Expanding the Mystery of Christmas

A month ago we wrote in the Potty Post about how my family several years ago stopped putting tags on presents. To explain for those not on the mailing list for the Post, a few years ago we started getting worried about the tendency of our children – a tendency multipied manyfold by television – to concentrate all their energy on what they were going to get for Christmas from Santa Claus and their parents. We have a large family and knew that we’d be having more children than we had then, and we determined that we had to come up with some way for Christmas not to degenerate into a huge festival of greed.

What we came up with was an expansion on an idea my father had when I was a kid. Presents began to show up under the tree, wrapped in newsprint, with no names on them. When one of those presents was passed out to the family (my brother was always the passer), we would all stop and look to see what it was, and see if we might want it. It was pretty much always a book, but in my family that was a prized gift. If you wanted it, you spoke up, and there was a discussion, then someone ended up with the gift. Those presents were somehow different than the others. There was less chaos when those were being opened, and they were always surprises. So we thought, why not do that for all the gifts?

We tried it. The first year was very difficult. It was even hard for the kids to imagine how it would work – what do you mean, I can’t put “From: Alexander To: Crispin”on the present? – but after a while it became clear that some important things were happening.

Right away, we discovered that we had to think much, much harder about what we wanted to give to others than we had before. Without the luxury of tagging the presents, the gifts had to tag themselves, that is, we had to give something so special and unique to the recipient that no matter who opened the gift, the recipient would know that it was for him, and – and this is the really hard part – he would also know who the gift was from. If that sounds impossible, don’t worry. We thought so, too.

We also saw that our Christmas preparations began much earlier, because unique gifts have to be purchased (or more often, made) when the opportunity strikes, even if that’s in July. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that Christmas Day itself started increasing in importance to the family, and becoming more and more special of a time. I’m not talking about the always-breathless stampede down the stairs to see what Santa brought (and yes, Santa still comes), but the part afterward, where we sit together and open our gifts. Now, instead of everyone grabbing his presents and opening them as fast as he can, the presents are opened one at a time, in some sort of rotation, and everyone watches to see what the gift is. You have to. What if it’s for you? And Christmas morning started lasting until the early afternoon.

The gifts themselves also mean more, naturally, since they are worried over and thought about for months. This means the people that get those gifts also mean more. We love what we serve, and we love more what we work for. More love was being poured into the gifts. Once, we had no money for gifts at all. This made practically no difference. The kids made gifts for each other and for us, and that Christmas remains one of the most memorable of our family’s history. The selfishness almost vanished. Instead of long lists of stuff the kids wanted, we had long conversations with each child about his siblings, and what they might like to receive. Instead of “I can’t wait to open my presents”, we heard “I can’t wait until you open my gift to you!”

Last year, we went to a Christmas expo/festival kind of thing, and as we walked in, each of our children was handed a “Christmas list”, with twenty or so blanks for writing in what they wanted for Christmas. On the reverse side was a list of what needed to be given to others. There were maybe four blanks. One of our children took this list, looked at it, and said “I’m supposed to want four times as much stuff as I’m giving to other people? What a waste of time,” and threw the list in the trash.

It takes more of our time, and we have to be very involved as parents in what our children are giving to each other. It takes more time, sometimes a lot more time. We now have a Birthday Party for Jesus on Christmas Eve, which is an older tradition, but now we also have a family reading of the Christmas story from Luke 2 on our bed on Christmas morning – a tradition started by the kids themselves. Really. They came into our room and started reading the scriptures before they went downstairs to see their presents. We take all day opening presents. Last year, when Christmas was on a Sunday, rather than interrupt the gift-giving to each other to go to church, the kids decided to have that part of Christmas the next day, making Christmas a two-day event. It was one of the most amazing and magical Christmases imaginable.

It’s possible that this wouldn’t work for your family, and that we just have the sort of people it works well for. But if you could do one thing that would boost the Christmas spirit, the spirit of giving, by five or six times, wouldn’t you do it? That’s why we started. For us, it worked.

One Response to “Expanding the Mystery of Christmas”

  • Dana says:

    Just wanted to say I love that idea. We are always looking for ways to increase the spirit of Christmas. Our children may be a little young still for it but we may do that as they get a little older.

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