Believing in Christmas

I haven’t done very much for Christmas this year. We’ve partially decorated the tree, and I’ve set out a few garlands. The stockings are sitting on the dining room table, but it took me almost a week to notice I never put them up. The few cards I’ve received are in a pile on the kitchen table.

Most of my decorations are still in their storage boxes. I’ve narrowed this down to two reasons. One, I took a look at my decorations and realized with some dismay that only 10% have any religious or spiritual meaning. Aside from our Nativity scene, advent wreath, and some greenery, everything I have is commercial and generically pleasing. I was thumbing through The Catholic Home the other day and realized there is much I can still do to impart tradition and culture in our home. I intend to work on that this year, starting with Lent. (That’s a great book, by the way. The writing is casual and humorous.)

The second reason is far less philosophical: I’m not into it this year. I’m not into it this year and every year I get a little less into it. Right now, all the talk seems to be about hot toys. What they are; where to get them; who’s willing to go through the hysteria.

Furbies; Toy “R” Us; Not me.

I credit the work I’ve done around the home for The William Morris Project as the cloth that wiped the lens clean. I see the holidays differently now. I’m applying the useful/beautiful standard to how we celebrate Christmas, and I’m finding the 397 presents under the tree lacking. I used to take the stance that, yes, some gifts are amusing for a minute, but the joy on your child’s face makes the frivolous purchase worthwhile. There is something so amazing about a tree bursting with presents underneath! It looks festive and happy, like in the catalogs.

We’ve never gone crazy with the presents–after I quit working it wasn’t an option–but I know we’ve bought more than we should in years past. This year I want to avoid the Christmas catalog trap. I refuse to feel guilty, cheap, or mean for not kowtowing before the almighty Christmas list. I’ve taken great pains to explain to Mikey that children don’t receive everything on their Christmas lists, because as I pull away from the commercialism of the holidays, he rolls in it like a cat in clover. This is the first year he understands Christmas is an opportunity to get stuff, and his list reflects his belief in the miracle of Christmas.

The miracle includes an iPad, an iPhone, an iPod, a motorcycle, a set of chef knives, a new Wii, and pages 7-13 of the Toys “R” Us catalog. What’s miraculous is that he believes any of the above are within the realm of possibility.

I mean, really. A motorcycle?

(He says he needs it so he can test his latest invention, an airbag device for motorcyclists. It’s like a giant rubber hamster wheel that envelops the biker so they just kind of bounce to a stop after an accident. I think. I don’t know, his notes are somewhere in his room.)

Our neighbors buy their children three gifts each, all from Santa. They had to employ this rule because the grandparents go nuts and there is no stopping them. My sister in-law’s family exchanges three gifts each, but at home there is no set number of gifts aside from the three Santa brings.

Every plan for moderation has a loophole. No matter what you do or how you do it, you’re still faced with a pile of forgotten toys by February.

We haven’t yet decided how we are going to handle presents this year. I have begged my parents to show restraint, and I think this year they will. We plan to do the same, because I don’t want to feel like I am going through the motions at Christmas. I want to be calm, and relaxed, and content. I want to believe in Christmas, and I want to believe in miracles.

Jules Kendall writes about books, family, and easygoing simplicity.


  1. says

    I love that the William Morris project was like ‘wiping a lens clean’ and that you can now see the unworthiness of the wasteful shiny capitalist greed.

    I also feel like this Christmas has been one in which our family has matured as consumers. We have spent so much of this year getting rid of belongings in order to simplify our lives and move into a smaller house that buying more stuff is a lot less appealing. This year for the kids we are following the rhyme ‘something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read’. When there hasn’t been an obvious want or need that jumps out at us, we have chosen to give experiences. My preference is actually to give one big gift rather than many small ones, but since that’s not how the rest of my family feels I just apply this to myself and ask for one awesome thing for me :)

    My older three kids have presents from their Mum and her family as well, so even if we only get them a few things, by the time they’ve been to both families on Christmas day they get a plethora of gifts no matter how minimal we go! Thankfully our extended family are either highly consultative, or minimal when it comes to giving gifts. Many families on my husband’s side give goats/wells/chickens from the Very Useful Gifts catalogue, which I think is a fantastic idea.

    • says

      I have never heard of that rhyme, but I have now adopted it to use from this point forward. I love it! I also love the idea of very useful gifts. I’m trying to find one for the US, perhaps literacy related.

      • Bekki says

        I noticed this comment when reading your recent post. World Vision has a small section for children in the USA. There are three options, school supplies, clothing, or food. Then there is Dolly Parton’s Literacy foundation which gives children books. Perhaps these suggestions will be helpful. Our family always chooses gifts from the World Vision Catalog on Christmas Eve from the money we have saved in a jar during the year. My children love this part of Christmas as they are actively participating all year long. They always have a goal of one of the more expensive options as they donate their money. As for presents I try not to worry to much about it, we are careful in what we get them and there is no family member that gives excessively. Which is such a blessing as I read about so many families that have this issue. I try to get things that build upon one another which helps keep down the clutter. The girls have dolls and Lego’s and the boys have Lego’s or army surplus and of course they all get a new book. Many times many of the gifts are useful but it depends on the year. this year they are all getting lunch boxes and thermoses. :) We have yet to have forgotten toys in this house, although many get played with more in the winter than when we are outside in the summer months. I love Christmas it truly is the most wonderful time of the year! Now I am off to decorate the tree with my children and try not to move the ornaments around from where they place them even if they are all in a row. :)

    • Amy says

      Capitalism isn’t evil. As consumers we just want to purchase more thoughtfully or intentionally, as we’ve learn to embrace the William Morris quote.:)

        • says

          I agree.

          Amy, do you find that most consumers what to be more thoughtful and intentional? I don’t, unfortunately. The ones who read this blog do, but that goes without saying. I think we are all on a common mission in that area.

  2. says

    I loved reading this. We are very likeminded. Maybe it’s because my boys are too young to know that they can ask for things for Christmas, but it’s always been easy for us to keep it pretty simple. At least so far.

    We like to focus on experiences, rather than things, around the holidays as well. A Christmas party with friends, a cake with candles for Jesus, family outings. We already have so much stuff.

    • says

      Mikey only started caring (about the wrong things) this Christmas. Nicholas is still in the clueless stage. Hopefully I can steer Mikey back to the right path. Then again, he’s 8. I can’t expect him to be a pious monk all the time. I remember what it’s like to be 8 and want presents.

  3. says

    I recently read something (for better or for worse) where a woman was writing about how her kids asked her why, that if it’s Jesus’ birthday we’re celebrating, are WE getting the gifts and not him? So she asked them what they wanted and they said it was to buy Jesus presents. So they scrapped their own presents and went shopping in various non-profit catalogs buying goats, buying cows, contributing to the building of a well, etc. So I left that feeling like a bit of a jerk (we’ve never thought like that) and also feeling that even if it happened like she said, it was written pretentiously, and then I felt like I jerk again for thinking that.

    Anyhow. I do think it’s a good idea to pare down, especially for those that find themselves distracted from the spiritual element they believe in (and c’mon, it’s easy to get distracted; sort of like the story of Mary and Martha in a way). Still, it’s fun to celebrate the miracle together. We do one gift per person for the family overseas. We do 2-3 smaller gifts for each other. This year we all agreed to lower the budget. This was actually initiated by an adult relative who suddenly got interested in the faith the rest of us share and started asking questions similar to the aforementioned kids. He had a point and now we’re all trying to be more mindful.

      • says

        It was a blog post and I honestly can’t remember by whom, but I think you might be right. It’s much easier for me to be lead to think in a certain direction by somebody who appears sincerely curious as opposed to somebody who writes with too many adjectives and tells me to ‘quietly tap out my email address’ for a something offered on their site. I will say I love the premise of that book, btw, but I could.not. take her writing style. It made me get all cynical, which defeated the purpose. Still, her primary message is akin to a type of prophet’s call in this day & age, but, much like the Israelites and their prophets, I find a lot of sifting had to go on.

  4. says

    We now do “Want, Need, Wear, Read” gifts, plus 1 from Santa (he chooses), and both my kids make each other a gift. None of the above include iPads or motorcycles (and never will). Maybe you could ask your parents to contribute to a trip fund instead of going nuts with presents. I, too, am feeling the commercialism this year. Instead of the usual cookie for Santa, I think we’ll make a birthday cake for Jesus, and leave a piece out for Santa.

  5. says

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I always want to pare down for Christmas, and then I find my list of people to buy for consistently expands. I don’t have kids, but maybe one day I will, and I like the idea of getting one thing they: want, need, wear, and read. Actually, I pretty much just like giving loved ones one thing they want and one thing they need (or even donating to charities on each other’s behalf as a gift), and then spend the rest of my energy in infusing the house with Christmas spirit via music, decor, and yummy food. This year, we plan to release lanterns (like in Tangled) after Christmas Eve dinner. I’m almost looking forward to that part most.

    • says

      Your list will shrink as you have kids, but the price remains the same or goes up. In a similar vein to your lanterns, I was just reading in the Catholic Home about lighting luminarias on Christmas Eve and Christmas day.

  6. says

    The less I do at Christmas, the more I feel it.

    I used to buy my kids way too much stuff (see last week’s WMP link-up), and this year we’re doing the want/need/do/read version of the rhyme (our slight variation). It feels so much better to buy with a purpose other than “fulfill a culturally-imposed obligation.”

    Fewer gifts + more thought = peace in my world.

  7. Kara says

    We celebrated David’s birthday last Saturday with his friends and then discussed the possibility of moving the celebration to his half birthday. Later that night, he got to open his first night of Chanukah present. Socks. After opening 15 different Lego sets earlier I wondered how socks would rate -he looked up and said ” I actually really need these”. On a very small level, he gets it. All of his Chanukah gifts are items of utility. Since we are also celebrating Christmas, three is our magic number. One from Mr. Claus and two from us.

    • says

      My youngest brother is married and in his mid 30s. The gift he looks forward to the most from my mom is underwear. She stopped buying them when he got married (of course). He was actually disappointed and said he missed the tradition. I think she gave him some the following year. :)

  8. Missie says

    I also enjoy seeing all of the presents under the tree. I was thinking of just wrapping empty boxes this year and putting them under it now, to satisfy my need & save my wallet. I loved the going to the mall…the decorations and music playing, Santa. Now I shop online due to ease and less time available in my day. I grew up Catholic and very much with the tradition of Advent and midnight mass. As a family, we are not religious so I do miss the celebration of the season in church. Sounds like I need to change some things around here…

    • says

      I didn’t grow up with much religious tradition, but it is something I want to do for my boys. I don’t want them to grow up missing the point.

  9. Susan G says

    I must be feeling shallow today because all I can think is “Get that kid a motorcycle. Air bag like a hamster wheel? GENIUS!!” :)

    Seriously, though, maybe it’s in the air. I (yes, the Jewish girl) am the one who has always loved decorating for Christmas. I spent hours unpacking and then re-packing decorations this year. We have a tree, but that’s about it besides the girls’ own little trees and village they like to set up. I’ve bought some presents, but the younger one is going to NY with drama club for 5 days in January and we’re paying for that. The older one is moving to DC (sniff sniff) at the same time and I’m going up to decorate and stock the kitchen.

    • says

      I know. I had to laugh when he gave me his reason for the motorcycle I will never buy for him, ever.

      Don’t worry, Jewish girl, because Meredith Gould is a Jewis-born convert to Catholicism. One of the blurbs on the book says:

      Who better than a nice Jewish girl to tell Catholics how to celebrate faith in their home?

  10. Fairfax Avenue says

    I read recently that one reason we give Chanukah gelt (money) is to teach the receiver to give charity to others.

  11. says

    I have friends who have celebrated the 12 days of Christmas for years now.

    How they do it: On some of those days they do Christmassy things, like decorate the tree and make gifts for family members. On a few of those days, they get a small gift from the parents. The rest of the days are used for service to others. So, they sing at the nursing home and stay to visit with the residents on one day, help deliver food to needy folks on another day, they deliver homemade cookies around the neighborhood another day — basically just try to spread the joy of Christmas as much as possible. Then, on Christmas, they get one gift from the parents (usually the one they wanted/anticipated most — within reason) and they have a huge feast with friends.

    I always thought that this sounded like a great thing to do as a family.

  12. Megan says

    We do the want/need/read/wear, although at 8 months and 3 their wants and needs are loosely defined. I’m digging through old baby toys to find something “new” to give my daughter, hopefully something my son doesn’t remember as his.

  13. Gabbie says

    We are not super religious, though my kids do go to Catholic school. We try to focus our decorations on homemade stuff, so a focus on our family. I make a cardboard wreath each year out of the Christmas cards we receive l cut into a uniform shape. I hang them up each year and it makes me smile and think of those who thought of us. Our house is FILLED with kid made snowflakes and a small winter village which is something my grandmother always set up. A Christmas time only set of books (about winter, christmas and Chanukah) comes out and the kid’s are excited to see it every year. Also we observe kwanzaa not formally but we discuss the principals and try to adapt them to our real all-inclusive life, at it’s heart it’s a holiday for charity, family, introspection, community involvement and looking ahead.

  14. says

    Oh Jules, you hit the nail on the head. I am feeling the exact same way as you do right now. I keep trying to make myself get into the spirit but I am having no luck. Christmas has become so much about giving as many ridiculous gifts as possible, that I can’t stand it. I am in the same boat with grandparents. My mother goes totally insane, and literally piles in the presents no matter how much pleading for her to PLEASE STOP BUYING SO MUCH FOR THEM. When I told her that my husband and I had decided to forgoe gifts for eachother this year and spend the money on a special Christmas date together ( the gift of time together is so much better than an Ipad) She lectured me that we really needed to give eachother something to open- it was wrong not to give a actual “gift.” Sigh. What do you do…. I am feeling your pain, and wishing you some good cheer anyways. Even if we both aren’t feeling it.

    • says

      Hi Miranda, as I read your post I thought of Gary Chapman’s ‘5 love languages’. Maybe your mother feels and expresses love through gift-giving and receiving? My mother is the same, and when I met my now husband I couldn’t believe how unimportant gift-giving was to his family. All they wanted was to be together (another love language)! Took me quite a while to figure out that an outing all together is the perfect gift for my parents-in-law. :-)

  15. says

    I explained to the girls that this is Jesus’ birthday that we are celebrating and just like it’s tradition for them to receive gifts on their special day, Jesus is to receive on HIS birthday. The way we can give to Him is by giving to others, worshiping Him on this holiday, not focusing on material things, not being selfish with their desires or time and lastly, not coveting others.
    And of course, as I was saying it, it served as a timely reminder for yours truly.

  16. says

    William Morris Project and simplifying reminded me of the book Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach: …the six threads of abundant living which, woven together, produce a tapestry of contentment that wraps us in inner peace, well-being, happiness, and a sense of security. First there is gratitude. When we do a mental and spiritual inventory of all that we have, we realize we are very rich indeed. Gratitude gives way to simplicity–the desire to clear out, pare down and realize the essentials of what we need to live truly well. Simplicity brings with it order, both internally and externally. A sense of order in our lives brings us us harmony. Harmony provides us with the inner peace we need to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us each day and beauty opens us to joy.
    This book is still in print and recommend it highly.
    Enjoy your simply abundant Christmas.

  17. says

    Ok, so now I’ve been thinking about your post for about two hours and I also thought about something else that helps our family {mainly, me} with all the Christmas commercialism….{because it’s a struggle of mine as well}

    Not going anywhere/everywhere.

    I know that sounds too simple and maybe unattainable. I know that kids need to go to school/activities, but I just avoid stores/shopping/going out a LOT during the holiday. Do online shopping and opt for walks around the neighborhood and family time indoors. It has helped my personal frame of mind stay on what is important. Staying at our house for a few days in a row and not doing “stuff”.

    Ok. That’s it.

  18. Andrea says

    Every year, I run around like a chicken with my head cut off, decorating, cooking, buying gifts, etc. This year, I started my craziness, and then I just stopped. I decided to do fairly minimal (for me) decorations, and make cookies for all the teacher/busdriver gifts instead of spending a fortune on gift cards. I make handmade gifts all year, but then I always think my gift is not enough, so I supplement it with a gift card or another (store-bought) gift. I decided this year, that by supplementing the handmade gift, I was undervaluing my handmade gift. This year, my handmade gifts will stand alone. I think that by doing less, I will actually celebrate more. . . and hopefully, enjoy the miracle of the birth of Jesus.

  19. HeatherL says

    Have you ever read the blog 365less things? Today’s post was about convincing grandparents not to over buy. I think you might enjoy it. I don’t have children but I do have children I buy gifts for. I haven’t started shopping yet. Shopping later actually keeps me from overbuying.

  20. says

    You know I’m not religious, so I come at this from a different perspective but Christmas is still very important and meaningful to me and the last few years we’ve been working hard on figuring out how to best celebrate it.

    I also don’t have kids (why am I even commenting on this particular post, right?!) but we do have D’s 14 year old brother and this year it’s been so sweet to watch him still feel the excitement of Christmas but having started to outgrow the toy craze. We’re trying to focus on family experiences with him this month (my heart just about exploded when I saw a list he’d written of things he wanted to do this month and he’d included making Christmas cookies together) and we’ll probably take him to midnight mass on Christmas Eve (D’s mom is a devout Catholic and we go with her each year). Our goal is to focus on traditions, family and celebrating our blessings.

    As a kid, my very favorite Christmas tradition was about shopping, but for other people. My dad would take me out and we’d pick out toys for the local children’s home and then drop them off together. I think we should do that with Ethan this year, actually. It still focuses on the commercial aspect of Christmas, I guess, but for a kid it’s a great reminder that there are lots of children who have so much less than we do.

    As adults, it’s easier to keep the Christmas shopping really minimal, of course. We usually try to bring up the subject at Thanksgiving so that everyone has enough warning. A lot of our family members aren’t in a position to be shopping right now and none of us really need anything!

    Sorry – I have no idea if I should even be chiming in here. It’s hard to figure out what my place is in the Christmas discussion, because while it’s incredibly important to me, I realize that my non-religious musings are not really helpful for believers!

  21. Rebe says

    My favorite memories of Christmas have always been anything but present related – going to Midnight Mass, sitting in the dark with just the Christmas tree lights on, spending time with family and the Christmas Eve walk around the neighborhood to look at all the luminaries (our neighborhood puts them out every Christmas Eve and with the snow falling it’s simply magical). I hope you are successful in doing this for your boys as well. The presents are fun – but they would be the first thing I’d be willing to stop doing.

    I know as a kid I would take the JCPenny catalog and the LLBean catalog and circle everything – but it was never with the expectation that I would get everything. It was more about just imagining and playing with the possibilities of “what if”. I still do that now just with different catalogs!

    I can’t relate to the spoiling from grandparents – my mom’s parents have always given us 1 gift plus helping to pay for the “big present” like American Girl dolls or the video game system. My dad’s parents have never given us presents but they have 32 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Santa is the one who fills our stockings – so again, not a big emphasis on what Santa will be bringing to our house either. This definitely helped keep the emphasis on family and faith and less on the material aspects. I will be looking into the book you mentioned though – it seems like a worthwhile endeavor and might be a future Christmas present!

  22. Kendra says

    Apart from what my mom got them (which isn’t a ton), the girls are each getting 2 toys and the rest are practical things. Well, if you consider bed tents practical. I do. 😉

    New bedding, alarm clocks (Hello Kitty of course), sleeping bags for camping, new slippers and clothes. Even little sewing machines. Lord help me. I can’t sew. But I might be able to after Christmas.

  23. says

    One year when I was eleven or twelve my parents gave my sisters and me things that we already owned but had forgotten about. My mum had been bugging us for some time to clean our rooms, threatening to do it for us — and woe betide us for anything we wanted she felt we weren’t using! And then . . . most of that stuff turned up, nicely wrapped, under the tree. I have no idea if we actually got anything new that year (probably, but it wasn’t much as we didn’t have much money that year). I distinctly remember unwrapping a polished rock, recognizing it, and being utterly delighted to have it back. Then it became a game to figure out what we’d ‘lost’ and would find . . .

    Thanks for the reminder up above in the comments about not undervaluing handmade gifts. I’m trying to do one handmade and a couple small bought gifts this year, and I was worried that my handmade ones were the ‘big’ presents — but the time and love going into them is what’s important.

  24. says

    I grew up with a ton of presents being given and it became…oppressive. It wasn’t fun, it was like some kind of endurance event to get through them all.

    So now my husband I keep a tight rein on the amount of stuff and I’ve been able to make my mom see that one thing, 2 at the most, is more than plenty.

    Where I don’t feel the need to scale back is on the deco holiday cheer. We have such fun doing all the holiday decorating, here there and everywhere! My daughter likes to make ornaments from string and feathers taped together, and when you throw it on a tree, it looks amazing!

  25. Beverly says

    I loved reading this post and all the comments and nice to know I’m not alone. My boys are older (15 and 20) but I told them this year they were not getting presents. The 15 year old didn’t much care (within reason he gets whatever he asks for all year round) but the 20 year old was upset. I think more because there would be no presents under the tree to unwrap, not that he wanted or needed anything. I want to get back to what the holidays really mean to me – spending time with friends and family – not spending money I don’t have because it’s expected of me.

  26. Jennifer says

    Funny that I’m feeling the same way this year (minus the Catholic part). I only want to buy things that the kids need or want AND will use. No more toys that get played with once on their way to the good will. The hard part is actually finding gifts that fall into that category.

  27. says

    I needed to read this. Today. Right this minute. Because I am stressing over my 4-year-old’s wants this Christmas (they are out of control). I also want her to understand that Mommy and Daddy give her special gifts at Christmas too. But it’s all just becoming too much. Your post helped me step back and breathe. I especially like the three-gifts-from-Santa idea. Thank you.

  28. says

    Great, great post! My husband and I wanted to buy a real tree today, but it rained. Yeah, very bad… :-) Well, after reading your post, I decided to take our old fake tree out of the attic and set it up tonight. Less money spent and a great William Morris-opportunity: I can look how the tree and the ornaments are holding up the coming weeks and everything I can’t or won’t use any longer, will get donated or thrown away.
    Oh, and I bought the book for my Kindle.

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