How Your Family Can Take Back Christmas!

We had allowed Christmas to become our master, and we found ourselves enduring rather than enjoying the season.  However, we decided three years ago to take back Christmas and we have loved it ever since.Over the years, Jan and I have seen the joy of Christmas turn to stress as we annually exhausted ourselves with shopping lists, shopping extravagances, and mounds of gifts to be wrapped and delivered.

We had allowed Christmas to become our master, and we found ourselves enduring rather than enjoying the season.

However, we decided three years ago to take back Christmas and we have loved it ever since.

No, we didn’t turn into Scrooges; we simply decided that we (not tradition or expectations from others) would determine how we should celebrate Christmas.

A few simple changes made a huge difference, and you can make them too:

1. Create memories instead of stuff.

Our immediate family (four grown children and their families) opted to forego our Christmas gift exchange in lieu of a family vacation – funded by the money we would have spent on gifts.  Our logic is that the memories from those vacations are infinitely more valuable than whatever stuff one receives at Christmas.

We still get together at Christmas time to share a meal, celebrate the season and enjoy a Christmas play the kids perform for us.  We also have some gifts for the kids to open.

How did it happen?  Obviously, Jan and I cannot unilaterally dictate how other families (even our own children’s families) celebrate Christmas, but this concept was an easy sell, especially after our grandson remarked a few years ago about the overabundance of gifts.

Each family, of course, still has their own Christmas traditions, but everyone was ready to try something different with our big family gathering, so exchanging stuff for memories was the perfect solution.  Hopefully, we can continue to do so for many years to come.

2. Try ‘Secret Santa’ giving.

Jan’s side of the family (including kids) all commit to blessing a needy person or family sometime during the Christmas season.  Then, when we gather on Christmas Day, we share our experiences instead of piles of presents.  These times of sharing have become very meaningful – often tearful — as we touch on the very essence of Christmas.

How did it happen?   This change has happened in stages, starting at a Thanksgiving gathering four years ago when Jan’s niece handed out $10 bills to each family member with the challenge to be a Secret Santa.  Everyone loved the experience, but never considered using it to replace the long time family tradition of everyone buying gifts for everyone else.

The next year, Jan and I handed out the $10 bills along with the thought of replacing the gift exchange with Secret Santa stories . . . a thought that was not well received; obviously this huge gift exchange was very entrenched.  But we persisted in asking the family to cut back on the gift exchange the following year and much of the family began to agree.

This year, along with our Secret Santa stories, we will have a very limited gift exchange, involving Jan’s mom (the family matriarch who will never stop buying for everyone) and the little ones.

3. Start sibling charity gifts.

My six siblings and I take turns picking a charity to support each Christmas.  This year my youngest sister selected Books for a Better World, so we each sent her a donation which she passed along to her charity of choice.  This fun tradition is simple and significant.

How did it happen?  I take zero credit for this tradition.  As my family has grown older and relocated all over the nation, our Christmas gatherings became more and more sporadic.  For years, my siblings and I drew names for a Christmas gift exchange, but, over time, the spirit of the gift exchange began to wane.  However, about seven years ago, one of my sisters came up with the sibling charity idea . . . a concept which all of us have loved ever since.

Changes are difficult, especially when Christmas traditions are deeply rooted, but Jan and I are happy to report that, over time, all of the above ideas have taken root.

We are even happier to report that joy has returned to our Christmases.

With some intentional work, your family can take back Christmas too.

Do you enjoy or endure Christmas?  What changes has your family made to take back Christmas?  What changes would you like to see happen?

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  1. Julia

    I love this post! I am always trying to think of unique traditions and things to do with my children once they are a little older to help instill the giving spirit and realize what Christmas should really be about. Thanks for the idea!

  2. Joe Plemon

    Thanks Julie. Let us know if you try any of these. We have found that even small children can be involved in Secret Santa.

  3. Karyn S

    I always thought Secret Santa was only made for co-workers and not in families. But with the method you guys use, it adds a whole other meaning to the Secret Santa theme. It’s nice that you guys decide to use Christmas as a way of giving back. Money-saving too!

    • Joe Plemon

      Karyn — I am sure there are different applications of the “Secret Santa” theme, but what our family is doing is working for us. My wife and I are planning to be much more generous with our Secret Santa giving this year, but if we didn’t have this challenge, and know that we need to report what we did on Christmas Day, we might not do anything at all. It keeps us on track!

  4. Mike

    Happy st. Cluase day! That’s what most of America celibrates today. Just ask Oboma-Clause he got re-elected with that theme. LOL! ( Oboma phone ) No presents, no trees, no stockings, no thanks! Christ is to be feared and worshiped and not just on the holiday. Want to have a wounderfull day? Teach the truth to your children and leave out lies like St a Clause. There has been more than enough damage to our culture already.

  5. Tim Mobley

    Great post! I have always advocated for any volunteer opportunities with the kids. It teaches them so much. It is indeed the season of giving.

    • Joe Plemon

      Tim — So true. We underestimate what kids can do…and what they WANT to do. From my observation, many (most?) kids will jump at the opportunity to bless someone else. Christmas is the opportunity for adults to give kids that chance.

    • Tim Mobley

      Absolutely! I have written about that in my latest post on my blog. Again, I really like your post and am including a link to it on today’s post.

    • Joe Plemon

      Thanks Tim!

  6. Karen Akhtar

    Great post, Joe! Although I don’t celebrate Christmas (I was raised as a Muslim), I am also getting tired of the materialism that has become associated with the holiday season! You provide some great alternatives! Taking a family vacation during the holidays to create memories is a fantastic idea! The “Secret Santa” giving is also a great idea! Sibling charity gifts are also a great idea!

    Speaking of charities to support, you should consider donating to Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE)–I’ve read some great things about them! Here’s the link:

  7. Kizzy

    Wow this blog is very timely. Im listening to Josh Groban’s Christmas album and it make me think of the coming season. My husband and I are excited for the coming of our first child. Soon we will be family and as a mom-to-be I want to establish a family celebration with real Christian values and not be succumbed to materialism or any forms of idolatry which is a way of celebrating the season these days. Thanks for the suggestions. I will start with not showering my child with gift items ( that will be boxed in the garage in a month) and not encouraging others to do the same. If they insist ( especially grandparents) and if i have the choice i will suggest gifts be in a form of cash so we could use it into something worthwhile like the ‘secret santa idea’ to the needy people and families. I already thought of starting a “mercy bag” collection for the Soup Kitchen and homeless charity projects we are already supporting. When our child is mature enough she can decide to do ‘ a secret santa of her choice. Also, instead of expensive dinners we can support by funding a christmas dinner to communites in 3rd world countries. It’s a worthwhile experience as a family to have dinner and to serve them this season as well. Im still thinking and praying for more ideas for our family and especially our child not to get used in this materialistic view of celebrating the season. Your suggestions are very well taken into consideration.

  8. Ricardo Schillaci

    I love this post Joe!
    You just gave me a great idea.
    Two weeks ago I started volunteering at a foundation for disabled people and the “Secret Santa” giving fits for that extra I was lookig for.
    Best to you.

  9. Jim Wang

    Great post, I’m a big fan of experiences over things. Experiences appreciate, things depreciate. I think Christmas, like so many things, have gotten so corporate. So much marketing. Buy this, buy that. Why can’t we just slow down and enjoy what we have?

  10. Shawn

    Excellent post. My wife and I have found that we don’t really desire as much stuff during Christmas anymore for two reasons…

    1) “Stuff” can do only so much for you – yeah, it’s cool to have a new pair of shoes, a new outfit, car or kitchen gadget. But those things can only do for you what they were purchased for…nothing more. And they always get old, which means that the cycle of buying can seemingly never end. Ha, we don’t have that kind of money!

    2) “Stuff” adds clutter – one of the main things I desire these days is a simpler life, and a simple, clean and organized home is part of that. When you have a whole lot of stuff, it is harder to attain that simplicity. It adds stress to my life when a lot of stuff is everywhere, and I don’t need that.

  11. lynn

    Our Family has been doing the “Christmas Money Bag” for about 20 years. We have a Christmas breakfast. At this breakfast, instead of exchanging gifts, we all put cash in one bag. This is the money we would have spent on gifts. No one knows what the others have put in. We pull out the money and divide it equally among ourselves. This way we essentially have equal giving and receiving. We each then place a self determined portion back in the bag. That bag is given to a needy family we know. We each take the remainder of the money and go shopping for ourselves after Christmas. This cuts out the stress and time spent on Christmas shopping and “keeping up with Jones” gift giving.

  12. Tina

    Wow. I teared up reading this post. One of my spiritual gifts is giving and I love the ideas presented here. Thank you so much for this. It truly is more blessed to give than to receive!