Victoria is a stay-at-home mom, author, educator, and blogger at Healthy at Home. She currently lives in Colorado with her family.
Over the years, it seems as though Christmas has moved from a time to celebrate the birth of Christ, family, and thanks for the blessings you have, to a time of materialism. Everyone seems more focused on presents and what they are going to get from others, than on what they can do for others.
Years ago, when I first met my husband, we had this discussion as our first holiday together came around. The big question came up: Do we buy presents for each other? With so many other people in our lives expecting presents from us and the stress it caused rounding up all of the right presents, it seemed silly to do that to each other. What we really wanted most from each other was quality time, not more stuff.
In My Home
In my own home as a child, presents were a show of how much you loved the other person. If you didn't get just the right gift or didn't buy enough, arguments ensued. As my parents were divorced, they even used Christmas as a time to one-up each other. Who could buy the most and best? But the gifts never meant anything, because there was no relationship behind any of it. As an adult, I even asked them both to stop buying for me. The arbitrary gifts were more of an insult than a present.
In His Home
In my husband's family, presents were always fraught with controversy simply because of the sheer number of people in his family. He is one of 13 children. Who do you buy for? Who gets left out? And it's really obvious when one person gets way more gifts than the others. It simply wasn't feasible to buy something for everyone. At least these last few years, they've instituted Secret Santa where each person is assigned only one other person in the family to buy for.
So we decided early to put the focus on quality time together rather than gifts. When our kids came along, nothing changed. We don't buy birthday gifts or Christmas gifts for each other or our kids. And we do our best to make homemade gifts for friends and family, but our focus remains, what can we do for others?
Instead, we spend time together, come up with fun things to do, and great places to go see. We did many a picnic lunch at the duck pond, long walks or hikes, bike rides, we read books together, curled up on the couch and watches movies, worked in the garden, played card and board games, cooked together, and focused on spoiling each other with our time and attention.
The Benefits of No Presents
When kids are flooded with gifts at Christmas time and for birthdays, this generally teaches them that they deserve to receive nice things on these special days and they come to expect this treatment every year. These times then typically produce kids demanding things, setting high expectations for their parents, and even getting upset when they don't receive what's expected.
Unfortunately, many parents have even turned this into a cruel tool to control their children's behavior, however temporarily, during the months of their birthday and Christmas. Is this really the kind of adult we'd like to produce for a thriving future society? Demanding, unappreciative, and thinking they deserve nice things? I think there are better qualities we can be teaching around the topic of gifts.
Developing Great Characteristics in Our Kids
By instead focusing on others throughout the year, and what we can do to bless others, we teach just the opposite in our kids. We produce individuals trying to make the world a better place. We produce kindness, generosity, positivity, and strength. Presents from others are nice, but the real gift comes from making others happy and making life easier for others.
We focus on the feeling we get from helping other people, the warmth that spreads through your body when someone smiles because of something you said or did, and giving just for giving's sake. No expectations, no fits, and no trying to control one another during the holidays. Just a thoughtful, peaceful, helpful home all year round (most of the time, we do have toddlers).
What Does a No-Gift Christmas Look Like?
So instead of focusing on Santa, the Elf on the Shelf, and what we're going to get, we celebrate the whole season. We had a blast in the fall doing crafts, making yummy fall crafts, and enjoying the snow together outside. We carved pumpkins, we went to the various fall activities in our community, and we cooked tons of pumpkin treats.
After Thanksgiving, we went and cut our own tree from a local National forest, we decorated the inside and outside of our home, and out came all of the winter treat recipes. We have driven through many Christmas lights, visited with family, done crafts, enjoyed all of the holiday activities in the neighborhood, and cut more snowflakes than you can imagine.
We've even started our own tradition each year, Our Giving Tree, where we think of all the wonderful things we can do for others throughout the winter, and put up a beautiful snowflake (that we make together) for every blessing we bestow. We carry this tradition throughout the year whenever we see a need that needs to be filled. These could be simple things like donating gifts to needy children, visiting people in the nursing home or hospital, making cookies or a meal for neighbors, putting anonymous cash in the mailboxes of those we know need it, taking food, water, and blankets to the homeless, volunteering, etc.
But What About Gifts on Christmas Morning?
The gifts we get on Christmas morning are having Daddy home when we wake up, running downstairs to see the snow outside, cooking together and building snowmen while breakfast is in the oven. Our gifts are so much bigger than boxes under the tree. We celebrate the same as everyone else when the gift-giving is over. We celebrate family, the beauty of Christmas, and spending the day together.
Honestly, there never was any expectation of gifts, so we celebrate in other ways. We'll get up and make something delicious, like my Gingerbread Cinnamon Rolls, read Christmas books, maybe watch a Christmas movie, my youngest will nap while my husband and 4-year-old son spend time together (probably playing games), and then we'll probably go see family for Christmas dinner.
Yes, his family will want to buy gifts for the boys even though we've tried to avoid all of that, but we've tried to focus on what we are doing for our family and spending time with them. The gifts will just be a nice, but temporary, time. However, we'll watch as his family opens the things we've made, and we'll let our son show them all of the hard work he put into everything. We'll (hopefully) see the joy on their faces as they open his gifts, and as they eat the cookies we made for them. That's Christmas for us.
How Do You Make the Transition for Your Kids?
Starting young is always the easiest before they get used to receiving gifts under the tree. But what about those that have already come to expect gifts? What a great question! I think, most importantly, a discussion is in order with your children, about your desire to focus on the needs of others, and what you are doing to get involved yourself (donating clothes, making meals).
You could come up with a game plan together of a few things you're going to try this year or next year. You could even try a different gift tradition, like the four gift system, buying one book for each day of the month to open and read together every day, or the Christmas Eve Box with PJs, a movie, and some hot chocolate instead.
Then plan lots of fun activities for the holidays, like seeing Christmas lights, volunteering, visiting family, ice skating, going out for hot chocolate, or whatever you can think of, so they aren't thinking about the gifts. I promise, they'll love the extra time with you even more than any gifts you could give.
So, Your Kids Never Get Any Gifts?
Actually, they receive plenty. We actually have to work hard to keep the gifts toned down. Visiting friends and family buy them new stuff, and they get "gifts" from us all year in the form of books, clothes, a toy or game they like at the thrift store or a garage sale, craft supplies, etc. We never buy anything brand-new though. All of us get our stuff donated from friends, or we buy from garage sales and thrift stores. We all get new-to-us stuff all year long.
The fun part is finding stuff they love even more than what they already own and donating old stuff to others, just like it was given to us. We talk about sharing with others, providing for those in need, and it gives us the chance all year to talk about how blessed we are. Kids need experiences and time to be creative and use their imaginations rather than gifts anyway. My kids have a very full life without gifts during the holidays.
To tell you the truth, the idea behind the No-Gift Christmas is to keep the focus where it should be, on the birth of Christ and quality time with our family. In a world of stuff, things, and ways to keep our kids busy, I'm trying to teach my children the value of people and experiences. If my boys have to be entertained all the time by stuff, they are missing the real joys that life brings in relationships, the seasons, nature, experience and activity, and their precious childhood.
This should be a time of creativity, learning, problem-solving, imagination, and exploring. Toys and technology take all of those opportunities away from them at a critical time in their lives. We go visit family many times all year long, and everyone ends up sitting on the couch on their phones, while I'm on the floor playing with our kids.
I want my kids to know their value, see that they are loved and that their successes and discoveries warrant attention and celebration. They learn so much, especially from the behaviors of those around them. So I do my best to DO fun things with them, and take them fun places, and share the wonders of life with them, rather than distract them with stuff. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with toys and movies, and my children have plenty of them. This is simply my effort to raise well-rounded kids in a materialistic world.
© 2018 Victoria Van Ness
Victoria Van Ness (author) from Fountain, CO on December 26, 2018:
Sean, thank you for the affirmations! It's nice to know you're not alone when you're going against the grain of society. Merry Christmas!
Ioannis Arvanitis from Greece, Almyros on December 26, 2018:
My dear Victoria, thank you so much for this article! I am happy to see that one more family follows the No-gift Christmas! As I was reading your article, it was like you were describing our family and our way of living! All our friends and relatives say that we are "nuts", but I know that our four sons are growing up learning that Christmas is Love and happiness is on giving, not on taking! We send you our Love!
May the Spirit of Christmas bless your family all year long!
Victoria Van Ness (author) from Fountain, CO on December 26, 2018:
Thank you Louise. I know from experience that this is definitely easier said than done.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on December 23, 2018:
I really like this idea. Christmas is far too commercialized these days, and learning about values is so much more important. And I can see your children get so much more out of Christmas than just receiving and giving presents.