I remember one holiday ten years ago, thinking “I’ll keep this simple and faith-focused.” Then I thought of the flute and the violin and the sewing machine and the new guinea pig that my children would love—along with a raft of stuff that was unnecessary and over-much.
I could feel the pull between wanting to offer love-laden gifts, fueling my girls’ talents—and over-indulging. How easy the world slips in, and holidays, or “holy days” are tainted by too many things. That year—though we had a warm time and felt and shared our love and God’s in many ways—I still wanted to take visqueen and duct tape and put it over the need-to-get-stuff basket forever.
I don’t think I’m alone. Many of us have had long lists of shopping items for holiday meals, lists of gifts for some holidays, spent time looking for inexpensive flights and special deals, the right décor, or known the overwhelming feeling of holiday craziness.
Certain stress, though, is self-inflicted and often revealing. It happens when we place things over people, stretch beyond our means or worry that our means are never enough, or strive to people-please rather than to genuinely serve or meet a need (see 2 Corinthians 3:5). What we crave most is connection, not things. Holidays are about people—not stuff. So it’s good to remind ourselves and “renew our minds” about what matters and what does not (see Romans 12). As we do, we will seek less to fill our minds and stockings with things that do not satisfy (Isaiah 55:2).
Here are 5 ideas that have spurred me on to focus more on people, not things, during the holidays—gems from my own and others’ experiences.
1. Slow down
C.S. Lewis reminds us that “the future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.” And Kissinger said, teasing about over-planning, “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” We laugh. We relate. Sometimes we slip into a gear that is too high for too long. Psalms 31:14-15 reminds us of another pace, a pace set as we count on faith, trust in and rely on the Lord and look to Him in our plans to bless others and build lives, not just to create pandemonium: “I trusted in You, O Lord. You are my God. My times are in your hands.” With God in mind and allowing Him control, we may be less inclined to micromanage everything and to overdo to satisfy others rather than glorify Him through serving others.
2. Embrace imperfect
Sometimes we have rigid expectations that straight-jacket us, like Tigger in Pooh Party who loses joy as he fusses to over-orchestrate it. We can become so focused on “the schedule” and what we’re doing next (How will I get the turkey done at the same time as the casserole or the chairs out before the next set of guests arrive?) that we miss the party or are locked out by our emotional absence or sense of distraction. It can happen to all of us—but being aware and being present; allowing others to help; allowing messes in our tidy home; having children get in the kitchen and create a traditional family recipe; and making memories, can enable a closeness and focus on each other, rather than on externals and performances.
3. Think of the gifts you remember most
For me, it was the CD that my daughter and her friends created from a simple set of Christmas lyrics I’d written, or a piece of used furniture my son-in-law personally painted for me. Another was a small special notebook that another daughter wrote in each night for months, penning a thought from her day, and then wrapping and sharing it with me. That 3×5 notebook holds a kept place in my heart and my nightstand. Additionally, some of my fondest memories include sitting around the fire or lit-up-tree talking or playing word or picture games with family, reminiscing, having late night snacks and sitting around in our PJs.
Reflecting on the memories that have meant the most to you and that have reflected faith, hope, and love can light up your life during the holidays and can help you deflect the messages of the media and the commercialism around the holidays. We’re either impacted by the Word, which moves us to lift and stirs our faith, or by the world, which strives to weigh us down and dilute our faith by pushing our fleeting want button.
4. Give purposeful and time-centered gifts
When the holiday involves gifting, reconsider giving things that can influence a person’s character, forward their life purpose and gifts, and not that satisfy yourself or eliminate old gifts in your recycle stash. People can feel the spirit behind our giving. A subscription to an interest magazine, tickets to a special event that will be long-remembered, setting up a time to have dinner together or providing a certificate for teaching your loved one or friend a skill you have, can personalize a gift and replace the last-minute desperate search for that tawdry plastic-laden gizmo that doesn’t fit on the kitchen counter or in the cabinet anyway. Gift-giving doesn’t need to take on a life of its own—it exists to reflect our love and the love of the Source of all love.
A Cornell psychologist and consumer researcher, Thomas Gilovich, says that new things are exciting to us at first, but then the novelty soon wanes. So rather than buying the latest model car, or newest tech gadget, he suggests we know more happiness spending money on experiences like attending concerts, engaging in in-or-outdoor recreational activities, conversation, developing a new skill, or sight-seeing. “Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” says Gilovich. He adds: “You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless, they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.” Giving experiences is a way to invest in the future of your relationship with someone. Consider ways you can do so this holiday season.
5. Consider the less fortunate
For those who love giving, considering the less fortunate is a daily affair. Yet the holidays provide additional opportunities to render special service to those who might be lonely or disadvantaged. As KidsHealth.org records,
A group of friends in a Vermont snowboard squad like to go to their local homeless shelter and give the homeless a day to remember. They begin preparing at the start of the snow season by asking people who come to the mountain to bring old winter gear like jackets, boots, gloves, and hats. Then the group visits the shelter to distribute the gear — along with a little extra. Says Jay, 18, one of the organizers, “‘We tell them, ‘Now you guys are coming with us and we’re going to teach you how to ski or snowboard all day for free.’” It’s awesome to know that we are able to take their minds off the stress in their lives for one day.
Observe and seek out your own ways of serving and giving to those who need comfort, strength, or relief consistently, including during the holiday season. It helps to match your gifts and talents with a need in your community. You can also choose a fund to donate to as a gift to those in need.
Serving others diminishes our own need to want more ourselves. Happiness expert and University of Illinois psychology professor, Ed Diener, said, “Materialism can lead to chronic feelings of dissatisfaction. It is open-ended and goes on forever—we can always want more, which is usually not true of others goals such as friendship.”
Perhaps each of these ideas can help us engage a different mindset in relationship to giving, material things, holidays, and happiness. One spiritual leader says it succinctly: True happiness comes only by making others happy.” With that in mind, and our hearts full of abundance and gratitude for the gifts of life and hope given us by our Creator, we can reach out to serve with real holiday spirit.