My inbox is backed up, so I’ve been using Mondays to respond to readers’ questions. This week, my Mailbag Monday column deals with large family gift giving. Keep reading to see how our family handles this important tradition at Christmas time.
What do you all do for presents with such a large family for Christmas? I find that I love giving gifts and want to encourage my kids to give, as well. But sometimes it becomes a burden. I thought you might be able to shed insight.
When people count our kids, they assume Christmases at our house must be crazy and chaotic. They envision gifts stacked to the ceiling all around our tree. Wish lists as long as our arms.
They might be disappointed (or maybe relieved!) to see how small scale our gift giving really is.
What We Do: A Christmas Stocking + One Gift
I feel the same way you do about wanting to encourage giving. But I, too, would get a little overwhelmed coordinating gifts for so many. And having to find homes for all those gifts once the holidays are over? That would compound the stress exponentially. We’ve maxed out our limited storage space, as it is.
That’s why, for well over a decade now, I’ve taken a minimalist approach to family gifting.
How it Works:
I fill a stocking for each child and put a single family gift under the tree that everybody shares. Every stocking is different. I fill each one with small trinkets chosen especially for that child.
The boys might get a T-shirt or a small toy in their stocking, the girls a pair of earrings or a new doll. But most of the contents are consumable: Favorite food items. Gift certificates for a free smoothie or ice cream cone. Band-Aids, Scotch tape. Stationery. Or toiletries that will (eventually) get used up and tossed.
That spares me having to find long-term extra storage space for lots of bulky items — a plus when three kids share one closet.
As for the family gift, some years I choose a new game. Some years a book we can read aloud. Art supplies are always a big hit. A few years back, it was a slack line — an immensely popular gift that still sees lots of action.
Our kids also exchange names for “Secret Santa” gifts. They’ve been doing that for seven or eight years now. That ensures everybody has an individual gift to open under the tree, too.
Additionally, I wrap the same Christmas books we read every year into 25 packages — a literary advent calendar, of sorts. The little ones take turns opening one of those every day throughout the month of December, then we enjoy reading whatever books were in the package together.
This tradition keeps the tree from looking too lonely with only one or two gifts underneath. The younger kids don’t care that they’re opening the same books they opened last year (and the year before and the year before). So it’s a win-win.
Why it works
Several things about our family allow these practices to work well (and make them somewhat necessary):
We don’t see many commercials.
We haven’t had television reception for over twenty years, which means our kids haven’t been constantly bombarded with ads trying to convince them they need the latest and greatest offerings on the toy aisle of the nearest Target or Walmart. That fact alone does wonders for a child’s contentment. We also toss most of the catalogs and circulars that come in the mail before the kids ever see them. The older ones will sometimes spot something they’d like online now, but they also have ways of earning money and usually just save up to buy it themselves.
We replace things as needed.
Part of the reason there were so many gifts around my tree as a child is that my mom was a very savvy shopper and would squirrel things away for Christmas all year long. As Christmas drew near, she’d also take note of any items that my sister and I had worn out or outgrown — socks, underwear, hairbrushes, blue jeans — and wrap up the replacements for us to open Christmas morning, as well.
I loved that and fully intended to do the same thing with my children, only my husband would beat me to the punch every time. When Christmas rolls around, there is seldom anything that needs replacing or updating, because that gets done just as soon as he notices the need.
Same goes for sporting goods and technology and bicycles. Doug is an early adopter, and every day with him is like a holiday. There’s no outdoing that fact at Christmas, so I’ve given up even trying.
Our kids are really creative.
Do you know what happens when kids don’t have a lot of toys and stuff crowding for their attention? They learn to make their own fun.
Most of our children are masters at this, and the fun they find usually doesn’t cost a cent: they’ll rake the leaves into intricate designs then play tag through the maze; they’ll hike through the woods and bring home long poles of bamboo which they’ll use to build a teepee to sleep in; they’ll make amazing works of art out of toilet paper rolls, tin cans, or egg cartons they rescue from the trash (then enter their creations in the fair and win cash premiums for them)!
I know a single gift and a stocking may seem like a scant Christmas celebration to a lot of folks, but it works well for our family. It helps keep our focus OFF what we we’re going to get, and places it more ON what we can do. Not just on Christmas morning, but all month long through service projects, letter writing, bell ringing, carol singing, memory making, party hosting, puzzle working, game playing, and all the other fun things our family does together during this most wonderful time of the year.
Incidentally, if you’re looking for a great way to focus your heart on Christ during this advent season, I’d love for you to check out my new devotional journal, Joy to the World. It will help you do exactly that.