Christmas and the meaning of "stuff"

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Deb Russo is a FIFO wife of the offshore kind. Her husband works on oil rigs and vessels. Typically, he does a four-week-on and four-week-off roster. They've lived their entire 14-year relationship like this. Initially Deb's husband was in the Navy, then he shifted to work in the mines and did the 28/7 roster (Deb's least favourite!) With this offshore roster, though, she wouldn’t change a thing.

We have never been into collecting toys, my husband and I. Our house is basic, our car is 10 years old and even our TVs are secondhand.

"Things" do not bring us happiness, and yet my boys have more "things" than Imelda Marcos had shoes. Most of their toys have actually come from others, from grandma, granddad uncles, aunts and well-meaning cousins. The boys' toy box is overflowing. Their Lego draw is to the brim. Their clothes bin has its own altitude!

We've always had a rule of buying one thing and giving away another, yet I still feel like we are drowning in stuff. And when I step on lone Lego blocks during the night, my unhappiness increases! So what to do?

This year we sat the boys down and said they were only getting one toy gift for Christmas. They also had to give away all but three toys from their toy bin. We asked them to consider family over gifts too, because we could simply not do both. If they wanted to go to Darwin to see Nanna, something had to give. 

"Think of how much fun it will be to see Nanna and go fishing," I said. "Go croc watching and playing down the beach."

Our brilliant idea was met with mixed reactions! 

B1 was cool. "Okay," he said, "I can do that. I would much rather be with Nanna and Poppa anyway."

B2 is still pondering on it. "Why only the one toy?" he asked. "Does that include gifts from Nanna and Poppa, or are they extra?" 

B3 went into meltdown that I, as an employee of Santa, was not holding up my end of the bargain. Yet come Christmas morning he will be totally cool – because he will be in Darwin with Nanna. On a trip we couldn’t afford if we bought everything on his four-page Santa wish list.

I hope to really show them that stuff won't make them happy in the long run. People and experiences do. In fact, a 2009 study from the University of San Francisco found that experiences not only give us greater happiness, they also provide lasting happiness. (I should have mentioned that to the boys while I was making my speech about too much "stuff", but it probably would have been as exasperating as asking them to get ready for school while the TV's on.)

Being with people who love you is what Christmas is all about (or being in their thoughts if you're far away for work). It's what life is all about too. The boys will eventually outgrow their toys and "stuff," but they'll never forget the experience of being at Nannas for that sweaty Christmas in Darwin – the year Santa ripped them off with just one lousy toy!

I wish you all a wonderful and safe holiday season, and look forward to sharing my best advice for a happy life with you again in the New Year!

More columns from Oil & Gas Mum, Deb Russo:

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And here's another oil and gas couple's advice on making FIFO family life work when you're working offshore