We live in an ‘I want’ and ‘give me’ culture. But Christmas doesn’t have to be a frenzy of shopping, debt, and stuff.
In his Christmas homily last year, Pope Francis urged the world’s Catholics to resist getting caught up in the commercialization of Christmas, and to emulate the simplicity of the baby Jesus in their lives.
“In a society so often intoxicated by consumerism and hedonism, wealth and extravagance, appearances and narcissism, this child calls us to act soberly, in other words, in a way that is simple, balanced, consistent, capable of seeing and doing what is essential,” he said.
The Pope also reminded believers that “Amid a culture of indifference which not infrequently turns ruthless, our style of life should instead be devout, filled with empathy, compassion and mercy.”
For many, the desire to maintain the spiritual meaning of Christmas—and indeed the Pope’s counsel to emulate the simplicity of the baby Jesus—comes into direct conflict with the prolific commercialization of Christmas, and the overwhelming pressure to spend beyond one’s means on gifts.
According to a Gallup poll conducted in October, on average, Americans anticipate spending $785 on gifts this year, and 31% expect to spend $1,000 or more. The National Retail Federation forecasts that Americans will spend $655.8 billion during this holiday season.
It’s no secret that Christmas has become synonymous with shopping and, unfortunately, debt. But it is possible to strike a balance. The key is remembering why we celebrate Christmas, focusing on worship, what brings meaning to our families, and thinking about what values we want to instill in our children.
“While it is easy to get ‘lost’ in the consumerism of the season, and the ‘I want/give me’ culture it creates, it is never too late to begin family traditions that include finding ways to help those in our community who are less fortunate, and raising their level of awareness of the realities facing the millions of families and children across the country currently living in poverty,” said Sherry-Lea Bloodworth Botop, vice president, National Development at Catholic Charities USA.
“Volunteering as a family is a wonderful holiday tradition. It is humbling and inspiring for children and families to spend time at a local soup kitchen and serve food, or find a church or local charity where donations of food or money are welcome,” Bloodworth Botop said.
Celebrate Advent, not the gift frenzy of Christmas
Father Brendan Murphy, O.P., Chaplain of Aquinas House at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, suggests that, in addition to focusing on giving, individuals should remember to reflect on the entire Christmas period—Advent through the 12 days of Christmas.
“One thing we have to keep in mind is that there are two seasons that we are talking about, the advent season and the Christmas season. Advent is the very prayerful time, and very thoughtful, we prepare what we are about to celebrate, Christ being born, and then Christmas is a great time of celebration and joy,” said Father Brendan.
He said that families can create their own customs and food traditions to make the time of Advent special and memorable.
“If we’re not careful we become so busy we put ourselves in a situation where we’re not properly prepared, and I think making the time each day to really reflect on what we’re preparing for is very important.”
“Jesus speaks about this, protecting us from all anxiety and giving us peace in our days. I hope we take the time to pray which really does give us a sense of peace,” Father Brendan said.
He added that sharing what we have is an important way to prepare for Christmas; not just money, but one’s time, which is in some ways is the most valuable gift we have. He suggested checking in on a neighbor who might be alone or needing help, or reaching out to someone who’s lost someone recently.
Maureen Stannard, who attends St. Denis in Hanover, says that the significance of Advent is not lost on her. “I always want to do more as far as preparing for Christmas, something more spiritual. This year we’re thinking putting something [a gift, canned food] in a box every day for the month of December and then donating it. The kids are at an age now where they can really appreciate the meaning, not just the commercial part of Christmas,” Stannard said.
Focus on the giving in the season of giving
Stannard, 50, and her husband Dan have always encouraged a sense of charity in their triplets, age 13. She lets the children choose a family to “adopt” at Christmas in a program run by their church, and says the kids get excited about shopping, and even go above and beyond purchasing the requested items. Last year the children added a disposal camera so the family could take photos on Christmas morning, for instance.
Another way Stannard taught her children that Christmas is about giving and not receiving was by taking them to the dollar store when they were younger to buy gifts for each other. This year, in addition to participating in “experience”-type presents, her children will each receive three physical gifts: “something you want, something you need, and a book to read.”
Kathy Radigan is another mom who limits the number of gifts her children receive at Christmas.
“We started a tradition of only three gifts when our first child was born eighteen years ago. I thought, ‘if it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for my son’,” said Radigan, from her home on Long Island.
The 50-year-old writer and her husband now have three children (17, 14 and 11), who don’t expect more because they all grew up with the three-gift tradition.
“My kids have never felt that they didn’t get enough, and they’ve always been very appreciative. One thing I don’t do is rush around thinking ‘oh I have to get another gift, I got 10 gifts for my daughter and only 8 for my son and have to quickly get something’. The actual gift giving on Christmas is really nice.”
The budget for each child hovers around $200, including the three gifts and stockings, and Radigan uses cash so she’s not saddled with the post-holiday credit card bills that plague most Americans.
Radigan said that keeping gift-giving to a minimum is her way of bringing the spirit of Christmas into their everyday lives. She and her family also reach out to less fortunate members of their community over the holidays.
“I was lucky to grow up with parents that were, and still are, very service-minded,” Radigan said. “My mother has organized holiday cards for the troops, “adopted’ families through her church and Rotary club and collected cans for our local food pantry. I have always enjoyed helping her with these projects, and now really love watching my children help her.”
Make your own gifts—and spend time with a loved ones
Kat Rutkin of Somerville, Massachusetts tries to avoid shopping altogether by making gifts for family members. She and her husband began the tradition five years ago when she was pregnant with their first child, and they didn’t have a lot of money. That year they did a scone mix in a jar and paired it with homemade jam.
“I liked that my husband and I were home together, spending time with each other instead of buying things that people may or may not want,” Rutkin said. “It felt better to us. We like to do things that are simple and from the heart.”
Admire who’s around the tree, not what’s under the tree
Father Brendan said that it’s important to remind children that at Christmas it’s not what’s under the tree that’s important, but who is around the tree.
“You want something so much as a child, but as an adult, for myself I can’t always remember all of the gifts I received but I remember who was there. It’s about being with family, people we love and who love you, and that’s how we learn about Jesus, so it’s important not to focus on the gifts but whose there, too,” Father Brendan said.
We all feel pressure at Christmas to decorate our homes, buy the perfect gift, and to create the perfect holiday, but oftentimes our focus is on the outward trappings of the season rather than the meaning. While gift-giving is an important and joyful aspect of Christmas, especially with children, it’s likely that children will remember details of family traditions and time spent together far more vividly than any gift, no matter how expensive or grand.
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