Halloween is over, Thanksgiving is passed, and so begins the countdown to Christmas. It’s such a festive, joyful time for so many, bringing great memories of holidays past, but it can also be a crazy, hectic time. In fact, the majority of the time, it is a battle to keep the good feelings flowing while pushing away the harried rush of aggravation. Why do we fall for it every year? Have we got it all wrong about Christmas?
Recently, I became aware of someone asking for financial assistance. Eager to help if I could, I decided to dig a little deeper into their personal situation. I was under the impression they were having difficulty meeting their obligations and monthly bills such as rent and utilities, but as I became better acquainted with their request for monetary support, I realized it had to do with Christmas. They were imploring of the general public for a substantial sum to buy Christmas presents for their children.
First, I’d like to say that I totally understand the desire to purchase Christmas presents for your kids. Been there, done that. I can recall a Christmas when my first daughter was a little over one year old. My husband only had part-time work, and I had just switched jobs to have less on-call time away from my baby. The switch did give me more time at home overnight and on weekends, but it had also brought a substantial pay cut.
I remember my daughter getting two gifts that year from us and Santa. One was a $20 plastic kitchen we found at Dollar General, and the other was a cardboard playhouse a work friend had bought us. It hurt my heart not to be able to afford more for my child, but I knew she was young. We bought a few other cheap but thoughtful gifts for close family from Fred’s, and I tried to not feel embarrassed about our paltry presents. That year, we were disappointed with the financial situation we faced, but I can say we paid all of our bills on time. Consequently, it was a wonderful Christmas, and I can’t recall anyone seeming disappointed other than myself.
When I saw this particular person’s fundraiser for Christmas for their kids, I wasn’t judging them, but it did make me think about what we place value on in our world. And even though the amount they were trying to raise was 16x more than the amount I planned to spend on my own children, I didn’t conclude any kind of crass opinion on these people. In fact, I understood. I’d been there, and I had felt the same way not that long ago. I had placed much importance on buying lots of presents. I mean, it just made you feel wonderful to give to others. Wasn’t that a good thing? The old adage is “it’s better to give than receive.” That had to count for something!
Indeed, I can recall a Christmas six years ago when my husband and I once again found ourselves financially strapped. I was about to go on maternity leave, unpaid, right at the holidays. We had planned financially enough for my time off work but had not included enough for the kind of Christmas presents we wanted to buy. We didn’t want another repeat of the $20 kitchen! So we actually went and took out a loan for the holidays. And I regretted it the whole next year. Every time I paid that bill with the horrible interest rate, I would tell myself, “Never again!”
But the next year I utilized credit cards. Wasn’t that the same thing?
And I used them again the following year.
I mention all this to say that I wasn’t judging this family for wanting to spend a large amount of money on Christmas for their children. How could I judge someone who was doing the same thing I’ve done? The same thing most of us do? We consider Christmas a time to go all out! So whether you save up money all year, use a Christmas bonus, utilize credit cards, take out a loan, or create a GoFundMe, it all goes towards the same goal: Purchasing a ton of possessions for people you love. It’s how we show them we love them. It’s just something we do. It’s what Christmas is all about! My only question is: Have we got it all wrong?
Yeah, I know, the wise men brought gifts to the Lord. And yep, I’ll agree that Jesus was the best gift of all to a fallen world. It’s a wonderful way to show love, kindness to others, and to honor the Lord by giving gifts. It’s a tradition to give presents to those you care about, to give to those in your circle, and to get super excited about all the wrapping paper and bows bundled up beautifully under the tree. I am the most excited person you’ll meet for all that stuff! But I wonder, do we have it all wrong?
Are we placing far too much importance on the materialism that’s become commonplace for the holidays?
We assume we must purchase presents for people because that’s what we do. Society has made it normal, normal to the point that we feel obligated to do so. Even if we don’t have the money. Even if our heart isn’t in it. Heck, sometimes even if we don’t like them very much. It’s just expected.
And then comes the kiddos. It’s not just a gift. It’s become a madness mountain of many gifts, towering far above the manger. We buy more than we need to, more than they need, to the point that even they are overwhelmed. So come the morning after the whole family is weighed down by the mass of items, we go on a cleaning spree to take down the tree and erase the chaos of so much stuff! Am I right?
We buy so much that we have to do a purge to get rid of the excess. We buy so much that we’re short on finances come January, that our budgets are tight, or that our credit cards are maxed out! We buy so much that we forget why we even celebrate the holiday in the first place. Christmas has always been the season of giving, but we’re so focused on materialistic giving that we lose sight of the gifts of love.
Kindness is replaced by angry, last-minute shoppers. Joy is replaced by debt. Happiness is replaced by hurried attitudes. We’re distracted from the true reason of the season, and we replace it with shopping lists. The birth of Christ is overshadowed by our incorrect assumption that the holiday is about buying more stuff. We think we have to show love by buying presents. We forget that love is shown in so many more ways than that.
I wonder sometimes what happened to buying something special, like one thing or maybe two to bestow on the people you love? Our society has taught us that bigger is better, that the more we buy means the more we love. I think of the newborn Jesus coming with very little fanfare to a cave in Bethlehem, laid on hay with the company of shepherds and their sheep. The greatest gift came so humbly to save us all. What must He think of the shiny show we’ve created of His birthday?
I’m no Scrooge, don’t get me wrong. I’ll put up my tree, string lights, and sing carols with the best of them. My children won’t be sitting sadly Christmas morning holding a lump of coal. We will wrap packages and give them joyfully to the people we love. But what I refuse to do is think that’s the best part of it. I won’t fall for the trick from the devil that says the bigger the stack of presents, the better the Christmas. I won’t put myself into debt for it. I won’t drive myself crazy buying the perfect gift for absolutely everyone. I won’t think that more is better. I won’t fall into the name-brand game. I won’t worry what other people think or try to impress anyone. I won’t make Christmas a show, a way for me to display my wealth, or a way for me to covet the wealth of someone else.
Christmas is the best time of the year, but we could enjoy it ten times better if we let go of how we think it should be, what we think is important. We could stop getting it wrong by focusing on stuff and start getting it right by focusing on Jesus in us. That’s the gift He wants to see us give for His birthday: The gift of His love.
I’ll finish up with one last Christmas story of financial distress for you, a story of Jesus and His love. I can remember a Christmas when I was five years old. My biological father had left us. My mother and I were in dire straits. We could hardly pay the bills, but we did have one another. We always had that. I remember we were far from family, but we had many friends from work and school. Wanting to show them our love during the holidays, we got together in the kitchen and made cookies. My mom and I baked from scratch M&M cookies, we bagged them up, and we gifted them to all our friends.
Looking back, I can’t imagine how my mother must have felt being unable to purchase anything for me for Christmas other than keeping the lights on and a roof over our head. But I always remember this Christmas with joy. The memory of baking cookies with my mom was wonderful, and the gift of seeing the love of others was something I’ll never forget.
I got my first bicycle that year. White and yellow with daisies on the wheels and streamers from the handlebars. I was excited for the bike, sure, but what I remember even now with joy is the look on my mom’s face and her grateful tears when we arrived at her work and saw the bike, a gift to me from her coworkers. I realize now that it wasn’t so much the bike that was given to us that day. It was love we were given. And that, my friends, was Christmas done right.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on briegowen.com
Featured Image by Gareth Harper