How to Handle Christmas Gift Giving and Receiving

The tradition of giving and receiving gifts at Christmas time is a bit of a double edged sword – lots of good things involved, lots of parenting challenges as well.

Lots of things I don’t want: I DON’T want Christmas gift giving to become the focus. But  also I DON’T want our kids to miss out on a fun tradition that, done in moderation, can teach a lot about the meaning of both giving and receiving. I DON’T want to break the piggy bank and live like a pauper for the rest of the year because all our money went into gifts. I DON’T want to end up with a house full of toys and “stuff” that gets excitedly used for a few hours, starts more than a few fights and ultimately ends up lying around tripping people. I DON’T want our kids to set high expectations, or feel entitled to getting the latest and greatest each year.

Lots of things I do want: I DO want my kids to experience the love behind the gifts they receive from friends and relatives. I DO want my kids to experience the gratitude that comes with receiving things gratuitously. I DO want my kids to learn how to be generous by dedicating some of their time, talent and treasure to making or giving gifts to others. I DO want my kids to remember that the gifts we give and receive are but a shadow of the greatest gift the Lord gives us at Christmas and repeatedly: the gift of himself.

So how can we keep it all in balance and pull out the positive aspect of the Christmas gift giving tradition our culture has come to over emphasize, without ending up with spoiled children and a bunch of unneeded stuff? Here are a few ideas that have helped me and might help you too.1. When friends or relatives ask what they can get for your kids, don’t be afraid of giving alternative gift ideas. If you already have enough toys to open a toy store in your basement, consider asking friends or relatives to give the following instead:

  • Activities, Tickets, Memberships – instead of getting a “thing”, why not get an experience? Family zoo passes, tickets to local theaters, symphonies, sports games, etc. can make timeless memories.
  • Educational supplies – science experiment kits, books related to themes your kids are studying, etc.
  • Hobby supplies – materials for hands-on projects that your kids can spend time doing or skills they can learn (e.g. craft supplies, project kits, sewing lessons, horseback riding lessons, etc.)
  • Coupons/Pledges – these can be saved and used during a certain time period. Coupons can be personalized based on the age and interests of the recipient, and can also include fun ways of spending time together (examples of coupons could be breakfast in bed, favorite dinner, movie night, etc.)

2. Invite different people who want to give your kids gifts to chip in for something really special. This way, instead of getting 20 little gifts, your child(ren) might get one or two significant gifts that will get a lot of use (musical instrument, backyard playground, laptop, etc.).

3. Get your kids what they’ll need for the coming year (clothes, school supplies, etc.). There’s no need to get something superfluous for Christmas and then turn around to get your kids a bunch of “regular” stuff in a month or two.

4. Set budget and stick to it. Work backwards. Determine how much you plan on spending per child, look at your options (e.g. one larger gift, a few smaller gifts…). See something else you would LOVE to get your child right after you’ve just finished what you intended to spend? Put it on your wish-list for their birthday or another occasion – it’ll come around soon enough and, chances are, if the gift is really worthwhile, it’ll still be worthwhile in a few months.

5. Get your kids a meaningful religious gift. Sometimes it seems like religious gifts “don’t count” any more in our society – a gift is only worth something if DOES something new and glamorous. And so, we’re always seeking to outdo the former Christmas, as though spending more money and getting this year’s device/toy/you-name-it really will do the trick of satisfying our kids for life. Don’t hold your breath. Unfortunately, we human beings have a predictable habit: the more we have, the more we want. So let’s see how this rule can be applied beneficially. Introduce your kids to the saints. Chances are, after getting to know a few saints, they’ll want to know more. Give your kids a bible or other book and read a bit with them. They might come back for more. Get your child an age-appropriate gift that will help them understand their faith better (a book about the Mass, or sacraments, etc.), or a religious image that will somehow remind them of God’s closeness. These gifts also directly tie in to the meaning of Christmas, by emphasizing God’s presence in our lives.

6. Consider creative timing of gift giving. We usually open gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. It has never seemed to “take away” from focusing on the deeper meaning of the day. That being said, if you prefer not opening gifts on Christmas itself, think about opening then at other meaningful times. You might, for example, give your kids some of their gifts on the feast of St. Nicholas, and discuss the connection between St. Nicholas’ generosity to people in need and today’s gift giving tradition, or give gifts on the feast of the Epiphany, also called “Little Christmas”.

7. Remember: THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH GIVING THINGS AWAY. Do your kids end up with too many things? Or things you just don’t want them having yet? There’s nothing wrong with passing on things in excess or things that just aren’t right for your family. It doesn’t have to just clutter the house or sit unused; someone else can benefit from your willingness to share – your kids learn about simplicity and not keeping more than they need, and someone else gets something they do need. Win-win.

8. Take these same ideas into account when giving gifts to other people – consider giving gifts that are oriented more toward relationships and experiences than accumulation of “stuff”. Involve your kids in the process of preparing gifts for other people, whether that involves making things or going out looking for things, so they learn different ways of showing appreciation toward others. And remember – you don’t have outdo all the other neighbors or friends – it’s OK if the gifts you give are simple. It’s more about showing people you care about them and helping your kids learn about the spirit of giving than about wowing others with the perfect gift…

Wishing all of you a blessed Advent!