Is it just me, or do you finish running the marathon that is the holiday season of gift giving, and then say to yourself “Self, we’re not going to do this again next year. Next year we’re going to simplify.” If I’m honest with myself, going overboard in past years had less to do with “Never suppress a generous thought” (Camilla E. Kimball), and more to do with giving in to social pressure, real or imagined. Neighbor gifts, teacher gifts, gifts for colleagues, to say nothing of the mile-long Christmas list of demands rattled off by our four little ones. My husband Kyle and I felt that we were giving purely out of obligation. We tried to simplify our own gift giving, only to be met with an avalanche of gifts from all sides. Playing Tetris with new acquisitions in our tiny urban apartments has always been a trial rather than a joy. Thus, gift giving became the main cause of stress and anxiety amidst a season of joy and beloved traditions. We were left feeling financially, mentally, and physically exhausted by New Year’s Day. Something had to change.
We decided that this would be the year to choose a path that leads us closer to our Savior through gift giving. As I mulled over thoughts of simplicity, a line from the song “Simple Gifts” kept slipping into my mind: “When true simplicity is gained…” How do we gain true simplicity when it comes to gifting? It’s individual, of course, but I realized the motivation for finding true simplicity was in the first two lines.
Simplicity is the gift. Freedom is the gift. Heavenly Father’s gift was His Son. Christ’s gift was His life. Our gift is simplicity, that we may turn our minds and our hearts to Him.
To “turn, turn will be our delight” until we “come round right” and find ourselves at the foot of the manger with our own simple gifts: a pure heart and boundless charity.
So, how does this all translate to gaining true simplicity in gift giving? Kyle and I started fresh this Christmas season by resetting expectations and traditions in a few simple ways. Our hope is to build a gift-giving culture that’s more in line with our family culture. Here’s what we’ve put into place so far:
Say Yes to Santa
First, a bit of background. I grew up knowing Santa as the symbol of my Savior, Jesus Christ. The holidays were pure magic to me, because my parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents were all in on the big secret: SANTA IS REAL. At Christmas time, anyone who embodies Christ in their actions becomes Santa. He is all of us at our very best. There is no lie behind the spirit of true charity, and when you grow up knowing this, the world doesn’t come crashing down when the big kids try to ruin your life by telling you how it really works on Christmas Eve. The magic is within all of us to rise above our imperfections and selfishness and, if only for a moment, embody pure charity.
The world has forgotten who Santa is, so remind yourself of the sacred symbol Santa is meant to be. Our favorite Christmas book is I Believe in Santa Claus, by Diane Adamson. It’s the perfect way to show children the connection between Santa and the Savior. If we recognize Santa as a symbol of Christ, he will be the one to prepare our hearts to meet the Christ Child Christmas morning.
Readjusting Santa’s Role
Santa will only bring stockings and a family gift.
How do you think the conversation went over when we told our children that we’ve asked Santa not to bring Christmas gifts anymore? They took it in stride. Children are amazing. We told them what they could expect from Santa and they adjusted their expectations accordingly. They can ask Santa for whatever they want, of course, but he will only bring small gifts in stockings and a family gift. When birthday celebrations are centered on them, they may ask for their heart’s desire, but Christmas time is family time when we gather to celebrate the Savior. We honor Him by giving. Any gift we receive is just a bonus! As in normal life, if there’s something our children want, we will find a way to help them earn it.
Stockings from Santa: We don’t actually hang stockings by the fireplace like most people do, but stockings are my favorite tradition that I would love to share with you! Santa has been at the heart of meaningful giving for over five generations on my mother’s side. Our stockings are unique, deeply personal, and a wonder to behold. We hang nothing but a tiny knee-high nylon stocking from a nail hammered into the top of a doorframe. It’s the ultimate act of faith as a child to hang up a puny, shriveled stocking, because you go to bed hoping for a miracle and wake up to find one! Santa and his elves have worked their magic to make the tiny stocking stretch ten times beyond its original length, fit to burst with candy, nuts, treats, and an orange at the bottom. You simply rip a hole in the nylon to access your heart’s desire! A dozen gifts cascade down on strings, small and inexpensive, but catered to individual interests and pursuits. Think art supplies, new socks, favorite treats, etc. As I child I remember thinking, “How does Santa know me so well?” The very best part, however, is neither the candy nor the gifts, but the letter Santa writes to each family member. The letter contains an overview of the year, highlighting attempts and achievements, good deeds and growth. It’s encouraging and uplifting, and helps us see ourselves at our very best. We tuck these away in a book after each holiday season, and from these letters we have created a mini family history.
Family Gifts from Santa: The only gifts under our tree from Santa are family gifts. His family gifts are inspiring, practical, and promote growth and togetherness. This year, one of Santa’s helpers found our children a vintage toboggan (for $12.99 at a thrift store)! It’s six feet long and will fit them all, and I can’t wait to see their faces when they see what Santa has in store for them.
By simplifying Santa gifts, we’re able to give a greater portion of our Christmas budget to helping those in need. Kyle has always sought out opportunities for our family to serve, even when finances are tight. Whatever we choose to do, we make it a point to involve our children as Santa’s helpers, and to let them know that we are giving money we would have spent on ourselves to make someone else’s Christmas a bit brighter.
Daily Gifts of Service
If you think your child’s face lights up when you ask, “What are you getting for Christmas?” try asking “What are you giving?” instead. The spirit of giving burns bright in those little eyes, and what better time to foster a generous heart than at Christmas?
Inspire them to give daily gifts. The greatest gifts are gifts from the heart, offered with no thought of reciprocation.
This year, we’re trying a friend’s tradition of a Secret Santa service exchange. You draw the name of a different family member each Sunday in December and then serve them in secret all week.
Christmas Morning Gifts
Christmas morning gifts exchanged in our little family will either be homemade or experiences. Can you think of a better gift to give someone you love than your time? We want gift giving in our home to be thoughtful and intentional rather than obligatory, and we are very excited about this change. So that there’s something under the tree for experience gifts, we will wrap a hand-written card, gift card, or small gift to go along with the joyful anticipation of the experience to come. The children have a $5 budget for creations or experiences, and their gift ideas have already brought me to tears multiple times this season.
My dear friend Rachel recalls how “the real presents” were found not under the tree during her childhood, but rather in envelopes tucked into branches on her Christmas tree. Hopes and dreams were realized in the form of lessons, excursions, and field trips catered to her pursuits and passions. My desire is to help my little ones focus on giving, but as they wish for themselves at Christmas time, I hope they look beyond the thought of a trendy toy and look instead towards fulfilling their real dreams-- being a ballerina or an astronaut, a teacher or an artist.
No matter where you are on the simplicity spectrum this year, it’s never too late to simplify your mindset towards gift giving. Decide what’s important to you, and let go of everything else. Our hope is that our children will immerse themselves in the joyful anticipation of the giving season through daily gifts and thoughtful offerings Christmas Day, rather than simply biding their time until the 25th when they get everything they dreamed of (spoiler alert- it’s not going to happen). So far, it’s working.
“Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free!” A very Merry Christmas to you and yours!
Small Seed Copy Editor: Megan Grant
Lesley Colvin is a mother of four living in New York. She seeks to find joy and adventure in the everyday with her little ones by her side. She lives for historic architecture, good food, days at Metropolitan Museum of art, and the adventure of visiting places she's never been (whether that's around the corner or across the globe).