Yep, you read that right. We don't buy our kids Christmas gifts anymore. In years past we would lament the fact that we would be so caught up in the what do the kids want, asking them constantly about their Christmas gift lists. This in turn lead to the kiddos constantly looking at more "stuff" they wanted, asking for everything under the sun at the store as we were shopping, and all together loosing the focus of Christmas, and some days I was loosing my mind! Christmas to me is firstly about the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and secondly becoming closer as a family, community, and people. We were failing at both of those things!
As we contemplated what we could do to help the feeling of our house change around Christmas we batted around the idea of no gifts for Christmas, but instead having an experience or trip that would help us build memories as a family. It took us a couple years to really decide that we could do it, and that the kids would not hate us for life for not buying them the extra crap that would adorn the floors of their already over-stuffed and messy rooms.
Now, before you think they don't get any kind of Christmas gifts, I want to clarify. We still have a Santa believer, so Santa does stop by our house with one gift and some small items for the stockings that usually go along with what where we are going that year, a toothbrush, orange, and lip balm. Add in a couple gifts from Grandmas and Grandpas and they do just fine without being overwhelmed by all the "stuff". In fact they actually can focus on their couple things rather than be overwhelmed and not be able to enjoy any of it.
We were all more focused on giving and serving through this season than we had ever been in the past. The kids were constantly looking for people that we could help, or things we could do nice for other people around us. They weren't even looking at all the "stuff" for themselves like usual. IT. WAS. WONDERFUL! I wouldn't have traded that few weeks for anything.
Last year we decided to really take the plunge and go on a trip for Christmas. We started looking around at deals on flights to help determine where we would go. Prices at Christmas time are a little nuts for flights and with six people it can add up FAST! As we were looking we thought, well now why don't we tell the kids WHERE we are going ON Christmas day and then go in January when all the craziness is over, the doldrums of winter have set in and we can focus on Christ on Christmas and helping other people.
So that is what we did. We found an awesome deal on flights to Quito, Ecuador and although we were going to start out smaller, couldn't pass them up. They were cheaper than most domestic flights and knowing what it cost to lodge and eat there, we knew that would be a great option for our family. We already had passports for the kids on the off chance that we wanted to hop on a cheap cruise to Mexico from CA where we were going to be at the time. So that was already taken care of. Got the kids all a typhoid shot beforehand and started researching where we wanted to stay and what we wanted to do.
Now you might be thinking Ecuador!? That sounds sketchy to take four kids to a foreign country. Lucky for us Austin served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints when he was 19 and lived there for nearly two years. We also had the opportunity to go with my parents a few years back and I simply fell in love with the country and the people. A few more good points for Ecuador. . . they use the same currency as us here in the United States, and generally like Americans (which is a rarity anymore!). They are kind and helpful and I just love them!
So on Christmas day we let the kids open a "gift" with where we were going. They were SOOOOO excited! We also got to have that day to really focus on what mattered at Christmas rather than all the things they got. They put together their Lego sets they received, and we talked about Christ and His birth and life, visited family, and kept it simple. It was wonderful, low key, and we ALL loved it. Even the kiddos!
I am going to include a run down of our trip for any of those interested. Most years wont be like this but we really lucked out and simply couldn't pass up the opportunity to take the kids somewhere so amazing!
At the end of January we got ready to head to the airport for our first leg of the journey to meet Austin's parents, who we talked into going with us, in Atlanta for our second flight. Despite our early morning the kids were wonderful and we only had little arguments that siblings always tend to have. We made it to Atlanta and visited with Grandma and Grandpa as we waited for our flight to Quito.
We were going to be getting into Quito late and so we decided to get a house very near the airport and hire a couple of taxis to drive us since we would be headed back to the airport in the morning to head a little further south to Guayaquil where Austin spent the majority of his time and where some of our friends still lived.
The kids (and adults) were absolutely exhausted and fell asleep very quickly. When we woke up in the morning we got to explore the grounds of the house more and it was gorgeous! I wish we could have spent another night there and if we return to Quito we likely will. They had a little zip line for the kids and the gardens were so beautiful.
We traveled back to the airport and caught our VERY short flight to Guayaquil. We picked up our rental cars, checked in to our hotel and went to go visit the city a little bit. We went down to the Malecon 2000 which is a river walk that has a shopping center, some rides, and a Ferris wheel on the river that you can see a lot from at the top.
We got to spend some time with a few of the people we knew there and went out to dinner with them. It was great for the kids to see and meet our friends! Afterwards we went and saw the art walk at Plaza Guayarte and got some ice cream. It was really funny to see the way that they spelled our names on our cups. Ha ha! Heather is always a tough one for Spanish speakers. We headed back to the hotel for the night and got some much needed rest.
Days 3 and 4:
We woke up, enjoyed the yummy breakfast at the hotel, and headed to Salinas to the beach. We found a great condo to stay in that is right across the street from the beach. My favorite part? They have people to set up a shade and chairs for you on the beach when you want! I hate hauling all our stuff out through the sand and setting up. That was a very nice touch! Also on the beach you are able to relax while the kids play and vendors walk up and down the beach with nearly anything you could want. Be it food, a hat, a massage, so many things.
Rebekah even got this awesome hat made of leaves. Most of the vendors are not pushy at all, and will leave you alone if you want them too. One thing that I have to say is WEAR YOUR SUNSCREEN! I put it all over the kids before we went out and even re-applied it once. But is wasn't enough. The boys in particular got so burnt. I felt horrible!!!! That equatorial sun is no joke you guys!
We spend two nights at the beach and it was so relaxing and nice! Before we left we went to La Chocolatera which is one of the most western points of the country. They have a very small souvenir shop and a small cafe. The fruit juices are AMAZING in Ecuador, even though I don't think you are technically supposed to drink them due to the risk of unclean water or ice being used. If you DO take the risk, you have to try the maracuya (passion fruit) juice. It is to die for!
We drove back to Guayaquil to catch our early evening flight back to Quito for the remainder of our stay. Before we went to the airport we stopped by the Iguana park and the large cathedral that is across the street from it. They are both great sights and are free as well. Alex loved the iguana park and you can see how puffy and red his face is from the sunburn. Major momma guilt still for that!
We returned our cars, caught our flight, picked up our new rentals in Quito and headed to our last rental of the trip. It was a huge house that is in a massive gated community. It was a huge pain figuring out how to get into the community but once we did that, it was smooth sailing. We all settled down for the night, the kids were excited to have televisions again, and got a good nights sleep.
In the morning we packed up and headed to Mindo to the cloud forest. This is the part of the trip that I was the very most excited for!!! While there we got to go on a tour of the butterfly garden, learn how cocao was grown and chocolate was made at a small farm, and do an AMAZING zip-line tour. The little ones were really hesitant about the zip line, but ended up liking it by the end. :) We drove back to our house in Quito, got some dinner and passed out for the night (at least until the neighbors sang their LOUD drunk Karaoke until the wee hours of the morning, I was so tired and so mad!!!) . It was a long, fun, exciting day!
Day 7: We headed up to Otavalo to the market that they have there. It is a great place to go shopping for local goods and other souvenirs. The people are the shortest I have ever seen in my life. It is amazing to watch them carry their big loads with them, or walk down the street in their bright traditional clothing. We got our shopping in and headed back down the mountain. While we were traveling back we stopped at the small monument on the actual equator. It is really cool and the kids liked the dog the best, lol. Then we continued back to Quito.
Day 8: This was our last day in Ecuador and the trip went way too fast!! We headed into the city after getting all of our bags packed up for the return flight. We rode the teleferiQuo up the mountain to see the city from above. It is really high up there and man could you feel the altitude! The kids thought it was so cool to be up that hight. It was neat and the view was pretty. I would say you need to try it if you are there, but isn’t something completely spectacular. Then we headed back to the airport for our long flight home.
I think the thing that surprised me the most was how great the kids were with the change. We did tell them months and months in advance about the shift to experiences instead of things. They totally took it in stride and now are excited for the time together as the time grew closer. I was nervous about how Christmas morning would look from their eyes. No massive unwrapping of gifts, with piles of paper and things to look at. They really couldn't have been more excited. It was eye opening to me to see that they really didn't want OR need all the things. They just craved time together and enjoying being a family.
We will very likely keep this tradition for the remainder of our time with our kids at home. We don't have much longer for some of them sadly. But we are going to squeeze out every last bit of time we can get together. Some years it will be more simple, and we will stay really close to home. Others like last year will be more exotic as deals come up that we can't pass on!
I am grateful for my family. For the knowledge that I have that we can be families forever, not just in this life. I know that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and that he paid for each of our sins so that we can return to live with God when we die if we follow Him. I hope that each of us can focus more fully on the real reason for the season, and use our time given wisely. Merry Christmas to each and every one of you!