How to Combat Materialism at Christmas

Americans spend a lot on Christmas gifts. According to Gallup, they plan to spend $900 per person, the most since 2007. With Black Friday sales at your fingertips online, and credit cards readily available, it’s easy to do. Not to mention, if you’re naturally a gift-giving person or have children, it’s nothing but sheer joy to see the delight in your children’s eyes when they open a Lego set they’ve been asking to have for the last year. Still, it’s easy to allow gift-giving to morph into something that looks more like materialism, and that can be bad for both giver and beneficiary. When we allow Christmas to become a day that’s all about expensive gifts, we forget the true meaning of the holiday and encourage kids to find meaning and joy in material things that rarely satisfy them in the long term. Here are a few ways to combat materialism this Christmas, while still enjoying being a giver and a beneficiary of other people’s generosity.

First, figure out why you’re going to emphasize gifts less this Christmas, and put some limits on what you’ll buy and why. This narrows down your choices on Amazon or Black Friday. Now you’re not going to be tempted to buy the whole store—just specific items. I’ve heard of some families placing a dollar limit on each child, or other really large families drawing names to pare down the amount of things to buy. Friends of mine purchase each child three gifts, to go along with the idea that Jesus received three gifts—one from each wise man—following his birth.

Typically, my family has always embraced this riddle I stumbled upon a few years ago and it’s guided us ever since. Every child receives: Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read—later we added something to give. We don’t hold firm and fast (it might be two things they really want or need) but you get the idea. Though that’s not very many gifts, with four children, the cost still adds up.

Second, consider replacing some of the gifts you might have purchased with experiences. A thought experiment: Do you remember the gifts you got as a child, every Christmas? I might remember a couple, but that’s it—an entire eighteen years worth of Christmases with my family (as a child) have nearly faded from memory. That’s not because my parents didn’t put thought into what they bought me—I’m sure they did–but because the things I asked for weren’t all that special and over the years, seemed unimportant. But you know what I do remember? Things we did as a family, particularly if they became traditions.

For example, my Dad loves Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and growing up, every other year we would see it performed as a play. In the “off” year, we would see Handel’s Messiah performed. I can recall many of these outings clearly because it was outside of our ordinary routine, special, and typically a vibrant performance. I enjoyed the entire affair, from dressing up and going out to dinner, to driving home in the dark, cold, Minnesota winter, sleepy yet satisfied.

We love to do a few extra things we don’t do often like seeing a really good movie in the theaters, going downtown to special concerts, or getting together with friends for an afternoon of decorating cookies. Develop some traditions with family or friends that are uniquely Christmas-themed and your children might remember them more than a doll or game they received.

Third, instead of looking at the day like you might be depriving yourself or your family of things, begin to replace the extra things you won’t buy with time with family, special outings with friends, or volunteer service. Christmas can be an especially hard time of year for people with special needs, members of the military, homeless, or the aged. This is a good time to reach out to those people with Operation Christmas Child boxes, meals, or a care package.

Every year around Christmas, my kids and I pack a special “breakfast box” full of muffins, orange juice, and homemade, warm, sausage, egg and cheese breakfast burritos, for the two men who pick up our garbage at the crack of dawn. We make a big deal about it by getting up early, decorating the box, and running it out to them when we see them come by our house. Why? I can’t imagine they’re paid overly generously, the job is cold and messy, and it’s just a simple way to say thanks for doing something we rarely take the time to appreciate. My kids also often fill Operation Christmas Child boxes and friends of mine go help stock a local food pantry that’s especially busy during the winter. These are easy, tangible ways to think about other people more than the gifts you’re buying (or not buying).

None of these things are altogether life-changing and it’s not a bad thing to purchase Christmas gifts. But to keep from focusing on stuff that will break or fade with time, these ideas might help your family remember that Christmas is about the best gift a person can receive—salvation through Jesus—not to mention time with family and friends, and service to others.

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