Christmas–without presents? (almost)

I love the idea of giving gifts on Christmas.  I love the idea that there is a day reserved in the year where we think about others and get presents for them.  The look on small children’s faces as they receive a wonderful toy and give a great, big, grateful hug to the thoughtful person that gave them the gift.   This describes a part of my Christmas gift giving experience, but there is also a dark, underbelly of Christmas gift giving.

The worst part of Christmas gift-giving, in my opinion, is when we haul out the re-gift basket and do the final checking off of the gift list. The re-gift basket is full of wallets, colognes, belts, scarves, trinkets, and anything with a company logo that was picked up at a conference.  For those that are better people than us and don’t know what a re-gift basket is, it is a basket full of gifts we have received, but have found no use for, so we stow it away, then give it away to those on our Christmas list where we feel obligated to give a gift.  The re-gift basket is the symbol of all that I despise about the feeling of obligation to give gifts at Christmas.  I don’t know when the re-gift basket came to be, but one day it came into our lives and I’ve grown to accept it over the years as we needed last minute little-somethings to finalize our Christmas list. Probably, the same way humane society people grow accustomed to “taking care” of unwanted pets.  It’s ugly, but practical.

I remember there was a time long, loooonnnnng ago (probably in my teens), where I didn’t really make a Christmas list. I just bought a few things for a few people that I really wanted to get a gift for – some immediate family members and a few close friends. I remember walking around the mall and it was fun. I anticipated the excitement on their face when they opened my gift. Finding and giving gifts was a joy. But, somewhere along the way, it slowly took on the shade of a chore.   Nowadays, sometime in the 1st and 2nd week of December, I have a list given to me by my wife, and I browse through Amazon, mindlessly adding things into my virtual shopping cart. I click on “Place Order”, then I give my list back to my wife and something magical happens and everyone gets the gifts they are supposed to.   Merry Christmas, everyone.

After last Christmas (in 2013), I just didn’t want to do it anymore. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t meaningful. I wasn’t sure why I had to do this chore. I wrote myself a little manifesto that from now on, I want to make Christmas more awesome. So, this year, I spent the fall convincing my wife and children that we should try to do something different than presents. Something more awesome. I don’t know what that was, but I bet we could figure something out. I was willing to budget multiple times the gift budget to make sure that whatever we did this year, it was going to be better than presents. To be truthful, there were some other issues at play, too.   Our family participates in the secular Christmas (gift giving), but only as a means to celebrate the Spiritual Christmas.   We believe that Christmas is primarily a celebration of Christ’s birth.  Whether or not He was born on December 25th, it is a day to remember God’s greatest gift to us, his children. In theory, our family gives gifts in remembrance of this Great gift given to us.   We’ve tried our best to teach our children that Christmas is a time for giving.   More specifically, we should not celebrate Christ’s birth by making big lists of things that we want for ourselves. Although, we’ve tried to emphasize this message in our family, ultimately the allure of shiny, new toys is difficult to ignore. I wish I was just talking about the kids. My wife and I have often found ourselves talking about the “great deals” over the Holidays and the things we could get for ourselves. Thank you, Heavenly Father, for your Only Begotten. We’d also like a bigger monitor and a fit bit while it’s on sale. 

Considering all of this, we decided as a family this year – no gifts. That’s right.  Christmas without gifts.  Gifts will not be a distraction to us this year. We’re going to do something different. Caleb was 100% on board from the first time I proposed the idea. Andrew and Tenille have acquiesced reluctantly. We told all of our other family members and friends with whom we normally exchange gifts. This year – no gifts.

At first, we struggled as a family as we asked, “What are we going to do for Christmas, then?” I had proposed a movie, or a book, or a lego animation activity. These activities met a luke warm reception. In the end, after several discussions, we decided on the following:

1. Go to a sheep farm. Take shepherd/nativity pictures with sheep. When I asked the owners of Black Sheep Creamery if we could do this, she explained that this was not that unusual. As a thank you, we ended up buying $40 worth of sheep cheese. Totally worth it. I made a movie out of these pictures and we’ll have a screening on Christmas Day.


Shepherds 2014-11-16 004 - CopyIMG_7285


2. Wrap a gift at the beginning of December with something we will do to change ourselves to be closer to Christ. We will open this gift on Christmas Day and let the rest of the family know what we’ve been working on. 

3. On Christmas Day, we’ll make a list of Service Projects we’d like to do for the year. As the year goes on, we’ll check them off as we do each one. In years past, we’ve looked for service projects to do in December. The response has been that they have more than enough volunteers in December… Then they would ask if we could come back in March…. Apparently, everyone wants to do service in November/December. So, we’ll just make the commitment in December and execute throughout the year.

4. For our friends and family, we are going to write personal letters in lieu of gifts.

Now, we haven’t completely barred ourselves from gifts. We are keeping some of our favorite family traditions.

1. We are writing poems for each other on Christmas Day.

2. We are giving each other Christmas Tree Ornaments that have some significance from the past year.

3. We are giving modest gifts in the Christmas stocking.   (Candy bars, notes, card games, etc)

Last but not least, Koreans have a tradition of bowing to elders at the first of the year. There is a reward for participating children.  They receive envelopes of money as part of the tradition.  They also receive wise counsel from their elders, but who are we kidding, no one bows for the advice.  To try and ease them into this idea of a giftless Christmas, the deal for Andrew and Caleb (and Tenille) is that they can just go get whatever they want with their bowing money in the new year.  Just check out what their friends received, and get exactly what they want at an after-Christmas sale (or on ebay). From an economic perspective – there’s really no down-side. From the perspective of upkeeping tradition and fitting in with rest of society, we’re complete weirdos.   But, it’s not like we were round pegs to start with, so I don’t think we’re losing much.

As a family, we’ve been talking throughout December about how we’re feeling. I’ve LOVED this Christmas season, but the feeling isn’t universal. Tenille still feels like there’s something missing, but it’s not necessarily the gifting. Andrew is not so subtle about his opinion on presents. In the Christmas stocking gifts, Andrew wrote me a note. Here’s an excerpt:

Happy Merry Christmas, daddy!

Are we going to do Presents next year?

I love you.

I love presents.

Happy Christmas.

To Daddy

From Andrew


So, I would classify him as struggling on the gifts front. But, I’d like to wait for the results of the final family satisfaction survey in January before making conclusions about this initiative.

For me, I’m just happy that I haven’t had to look at that ugly re-gift basket.  I’ve also learned something about gifts. Gifts are easy. It’s easy to flip through Amazon and checking off a gift list. Thinking of other meaningful activities is hard. My wife often asks me, “But, can’t we do both.” Probably…. But once Christmas shopping enters the mix, it’s difficult to give equal time and emphasis to other, perhaps more meaningful activities. Removing gifts from Christmas Day has forced our family to struggle and figure out exactly how we want to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas.  I also think we’ll have a lot more stories that start with “Remember that Christmas when… “ 

I suppose here’s the irony. Last week as I was walking through the mall, I felt something I haven’t felt in a long time.   I felt a longing to give gifts again.  I felt the spirit of giving again.  Giving gifts is a wonderful thing to do.  Going into next year, our family will just have to decide if giving presents is what we want to do as part of Christmas or keep working on Christmas as a special tradition where we give of ourselves rather than things.

I’ll just end the post with a quote from President Monson (President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) from the 2013 Christmas Devotional that got me thinking about the true meaning of Christmas last year and prompted me to write my modest manifesto:

Our celebration of Christmas should be a reflection of the love and selflessness taught by the Savior. Giving, not getting, brings to full bloom the Christmas spirit. We feel more kindly one to another. We reach out in love to help those less fortunate. Our hearts are softened. Enemies are forgiven, friends remembered, and God obeyed. The spirit of Christmas illuminates the picture window of the soul, and we look out upon the world’s busy life and become more interested in people than in things. To catch the real meaning of the spirit of Christmas, we need only drop the last syllable, and it becomes the Spirit of Christ.

May we give as the Savior gave. To give of oneself is a holy gift. We give as a remembrance of all the Savior has given. May we also give gifts that have eternal value, along with our gifts that eventually break or are forgotten. How much better the world would be if we all gave gifts of understanding and compassion, of service and friendship, of kindness and gentleness.


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