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When my kids were young I did what many parents do: I bought them almost everything on their wish lists (one exception that comes to mind is the gift of flight). We love to show our children and others that we care, and Christmas is the perfect opportunity to do that by bestowing them with beautifully wrapped gifts we know will delight them.
We also project a bit—sometimes a large bit—of expectation that we want to receive gifts as well. Children who can’t even think of anything they want are pressed to come up with toys for Santa to bring them, and items they want Mom and Dad to buy as well. Year after year we are trained to want things.
Marketing experts give us Black Friday and Cyber Monday (and what will undoubtedly become Super Saturday, Thoughtful Tuesday, and on and on) to urge us to spend our money on Christmas gifts. Oh—and don’t forget to get yourself a gift, they say. Online ordering has been the downfall of many a brick-and-mortar store as customers shop with greater ease and speed. Free shipping brings a sparkle to our eyes, not unlike the twinkling lights on our trees.
So the biggest problem with Christmas shopping isn’t the prices, the parking, or the long lines. It’s the shopping, period. And I am not suggesting we do away with gift giving. At the end of my articles I even share a link where you can buy my books. I also love all the wonderful LDS gifts that help make our homes the spiritual sanctuaries we want them to be. BUT… how can we pare down the wild extravagance and the avalanche of gifts that come to be expected? Have you ever seen a child grow tired of unwrapping gifts, and wait until later to finish the pile? I know at least a dozen parents who have begged friends and relatives to rein it in because their kids are so overindulged. Yes, sometimes we need a reality check.
I love the story of Socrates, who would stride through the city marketplace, and instead of being awed by all the wonderful goods and treasures there, he would simply marvel at all the things he didn’t need. How can we arrive at such contentment? How can we not want what the Joneses possess, or what advertisers tell us we simply must have? How can we not equate wealth and happiness? Of course we know the answer. But how can we get it into our DNA?
There are two ways to do this, one for children and one for adults. For the young, it’s easier. Parents can instill true appreciation for the things that matter most—for one another, for the gospel, for Jesus, for temples, for nature’s beauty, for all the things in life that are free, but are to be cherished. Even for laughter, music, friendship, patriotism, education, honesty, and so on. When children have—and learn to express—gratitude, they are happier people. They feel fulfilled without material trappings. Occasional gifts are nice, but not the core of their joy.
They can also learn the thrill of giving to others, especially anonymously. We gave a family a Sub-for-Santa Christmas one year, and peeked from a car window as the family came out onto their porch and were stunned at the shower of gifts we’d left. From the back seat our son, Cassidy, said, “This is the best day of my life!”
Parents can also establish traditions that emphasize these intrinsic gifts, rather than an overabundance of worldly collections. I know families who have a tradition of giving a child something educational, something they need such as clothing, and then one splurge gift. Another family I know always includes something musical, or a family experience such as an outing together to a theatre or a sports event. Yet another family, with older children, gives them a fun class: singing or dancing lessons, a sailing course, scuba certification, a cooking class, or a trip to a volcano. And one of the best gifts could be participating in a charitable project, such as home-building for the needy. Justserve.org is a wonderful website where you’ll find dozens of ideas, many of which take only an hour or two and might be perfect for a busy family.
As adults, we have to unlearn the accumulation of goods idea. We need to compile less elaborate gift lists, both for ourselves and for others. An honest evaluation of what we really need may involve some sacrifice, but like decluttering a home, it feels invigorating when we’re done. And sometimes we have to dig deep to see why we associate “stuff” with self-worth, or a feeling of being loved. We need to re-frame our identity, and re-think what actually makes us happy. (And yes, I found myself hoping my kids won’t read this because I don’t want them to cut back and just give me a lone M&M!)
Part of the satisfaction of taking this often difficult journey is that we’ll save a small fortune. Too many people go into debt to prove their love or friendship, when there are emotionally healthier and more economical choices they could be making. If your extended family lavishes their children with pricey gifts and you feel the need to compete, it’s time for a family council about it, and perhaps set some new goals for your immediate family.
An anonymous quote, “The richest man is not he who has the most, but he who needs the least,” might be good to consider. We posted the phrase, “The best things in life aren’t things” in our home. And speaking of quotes, one year our eldest son was a struggling college student and used creativity to bestow presents: He used his calligraphy skills to write and frame beautiful quotes for each one of us. Sometimes a gift from the heart is the most precious of all.
I cherish a drawing made for me by my four-year-old neighbor. Some wavy lines and circles are topped with several stickers of Christ. When I asked her about the beautiful picture she had made with colored markers, she said, “It’s a dragon, but his head is full of Jesus.” And if that doesn’t describe the challenge of life and the hope that we can overcome, I don’t know what does.
Hilton’s LDS novel, Golden, makes a great Christmas gift. It’s available in paperback and on Kindle. All her books and YouTubeMom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Interfaith Specialist for Public Affairs.