By Chris Thompson : Edited by Marina Rojas
The loss of the birth of Jesus is the obvious missing element from The American Christmas these days; but that is just the beginning of a vast array of problems with the way we give during the holiday season.
“Me First” has become the self absorbed mantra overtaking the true meaning of Christmas, and the illness of “Taking Care of #1” has infected other family focused holidays along the journey. Thanksgiving, for example, has been distorted from a simple remembrance of gratefulness and crossing cultural barriers of the first celebration among Pilgrims and Native Americans to a day fighting with others at the local Wal-Mart for a 48″ HDTV for the special price of $99.
Like it or not, The American Christmas has spawned a reoccurring demon of consumer debt in so many lives because of the financial obligations incurred as we follow the unspoken but ever so present “Gifting Rules” of the holidays. Sometimes we give because we feel that we have to produce a gift to offer someone, and not because we want to give something special from our hearts. We somehow feel motivated to give bigger and better every year and all the while our children expect bigger and better each year, not only expecting but even demanding more and more self-centered extravagance.
Going back to the original reason for the season, Jesus Christ came to this earth to give and not receive, and at no point did He give out of obligation. He didn’t have to feed 5000 people, and he certainly didn’t have to heal a blind man. He could have kept His miracles to Himself. But He gave willingly out of compassion and love for people, and didn’t once consider that the Black Friday sale on a Keurig at Macy’s was a deal too good to pass up.
We have a lot of reasons to give, and here are (what I consider to be the) top 9 problems plaguing The American Christmas. If, as a society, we would decide to fight against the “Me First” giving epidemic, we may find a pleasant return to an enjoyable holiday with family, friends, while honoring the greatest gift from a little boy who came to save the world.
Face it, a 3-year-old has no clue of the value of any of the gifts under the tree. For some reason parents and grandparents nationwide have an idea engrained in their head that because you bought a 10-year-old a $50 art kit, you must spend $50 on the younger child. Giving shouldn’t be about value.
What starts to happen in this situation is that the most expensive gift on your list becomes the benchmark for all the other kids or grandkids. The difference in price between the $50 art kit and the $25 talking doll, now turns into a waste of $25 on “filler gifts” that the giver spends out of obligation, and the recipient may not even want. Why? All because of the idea that we have to spend the same.
The lesson to teach: There are very few people or children who look around the room and add up the value of everyone’s gifts. If an adult is running up their own personal checkout list for price tags, then perhaps a late lesson in life needs to be taught the hard way. If it’s a child, a lesson in thankfulness and gratitude is shining brightly in the face of a parent and is a great time to be addressed. Teach this lesson now, and re-enforce the lesson throughout the year in preparation for next Christmas.
2) Buying Gifts for your own Recognition (Bragging)
Before you go out and buy the super cool gaming system for your kids or grand kids because it’s the best thing on the market, it might be a good idea to step back first. Are you buying simply to satisfy your own ego? Are you buying a gift so to receive a satisfying sense of pride and gratitude on Christmas morning? If you are gifting to kids, why did the giving just become all about you? Showing up at the family gathering to show off your superior spending power can flex your superiority complex, but may be harmful to others by making them feel inadequate.
As the family drives home after the holidays, there should be positive thoughts and warm feelings of time with others. The last conversation anyone wants to overhear is grumbling about overspending on gifts because of trying to “keep up with the Jones” or that Uncle Tom gave all the grand kids a gold coin worth $880 each that was found in a 1500’s shipwreck off the coast of Florida while he was scuba-diving with Hollywood celebrities while on his 4th vacation this year.
The lesson to teach: This one is mostly for parents and grandparents. It’s not about you. Don’t let your gifting become the talk of the family. If you are giving to gain recognition or be showered with praise, there may be a problem with your reasons for gifting in the first place.
3) Buying to reach “The Same amount of Gifts”
Again, much like point number one, it’s not about a number. It is okay for little Emily to have four gifts and Johnny to have three. These gifts are not to be equated to the amount of love given to the recipient, but there may be a reason for the difference. Of course this is all within reason. A difference of 18 gifts to four may be a showing of impartiality toward one or the other.
I have seen kids shove “filler gifts” in their closet and bring them out for the spring yard sale. The amount is not the matter. One simple question to your kids or grand kids asking for the “one special thing” they really want, or putting some thought into the individuality of your recipient must be in order before you head out to Big Lots to grab just “a few more things” just to make the gift numbers even. Instead of a last minute box of playing cards, why not a plant that you and little Timmy can grow together.
The lesson to teach: Again, if there is someone counting, the problem isn’t with the numbers, it’s with the counter. This is an area for a lesson about love, giving, receiving, gratitude and thankfulness.
We consider the most selfish children in America as those who connect love to the greatness of the gift. Remember that a child learns what he or she is taught by their family of origin, and if a child displays this type of behavior towards gift giving, then it is obvious that somewhere along the way there is a lack of responsible parenting. That is the real issue.
In reality, gifts are not designed to show, in financial value, how much we love our kids. Who could measure the product of $300 worth of love anyway?
The lesson to teach: Correct gifting can be done with one well thought out gift, if it is the right gift. And at no point should the amount of money, come into the equation (except if the gift is out of budget).
5) Ditching the “I have to buy better than I did last year” mentality.
Who says that your gifts have to escalate in value as your kids get older? They don’t.
I actually heard a conversation the other day where a woman in the workplace was discussing Christmas in a hateful tone. The woman who was spewing the negativity of Christmas made evident that it was all due to the expectations of her only child. She had, in years past, began to buy the most popular, most expensive, most “my kid needs to have this” style gifts that could be found in her area. And each year the problem escalates into ‘what to get next that will beat what I did last year.’ She is stuck with each new Christmas season when she has no clue what the hottest thing on the market is going to be. Her thought process for buying has nothing to do with a gift to her son from her heart, but only rather to make sure her son has the most sophisticated game system so that his precious mind will be able to be molded into mush while he plays with his friends and shows off his new status as gamer of the year.
The lesson to teach: If you got your little girl a stuffed pony last year, does she really need a Black Stallion this year?
6) Spending more than you can afford
Why? The first step in Christmas spending must be to make a budget. If a request of a Christmas list item is outside the budget, then it stays on the list. Remember, kids make lists from their wild imaginations and the prompting of television commercials. Most children have no clue of the true financial value of the gifts they request. If they equate your love to the size of your gift, it may be time to look at the lesson in point number 4.
The lesson to teach: This one is mostly for parents and grandparents. In this tight economy, your family should understand that the household works under the restraints of a carefully planned budget. None of the kids or grandkids should have any problems showing up at your house knowing that there is plenty of love to go around, even if the gifts are few. For those who may have a problem with the shortage of gifts, this is a great opportunity to teach that your love is unconditional but your budget is conditional. That’s more powerful than any Ninja Turtle game set (which may be shoved in the to box until Spring Cleaning).
7) The idea that all gifts need to be New
Recently, at my 3-year-old’s birthday party, after he opened over ten gifts, the one he ran around with the most was a small gift that had been re-gifted to him. It was actually a used toy, but it made him so happy. Two years ago I bought my sister a figurine for 50 cents at the Salvation Army. I’m not afraid to tell her what I paid, because it’s not the price that counts.
The lesson to teach: Understanding that a new gift being purchased from a nonprofit you are supporting may not be the latest and greatest big thing, but the family should know that it’s not the price tag that counts. Personally, I would be thrilled if someone could gift to me an original Nintendo with Excite-bike and Pitfall games. If the right gift is not in a new box, it is still the right gift.
8) Giving out of obligation
With so many people in our extended families today, not counting the coworkers, friends at church, and neighbors, it could become overwhelming when we make a list of those who we would like to gift at Christmas time. Again, this is where budgeting comes in and where it is instrumental in how the gifts can be provided to those on your list. If you can afford to give a gift to the grandkids, maybe the children, one special person at work, one special person the church, and maybe a neighbor, that may be all you can afford. Stick to your plans and don’t be swayed by holiday gift giving guilt.
The lesson to teach: We all have experienced the situation when somebody at work brings us an unexpected gift, and we feel guilty that we had not planned on returning the favor. The lesson here, however, is that it is okay to receive even when you are not the giver. Whoever it was who spent last night wrapping candies in the cellophane and making ribbon pretty for a homemade gift of baked goods, did it with you in mind. As a graceful receiver of the gift, there is nothing that states that you must run and bake cookies to return the favor. Simply say thank you and understand now how important you are to this person. It might be a good time to write them onto your Christmas lives for next year for such a wonderful friendship that you will build over the next 12 months, and make sure you write a special thank you for their thoughtful offering.
For children from broken homes, the world of having your mom and your dad bouncing you around, and living what seems like two separate lives and lifestyles can be grueling. As a child, it’s not your fault even though it might feel like it is. Know that, most often, the separation of two adults and their inability to achieve their number one goal as a parent, is primarily due to their own selfishness. That alone leads to a huge Christmas problem.
The lesson to teach: Last year mom bought Junior an iPad. Now it’s Dads turn to out give mom. Dad feels that his gift needs to be better than an iPad. What happens in this case is that neither the child or the iPad are the real center of what should be the healthy aspect of gift giving. The focus has now changed to “who is going to spend more money on the child,” and who is going to buy a larger gift in an effort to buy the child’s love. And many times the parent(s) that fall into this trap will find themselves with many months of paying off large amounts of Christmas debt.
Chris Thompson is the Publisher and Managing Editor of Life in HIs Hands Christian Newspaper in Southern California.