As a child Christmas was my favorite holiday. However in recent years, the overall busyness, increased demands of the season, and the general state of the world, had taken away from much of the joy for me. It was for these and a variety of other reasons, (not the least of which was a gift request for squeaking dolphin slippers), that my husband and I made some changes that have shaped how we celebrate Christmas with our kids and it has made a positive difference in how we experience this time of year.
We live in a world where so many people are in need and experiencing horrible circumstances. It can be tempting to call it quits on the celebrating while others the world are suffering. Alternatively, it is tempting to carry on with our lives willfully ignoring the sadness because it can all seem like just too much. However, as with most things in this world, there is a simultaneous tension of celebrating the good while acknowledging the broken and taking steps to help change it. In an ever evolving effort of trial and error, my husband and I have tried to strike a balance between the two and develop a new way of operating in this tension, especially this time of year.
1. Why Do We Celebrate?
Depending on your cultural, religious, and familial traditions, the reasons behind your celebrations will vary. However, regardless of what holiday or holidays you find yourself celebrating this time of year, the answer to why can help inform how you celebrate them.
Our family celebrates Christmas. The celebration of the birth of Christ and/or Santa Claus or some version of him are the two main focuses of Christmas in the US and many parts of the world. As my husband and I considered the why of Christmas and gift giving, we came up with an explanation that both allowed for the celebration of the holiday and all of its traditions and also made room for simpler more generous practices. We decided that our family’s “why” was to honor Christ’s birth by following his example. We decided that giving gifts to others and caring for people in need is an expression of love for others and our love for God, which Jesus famously said are the greatest commands. We also acknowledge that St. Nicholas was a generous man who gave to those in need and Jesus himself said that serving the most needy in his name, was like serving him. We have found that this is a good balance between our personal faith and the fun that Santa Claus brings while still giving meaning to the gifts and hopefully inspiring generosity in our kids.
This will obviously look different for each family, but most holiday traditions this time of year include some form of gratitude, honor of others, and outward expression of love and care. Identifying why we celebrated was a key part in putting and keeping the focus on where we wanted it to be.
2. A Family Decision
After explaining to our kids the reasons behind our traditions, we invited them into the decision making process. We told them that we had a budget for Christmas and asked them how they would feel about us spending less money on their gifts, and instead directing a portion of our budget to help others in need. Since this was a pretty significant change from how they were accustomed to celebrating, they had some questions as to what they would look like, but ultimately were in agreement.
3. Four Gifts
As a guideline for a simpler and less frantic gift extravaganza than in years past, we decided on quality over quantity. I found an idea on the internet to help guide us in our gift giving to our kids. The idea is a fun rhyme that includes 4 categories: something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read.(Pro tip: If you can make things rhyme, kids get instantly excited.) So our kids each get 4 presents from us; 1 in each category. They also get stockings and Santa usually drops off a family gift in the form of an experience or activity that can be enjoyed together. In all honesty, I think our kids enjoy Christmas morning more now than they did before we started the 4 gifts. They savor each gift and seem to use and enjoy what they receive more than in years past. They have also become increasingly excited to make gifts and give to others with their own skills, time, and money. (Bonus: Knowing they get 4 gifts in specific categories helps decrease the asks for things like bacon scented body wash).
4. Caring for Those in Need
On Christmas morning, before we do anything else, we start off the day talking about the meaning of Christmas and we let the kids each choose what they want to give to someone in need by choosing from a give back gift catalog. The first Christmas we did this, I thought that they’d want to rush through this process to move on to their stockings and presents, but they surprised us and took great care in what they selected. Each year we love seeing a glimpse of their hearts and interests through what they pick and the reason behind it. A few catalogs we like are: Compassion International, Preemptive Love Coalition, and World Vision.
We’ve been giving four gifts and selecting from the giving catalogs for a few years now and it makes the day so much more enjoyable. The kids know to savor each gift the receive, they know what to expect, and they really genuinely get excited about the opportunity to pick something to give to someone in need. Christmas miracles still happen!
5. Presence vs. Presents
As we’ve scaled back on the amount of gifts we purchase, it has freed up time and space to focus on experiences unique to this time of year. Looking back on my lasting childhood memories, I don’t remember many of the gifts I received, but I vividly remember the traditions we had. Playing in the snow with my siblings, baking cookies, decorating the tree, the candlelight Christmas Eve service at our church followed by a “sleepover” with my sister in my room are among my favorites.
As I’ve reflected on these experiences from my childhood, I’m passing some on to my kids, and we’re starting traditions of our own as well. Some years we are able to and want to do more than others. This year, as the kids are getting older, our school and activity schedules have been more full than in years past, so in our tiny moments of downtime, we have all needed more space to rest and just be together. With a simpler approach to the holidays, it has been really wonderful to not feel the need to fill every free moment in an effort to get things done.
In a world full of chaos, my continuous hope is that we all can experience peace in our homes, that it will bring hope to our hearts, and will compel our actions toward love.