I was sitting in a restaurant enjoying lunch when I heard a woman and her friend discussing Christmas. Overhearing that conversation changed my whole perspective on Christmas.
“I don’t allow my children to give me a list of what they want for Christmas. Gifts are determined by the giver. I’m not their personal shopper. So I make a point to stay tuned to their likes and dislikes, and I choose what they get for Christmas.”
I know that may sound hard-nosed, but it struck a chord in my soul. I love giving gifts—and wrapping them. I’ve considered hiring myself out during my retirement for the Christmas season at a department store so I can wrap to my heart’s content.
In spite of that, Christmas for me began to feel more like an “exchange of merchandise” rather than a time of true, sincere, gift giving. The time came when one of my gift recipients looked at me and said, “Wrong size,” then expected me to return it to get the right size. That was when I realized that I was tired of the personal shopper business.
Of course it’s fine to want your children to give you a wish list! But a wish list is not a “demand list.” I’ve seen too many children throw temper tantrums because their parents did not get the correct size, shape, or color of their cherished desire. And many parents feel obligated to go into debt to fulfill these wishes. Christmas 2017 was memorable for many people, but for more than 40 percent of Americans it was memorable because they went into debt for $1,054.1 This is certainly not what the spirit of Christmas is all about.
People around the world have observed Christmas with religious and secular traditions for two millennia. Christians celebrate Christmas as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus, even though many of us are aware that He wasn’t born on that day. Even before the time of Christ, Europeans celebrated the winter solstice of December 21 as marking the passing of the worst of the winter. In Germany people honored the pagan god Odin, who they believed flew through the sky and decided who of his people would perish or prosper. Sound familiar? Around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. Members of the Roman upper class celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25, as the most sacred day of the year.2
After being reminded of this piece of history, you may be asking yourself, Why in the world are Christians celebrating a pagan holiday? You’re not alone. In 1645, when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England, they canceled Christmas. And from 1659 to 1681 the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston.3 However, in the early nineteenth century, during a time of societal conflict and turmoil in America, Christmas was reinvented. Americans changed it from a decadent and raucous holiday to a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia. In June 1870 Christmas was declared a Federal holiday in the United States.
In the 1880s Ellen White wrote an article about the observance of Christmas.4 While she cites her cautions and concerns, she also shares her strong belief that the celebration of Christmas can be beneficial for Christians, and that we do not have to cancel Christmas. The Christmas spirit can serve very good purposes—especially for youth: “Youth cannot be made as sedate and grave as old age, the child as sober as the sire. While sinful amusements are condemned, as they should be, let parents, teachers, and guardians of youth provide in their stead innocent pleasures, which shall not taint or corrupt the morals. Do not bind down the young to rigid rules and restraints that will lead them to feel themselves oppressed and to break over and rush into paths of folly and destruction.”5
Ellen White took the position that placing an evergreen in a church could be a blessing, in spite of those whose minds may not receive the blessing or who would turn their minds to other things. It could be a place where small offerings are to be placed to benefit God’s work: “[God’s] cause cannot go forward without your aid. Let the gifts you have usually bestowed upon one another be placed in the Lord’s treasury. . . . In every church let your smaller offerings be placed upon your Christmas tree. Let the precious emblem, ‘evergreen,’ suggest the holy work of God and His beneficence to us; and the loving heart-work will be to save other souls who are in darkness. Let your works be in accordance with your faith.”6
While our primary focus during this holiday time should be to remember Christ and His gift to us, sharing with others can be a joyous time: “While urging upon all the duty of first bringing their offerings to God, I would not wholly condemn the practice of making Christmas and New Year’s gifts to our friends. It is right to bestow upon one another tokens of love and remembrance if we do not in this forget God, our best friend. We should make our gifts such as will prove a real benefit to the receiver.”7
Christmas can and should be a time of joyful celebration. The challenge is not to get caught up in the commercialism and materialism that has taken over the holiday in our society. It’s a perfect time to practice faithful stewardship with our time, abilities, and possessions, and to model it to our children.
So what can we do to make Christmas “the most wonderful time of the year”? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Create special holiday traditions.I don’t remember all the gifts I’ve received over the years, but I remember the times I spent with family and friends caroling to the firefighters at the local firehouse, singing with our friends at our annual Christmas party, anticipating my mother-in-law’s delicious Christmas dinners. What special memories can you make with your family?
2. Have a Plan. Your first plan is a budget. Stick to it. Last Christmas the majority of Americans didn’t stick to their budgets, with 74 percent saying they underestimated costs. A budget form (www.nadstewardship.org/site/1/docs/monthlybudget.pdf), and a master gift list (christmas.organizedhome.com/printable/christmas-planner/master-gift-list) can go a long way toward helping you this time around. Whether it’s finances or food, a plan helps keep the wallet and the waist in check! (Trust me: I know the experience.)
3. Save. If you start right after Christmas and save $1 a day (more, if you’d like), you will have a great head start on the upcoming holiday season with very little impact on your budget. You can also open a savings account specifically for the holidays and contribute to it year-round. And if you decided to go through your closets and sell the stuff you no longer need (you’d be surprised what you’ll find in those jacket pockets!), you can put that into your holiday account as well.
4. Ditch Santa Lists. Even if you don’t scrap the list altogether, rethink how to rein it in (pun intended). One couple I know allows their children to give them a list for two special items. Then they may give them smaller “practical” gifts, but they also use the extra money to sponsor a needy family in their area. Their kids love it! My husband and I use the extra money from paring down to sponsor children through Adventist Child India.8
5. Use cash. Research tells us that people spend 18 percent more using credit cards than cash. While credit cards have some benefits, if you know you have a difficult time staying within a budget for the holidays, it’s best to use cash. For major purchases, cash can also be a motivator for the retailer to give you a better deal.
God calls us to be faithful stewards because it is where we find true freedom from the things of the world. And it helps to keep joy in our hearts and money in the bank so that our giving can reflect the heart of the Ultimate Giver.
Bonita Joyner Shields is director of stewardship ministries for the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.