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Making Christmas Count

You don't have to spend a lot to give your family what they really want for Christmas

Does anyone remember the marginally entertaining TV show Supermarket Sweep? Contestants had several minutes to fill grocery carts with as much stuff as possible. The winner wasn't determined by the quantity of stuff jammed into the cart but by the total monetary value at checkout. The contestant with the biggest tab won the game. The strategy was simple. Pass up the low-value stuff and load up on what's going to pay off big at the checkout. Smart contestants had a plan of action and knew exactly where to head the minute the clock started ticking.

Christmas is like that. Once the season begins, you'll start filling your shopping cart. You'll have lots of choices. What you choose will either pay off in terms of happiness, satisfaction, and pleasant holiday memories, or you'll get negative results of dissatisfaction and disappointment fueled by guilt, obligation, and trying to meet others' expectations. What you end up with when it's all put away for another year will depend on the choices you make between now and then.

Measuring Holiday Value

In their book Unplug the Christmas Machine, authors Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli say that while children may be quick to tell their parents they want designer clothes, the latest electronic gear, and name-brand toys for Christmas, underneath, here's what they really want:

  • relaxed and loving time with family
  • realistic expectations about gifts
  • an evenly paced holiday season
  • reliable family traditions

Underneath, I think that's what adults want too. Just imagine how the holidays might look this year if we have the courage to hold each of our choices and holiday decisions against the measuring stick of the four things we really want for Christmas.

Relaxed and Loving Time with Family

If you're looking for a big payoff in terms of happiness this holiday season, this is where you want to concentrate your efforts. That's because experts tell us that happiness is the process of enjoying what we're doing. Happiness is found in our relationships, our free time, our family, and our lives.

The secret here is to schedule blocks of family time in the same way you would an important meeting with a client or lunch with a friend. Write them on the calendar. Do it now and do it in ink. It's that important.

Idea: Fill shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child, an organization that distributes gifts to children in desperate situations around the world. For specific information on how to get involved, go to SamaritansPurse.org.

Idea: Spend time alone with each of your children, putting together puzzles, making gifts, decorating the tree, baking, shopping, laughing, reading, or even playing video games.

Idea: Have someone in the family log on to FamilyFun.com and find a Christmas craft that uses only stuff you already have around the house. You won't believe all the ideas you will discover.

Idea: Call a local nursing home and ask a staff member for the names of several residents who rarely have visitors or receive mail. "Adopt" them for the holidays by sending a Christmas card or paying a personal visit. Take the kids. Let them experience the joy of giving to others.

Realistic Expectations about Gifts

No one can determine what having realistic expectations about gifts means for your specific situation. But it's safe to say that if your gift plan requires you to go into debt, it's not realistic. If it means 60 gifts per child, it's not realistic. If it means feeling obligated to exchange gifts with each member of your extended family, that too may be unrealistic for you this year.

Now is the right time to decide what is right for you and your family. Set boundaries when it comes to both giving and receiving gifts. Realistic gifts for you may be simple, handmade gifts from your kitchen. Even if you're not particularly crafty, you can assemble wonderful consumable gifts that will not clutter others' lives with more stuff.

Idea: No new gifts. The idea is that you can only give something you already have that another person would enjoy as well.

Idea: If you have very young children, arrange with other families to swap toys instead of everyone buying new ones this year. Clean them up, wrap them up, and the kids will be none the wiser.

Idea: Some families include service to others as part of their holiday gift-giving. Make coupon books that family members can redeem for services such as car washing, making a favorite meal, or cleaning the garage. Physical labor never goes out of style.

An Evenly Paced Holiday Season

I know this is probably the last thing you want to hear right now, but it's true: You've got to get organized. No matter how simple or complex your holidays, organization is the only way to keep things evenly paced.

Idea: The website OrganizedChristmas.com is the next best thing to hiring a professional organizer. It'll put you in the mood for Christmas and actually make you think getting organized is great fun.

Idea: Make meals ahead and freeze them. On those very busy days in mid-December, you'll stay relaxed and stress-free knowing that dinner will be on the table as usual. Your family is used to that, right?

Idea: This idea is so useful it bears repeating. Get one envelope for each person on your gift list. Write that person's name and the amount you plan to spend on the front. Put the cash in the envelope. When you go shopping, take the envelopes—not your checkbook or plastic. When an envelope is empty, stop shopping.

Reliable Family Traditions

Traditions give families assurance that even in an uncertain and changing world there are some things they can count on to be the same. Anything you do in the same way at the same time, year after year, counts as a tradition.

Make a list of your family's best traditions. Talk about them, treat them with a sense of respect and joy, and add to them. Repeat them often, and in time they will become trusted anchors in your lives.

Idea: Honor your family's heritage by teaching your kids how to make the foods of that country or region. Learn the songs and customs of that culture.

Idea: As Christmas draws near, go out into your community to look at Christmas lights. Everyone gets ready for bed (pjs on, teeth brushed), then the entire family piles into the car. Take blankets along to add coziness. Choose your favorite house—everyone in the family gets a vote. If you're especially ambitious, drop off a Christmas card to thank them for brightening your holiday season.

Idea: When no one is looking, Santa's elves string Christmas lights in the kids' rooms. No matter how many times you do this, it will still be the best surprise.

Idea: There is a way you can give your kids what they really want this year. And in doing this, you will establish a new family tradition they'll want to repeat year after year:

1. Between now and December, collect 24 books that are in keeping with your family's values and beliefs for the holidays.

2. Wrap each book as a beautiful gift, then place all 24 in a large basket or festively decorated box. Keep the box hidden until December 1. If you want to avoid potential arguments when you get to step 3, number each gift 1 through 24 to correspond to the days of the month.

3. Each night before bed, allow the children to select and open one of the gifts, or follow the numbers you've placed on the packages, and then read it together. Repeat each night through Christmas Eve.

4. Put the books away in a secret place and you'll be ready to go again next year—and every year—starting with step 2.

What makes this an excellent tradition is that it is enjoyed over a three- to four-week period. The kids do not spend months waiting for a celebration that is over in a few hours of frenzied gift unwrapping. And it fulfills the need in all of us for an evenly paced holiday season.

There are three basic types of Christmas books for children: books about the nativity—some based on the Bible, others on legends; books about Santa Claus, gift-giving, and the like; and books that relate to one or more of the above but don't quite fit into any category. To decide what books you want, it's best to take the time to read through books that interest you or to read reviews.

Don't have money available to invest in books? Perhaps you can borrow from friends or relatives. Or put together your list at your public library, then make your reservations early so you can pick them up right after Thanksgiving. Make sure you know your library's renewal policy. Many libraries will renew books by phone or online.

New Family Traditions

Every year in the weeks leading up to the holidays, I get a number of letters from readers asking for help with starting new family traditions. One year recently I decided to poll the entire membership of Debt-Proof Living online, asking readers to send in their best traditions to share with others.

It wasn't easy selecting some of the responses to share with you in the limited space I have here. Some were moving, others quite hilarious. So whether you're looking for ideas for your family or you are curious to know how others observe Christmas, here for your pre-holiday enjoyment is a selection of favorite family traditions:

  • Each year we buy a new jigsaw puzzle and start it at the kitchen table. It provides a spot for one or more family members or visitors to sit, visit, and take a few minutes to relax and work on the puzzle together. We've had some good conversations while working on puzzles! We try to finish it before the Christmas festivities begin, but it doesn't always work out that way.
  • I know Christmas is supposed to be a time of love and harmony and family. But after many years of putting up with the stress of our bickering relatives, my husband and I made our own tradition. We travel every year from December 20 to 27. Just the two of us. That's our gift to each other. Our best trip was on Amtrak across the South. Next we plan to go across Canada. We arrive home relaxed and happy instead of stressed-out and angry.
  • Years ago we began taking pictures of all the grandchildren in front of my mom's Christmas tree. The first year the picture was a surprise gift for her. Now, many years later, we're still taking the same pose with a few new grandchildren added along the way. We make reprints for all the siblings, so we all have pictures from each Christmas. It's great to see how the kids have grown from year to year. My mom has them framed and all arranged in order in the hallway. It is wonderful.
  • Here's a fun one my dad has been doing for years. He got tired of the fact that he never knew what was in all the packages to us that were signed from "him" and my mother. One year he got a large black trash bag for each of his daughters, their husbands and kids, and my mother. Starting in January, he began putting stuff in the bags: rolls of quarters, clothes with his company logo, trinkets that people were peddling at his office during the year—anything and everything. Now one of the highlights for all of us on Christmas Day is "opening the trash bags." You never know what will be in there!
  • Instead of the traditional holiday family newsletter, we send a "Top Hits List" for our family. It includes our favorite song, movie, funniest antics, household cleaner, and activity for the past year. People like the quick read, and we like compiling it throughout the year.
  • Inspired by the wonderful book Night Tree by Eve Bunting, we go into the mountains and decorate a tree with food for the animals. We use popcorn balls, cranberries, fruit, bread smeared with peanut butter, and birdseed. This is our way of making sure the animals have a special Christmas dinner. Our efforts to change our children's attitudes about what it means to celebrate Christmas have been very successful. December has become such a wonderful time, with gifts nearly an afterthought.

Adapted from Debt-Proof Your Christmas. Copyright © 2012 by Mary Hunt. Used by permission of Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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