Try as we may, Christmas can feel overscheduled and materialistic instead of significant and joyful. Here’s a few ways I’m going to try to make Christmas a little more meaningful for my family this year.
1. Less Is More
From Black Friday to television commercials, stuff is everywhere. It feels like my kids are inundated and they can’t help but point and yell: “I want that!” One year a girlfriend told me she buys only 12 gifts for each of her four kids. What the Elfenstein? We follow a simple rule that I’ve borrowed from all the other people out there on the Internet who are way smarter than me. Each child gets something he wants, something he needs, something to wear, and something to read.
A recent Atlantic article explored this understanding. The authors said kids will learn thankfulness when they are given fewer material goods, not more. I grew up in middle-class America and, like many of our readers, received an all-private-school education, but when I asked my Mom what she’d do differently she said, “Give you less.”
I’m not saying my kids don’t want a ton of stuff. They do. But it won’t kill them when they open presents and realize they didn’t get everything on their lists. Not only does that mimic life on a grander scale, it gives them something to work for later, if they really decide it’s important to them. Contentment is a great friend with which to enjoy the Christmas season.
We’re also trying to encourage our kids to find ways to help others by filling their own Operation Christmas Child boxes, purchasing things children need through Salvation Army, and choosing things other families living in difficult circumstances around the world might need through Compassion International’s gift catalog. This showcases how other people live around the world and demonstrates tangibly how their wants and needs differ from ours. (This year, my older children chose to give chickens, emergency first aid, and textbooks.)
2. Adjust Expectations
Think back to your childhood. Do you remember Christmas gifts? I only remember a handful of things, one of which was a dog. Do you know what I do recall year after year with an aching nostalgia? Seeing “A Christmas Carol” every other year at the Guthrie Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. I can recall putting up the Christmas tree listening while to Bing Crosby and eating my mom’s delicious sugar cookies as if it were yesterday, although I haven’t done it in over a decade.
The gift of time or experience is just as—if not more—valuable and memorable than a material item that will break or be forgotten in time. What if you all see a play, attend a new movie, or watch a ballet together? I’m a sucker for store-bought or homemade coupon booklets that give away a back rub, one-on-one time with a child or a spontaneous outing for ice cream. We tend to give the kids practical craft or building sets that foster creativity and imagination and can be enjoyed often.
3. Take Santa and the Shelf Elf Down a Notch
Obviously, this is my opinion; you have yours and at least half of you will differ with me passionately on this point. So to be clear: I’m not “telling you what to do” (because I can see that in the comment section now), I’m offering ideas for a different kind of Christmas.
We don’t perpetuate the belief of Santa Claus or Elf on the Shelf in our household. (For those who spiked their eggnog too soon, the elf is a book and doll set that came out in 2005. He sits on the shelf and “watches” the kids. If they’re bad, he tells on Santa and said bad kid gets zilch for Christmas.)
For the families out there still signing gifts from “Santa Claus” and the parents getting up at the crack of dawn to hide an elf somewhere, does this add to the meaning of Christmas for your family? Or is it another stressful thing to do? Doesn’t perpetuating a fantasy or worse, a completely commercialized, not to mention creepy, stuffed thing that spies on your kids and thereby secures “good” behavior seem, well, over the top? In both cases you’re basically lying to your kids, and it’s not really to protect them—it’s just because you have to, in order to perpetuate the thing.
I know, I sound like Ebenezer Scrooge and a super-lame mom and you’re probably thinking my kids have an unmagical, unfun Christmas and you’re feeling really sorry for them. I can assure you, there’s plenty of magic and coziness and wonder without the commercialization, both material and symbolic, these trifles represent. Few things have detracted more from the meek but miraculous, ancient but astonishing story of a babe in a manger than a jolly fat man stuffing gifts down a chimney and an uncanny elf spying on kids.
Insofar as the Elf on a Shelf is a harmless, fun undertaking—one friend of mine gets as big of a kick from hiding it as her kids do finding it—it probably formulates memories and fuels warm fuzzies. But when the elf becomes a Big Deal to the parent hiding it and to the child living beneath its watchful, disturbing eyes, then, my friends, it’s time to realize it’s a distraction, a disturbance, and it’s downright dumb.
4. Slow Down to Remember the Reason
There are so many school celebrations (or whatever they are called now), office parties, and neighborhood gatherings; so many crockpots of meatballs and so many glasses of wine. Sit down for a moment and take inventory: Why are we attending this function? To whom is this event important? There’s nothing wrong with being busy and going to events, but just because you’re busier doesn’t mean you’re enjoying the holiday any more than anyone else.
In fact, it can be an obstacle to reflection. Hustling and bustling can prove to be another thing that distracts and detracts. It’s hard to make great memories and enjoy the present when everyone is rushing somewhere, arriving breathless, and hurrying to the thing after that. Despite all the live nativities, the parades, the church services, and the gatherings of friends, some of the best and most meaningful times have been the ten minutes we set aside every night to explore Advent.
Above all, we’re trying to do things that help our family remember where the idea of gifts and parties around and on Christmas started from anyway. That gift—the gift of a humble, sacrificial son, who came to earth, God in the flesh— is the only lasting gift and the only one you can take with you for life and beyond.