of a Christmas tree
Credit: Shannon Fagan

Kathryn's story: “Hey!” My 11-year-old daughter bounded out of the kitchen, swinging a miniature pocket watch from a chain. “What’s this? Whose is it?” It was hers, and I told her so, but not that it was intended for her Christmas stocking. I had bought it between errands, then dropped it into the groceries, which I had asked her to unload and put away, having forgotten the tiny purchase that had settled to the bottom of the bag. One hundred and three days remained until December 25.

“Why did you buy me a present?” she asked. “Why on a nothing day like today?”

“I saw it, and I knew you’d love it,” I replied.

She skipped around me, singing, “I do, I do!”

She kissed my cheek and the watch itself. It was a beautiful piece: the case filigreed and daintily faux-tarnished; the sweep of its second hand no thicker than an eyelash. I was sorry to lose this one; it was a find. I had already been anticipating the look on my daughter’s face when she discovered it in her stocking. It was the type of gift that powerfully reinforces the existence of Santa Claus, in the way a store-bought toy never can.

For me there has always been comfort, joy, and excitement to be found in Christmas shopping. And, truly, I’m never not Christmas shopping—not in June, not in January. Why would I limit such an activity to an official season kicked off by the inauspiciously named Black Friday?

Whenever an opportunity presents itself—that empty hour, say, between one appointment and the next—I meander through department stores, boutiques, flea markets. It doesn’t matter which. I enjoy the illicit squandering of time that would be better spent on completing a pressing chore. A benign addiction, Christmas shopping saves me, sometimes, from buying what I don’t need for myself. But I can’t claim it as a virtue. The impulse is selfish and has been ever since I learned that in buying a gift I also purchase the fantasy it inspires.

I discovered the solace of buying presents out of season just after college, when my best friend and I embarked on what has become by now nearly 30 years of living thousands of miles apart. Even something small, tucked away for a future holiday, assuaged my missing her, and over the years I’ve infused her faraway home and wardrobe with mementos of me. The gift of a pair of earrings invites me to imagine which outfit she might be wearing them with. In my mind, then, I’m there by her side.

The way I saw it, the births of my three children didn’t increase the holiday season’s shopping burden; Christmas sanctioned a pursuit on which I already relied. The more people for whom I had to shop, the more opportunities I had to lose myself in something I enjoyed. That luminous pair of silk gloves I found this past August in a little jewel box of a shop (which I had ducked into, in lieu of procuring dinner’s missing ingredient): how clearly I can imagine my eldest daughter’s delight upon unwrapping them. I also picture the glee on her little sister’s face when she sees her most desired gift, the one so extravagant she would never dare to ask for it: a set of all 132 Prismacolor pencils. The gloves, the pencils, the ceramic bowl for my sister-in-law, the cashmere sweater for my husband, the green amber earrings for his mother—I have months to savor happiness I’ve yet to conjure.

None of this feverish activity has rubbed off on my husband. All during the warm months, while I scurry antlike in and out of the storehouse of my closet, secreting my trove of gifts and goodies for the cold season ahead, Colin allows the weeks and months to spin lazily by without paying heed to the ever darkening skies. Call him a Christmas grasshopper. Every October we turn back the clock hands, giving him another weekend hour to squander. In November, teams of city workers ride yellow trucks through our neighborhood, stringing electrified garlands from one side of the street to the other. Alas, the light they cast does not reveal my husband’s improvidence—not to him, anyway.

Not that I thought my considered and meticulous approach to Christmas might set an example for my husband. Well, no more than I expected him to learn to screw the cap back on the tube of toothpaste. But I did imagine circumstances would chasten him. I figured one year he would cut it too close. The ant in me wouldn’t rebuke his grasshopper ways, not on Christmas Eve. It was just a matter of time before he would have to throw his procrastinating self on the mercy of my preparedness.

Instead, much to my wonderment, he has often found a way to rescue himself from his own gift-giving predicaments. Read on; he’ll explain.

Colin's story: The looks on my loved ones’ faces announced that I had failed. The previous night, Christmas Eve 2010, I had scoured an outdoor market in Central Park for gifts, finally purchasing three hooded robes: red for my brother, gray for his son, and blue for my son. The robes were enormous; the three men were not.

“The robes are warm!” I protested. “And comfortable!”

My son, brother, and nephew looked at them quietly.

“Dad,” my son said, “they look like costumes from The Hobbit.”

He wasn’t wrong. I came across my son’s robe recently; unworn since the minute it had been unveiled, the big hooded thing had mysteriously migrated into our bedroom. I thought about wearing it—but didn’t.

My Christmas-shopping habits are atrocious: haphazard, panicked, and last-minute. Knowing that Kathryn is methodical and thorough and has finished her gift buying long before I begin makes me even more jittery. She really thinks about what to get people. She never strikes the wrong note. I, on the other hand, sometimes do—and I don’t know why.

Is it because I secretly resent my wife’s orderly assemblage of gifts? Maybe, although I also appreciate her matchless organizational skills. Is it because I am exhausted by the commercial spasm of Christmas? The crowds and the advertising and the millionth-time holiday tunes? Is it because I am locked in a passive-aggressive struggle with the entire fiscal and emotional exercise? Yes, oh yes—all those reasons. Then again, is it because some small part of me believes that my approach to gift purchasing adds extra excitement to Christmas morning? For example: Hey, what crazy thing did Dad/my husband get for me this year? Perhaps. In any case, my wife and I both know I’m not going to change, as advisable as that might be.

So my Christmas daredevilry has never ceased, even after events that suggest it should. For example: Christmas Eve 2004. That evening I wandered along a major street in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood and found myself in a furniture store gazing at a large vase constructed of rectangles of camel bone (or so I was told). The vase had a kind of shimmery, mother-of-pearl luminescence. It looked nothing like anything Kathryn and I had ever owned.

“Your wife, she will love it,” the proprietor reassured me.

The vase was expensive. But did I mention that it was the day before Christmas? I bought the vase. I carefully carried it home, excited.

When she unwrapped the camel-bone vase the next morning, my wife made a surprised gasp. The gift was a complete bomb. And she couldn’t help laughing good-naturedly at both of us—at me because of my ineptitude, and at herself for her inability to keep a poker face. I laughed a bit, too, but was keenly disappointed. My wife never put a flower in the vase, and to this day it sits banished to a high shelf, forgotten.

I am not always that unlucky. Take Christmas Eve 2006: It was late in the day. I was due home in Brooklyn so that we could all jump in the minivan and drive five hours south on I-95 to Washington, D.C., for Christmas breakfast the next morning. I did not have a gift for my wife.

When will I learn not to do this? I wondered. Why does she always forgive me? What little marital game are we playing here? Panicked and yet feeling oddly passive, I drifted through a wonderful Manhattan store filled with carpets, beds, chairs, tables, chandeliers, pillows, and irresistible knickknacks. I browsed, liking many things but not crazy about any particular one. I kept checking the time. My wife had expected me home an hour ago. We had to get on the road.

I took the elevator to a top floor, where there was a spot in the back piled with furniture. Curious, I poked around. Then I spotted it: a park bench.

Yes, a Parisian park bench, with green wooden slats and curled black iron armrests. Sit on this bench and you would be on the Champs-Élysées. Or in the Tuileries Garden, right by the Louvre. You were there.

“We haven’t had a chance to put this out yet,” a saleslady informed me.

“It’s heavy,” I replied. “You deliver things like this?” Yes, of course. I asked her the price and gulped a bit when I heard it.

“Last-minute present?” the saleslady asked.

“How’d you guess?” She just smiled. But not as much as my wife did when she saw her Parisian park bench.

“I love it,” Kathryn said. “I mean, I love it.”

“A last-minute find,” I confessed. “Pure luck.”

She patted my hand and grinned. “You wouldn’t have it any other way.”