Every year my sister and I make the same promise to each other. “One year, we’re not going to do presents at all,” we declare over the phone. “And it will be the best Christmas ever.”
Our kids are all still at home, eager Christmas lovers, so we haven’t yet been able to make good on our dreams of a gift-free holiday. But I daydream of a December free from shopping lists and shipping stress.
I know I’m not alone. The average American will spend $700 on Christmas gifts this year. This season of cheer is also an overload of consumption.
Ironically, the greatest gifts on the first Christmas were given freely. Mary and Joseph’s love for Jesus. The shepherds’ wonder. The angels’ glorious song. The star’s guiding light. The goodness of God incarnate.
Could we celebrate Christmas by giving less to each other and keeping the focus on faith and family?
It can be tricky to transform long-standing traditions, especially when it comes to the holidays. But it also brings a breath of fresh air to let the Holy Spirit inspire our exchanges of love in new ways.
Years ago, our family switched to celebrating the octave of Christmas. Now we open one present each morning for the eight days from Dec. 25 through Jan. 1. The kids love this tradition, running downstairs every morning to see what small surprise might be waiting under the tree.
Rather than buy each child eight presents, we’ve found that we can fill up the octave with gifts from grandparents, godparents, aunts, uncles and siblings. We start with stockings on Christmas morning and then add a few gifts from us: books for everyone one day, a surprise outing another night.
Switching to the octave — from one manic morning of unwrapping — has been such a gift for our family. We get to stretch out the Christmas celebration. We avoid the Dec. 26 “letdown.” We’ve put the focus back on enjoying time together.
If you’ve ever felt stressed by December shopping (or felt the regret from credit card statements in January), consider bringing this question to prayer: How does my celebration of Christmas honor the Christ Child — the humble baby born into poverty?
Might the Spirit whisper ways that you could celebrate differently this year?
Here are a few ideas to ponder.
— Give to others first. Prioritize your charitable giving before deciding how much to spend on family and friends.
— Simplify your gift-giving. Buy secondhand or fair trade items. Try homemade gifts or regifting something you own. (Our extended family has found more fun with a goofy gift exchange — limited to things we already own or purchases under $10 — than with anything else on Christmas Day.)
— Give the gift of time. Sharing an experience with a loved one brings more lasting memories than most presents we can wrap. (Hint for grandparents: A museum membership or tickets to an event can be a welcome alternative, especially when parents feel overwhelmed by the influx of new toys.)
— Follow an easy formula for kids if you can’t resist buying gifts: something they want, something they need, something to wear and something to read. Four simple categories for fun.
However you choose to celebrate Christmas, let your faith guide your giving. Buying less is a great first step: to focus on Christ, resist greed and bring relief to your budget and the environment.
“Christmas is preferring the silent voice of God to the noisiness of consumerism,” said Pope Francis.
When it comes to giving, we need this good news — now more than ever.