Materialism is an obvious problem in America and it is made more obvious during the holiday season. Many people blame Christmas, or at least Christmas gift-giving, for this materialism. But materialism can happen with or without gifts. Whether it be iPads or beach trips or going out to bars, we become materialistic when we are excessively attached to (or unappreciative of) the finite world and not focused enough on the infinite world— the world of relationships, love, spirituality.
But as long as we are living in this finite world (and unless we all become monks,) it is possible to use these finite things well— even to use them in a way that draws us closer to the infinite. Giving gifts at Christmas time does not have to make us materialistic. It just takes being a little intentional and proactive about how we do it.
1. Gifts should pass the “beautiful or useful” test. Your dad needs a new phone cover? Useful! Your wife has wanted a pair of gold earrings? Beautiful! I don’t want to condemn any particular thing as not useful or beautiful, and sometimes things that aren’t either can still be meaningful given the circumstance (gifts related to inside jokes, for example), but we should always ask ourselves the question before buying something.
2. If you are struggling to find a “personal” gift for someone you don’t know very well, maybe go for something perishable. Wine, chocolate, flowers— these sorts of things bring simple joy to most people without taking up longterm space in a house or closet.
3. No one gift amount is right for every family but every family has a right gift amount. I’ve heard suggestions of restricting to three gifts per child. For many families, this might be a real limit compared to past Christmas experiences, but for other families, this might seem downright excessive. I think it’s helpful to think about things long term. Ask yourself, if we give this many gifts every year, how many gifts is that after five or ten years? Does adding up those numbers make me feel uncomfortable? Does it feel like clutter? Is it too many that my child won’t remember what he got this Christmas? Then you’ve got your family’s number and you should stick to it.
4. Make sure gifts don’t outshine everything else. It’s normal for children (and adults) to be excited about gifts. But if the family gathering, the Midnight Mass, the great feast, the caroling, or whatever your Christmas traditions may be, don’t conjure up a comparable amount of excitement, then the gifts may be too heavily emphasized— or everything else not emphasized enough.
5. Gifts are not just a kid thing. Santa’s influence tends to make us think that they are and so we figure forgoing them as adults makes us less materialistic. But when kids only receive and we don’t expect them to give, we rob them of the chance to learn generosity. Moreover, when they don’t get to see us receiving gifts, we don’t get to show them examples of gratitude. And finally, limiting gifts to kids teaches them that the joy and magic that comes with generosity and gratitude is something they will one day outgrow.
6. Don’t be afraid to broaden your idea of gifts. Some people prefer to show generosity with outings or vacations or adventures. Moreover, sometimes giving something that is not really a “thing” can be a welcome respite from the onslaught of clutter in American culture. We all have different resources and the people we love have different interests and desires. The important thing is that we are continually open-minded to new ways of giving gifts.
7. But don’t be afraid to give physical gifts either. All of us probably know somebody who is just great at giving physical gifts— somebody who puts the perfect time and thought and effort into giving something that continually reminds us of how we are loved and brings joy or beauty to our lives. Don’t be afraid to be this person. Experiences can be preferable in certain circumstances, but they are by no means inherently superior. Both experiences and things can lead to materialism. But both can also beautifully convey love.
Gift-giving does not have to detract from the “reason for the season.” It can actually point to it. After all, let’s not forget— even Jesus received gifts on Christmas. This may seem like an absurd impossibility to anyone who set foot in a mall recently. But the atmosphere may be quite different in humble homes around the world where a few heartfelt gifts will sit below a hand-decorated tree and a Nativity scene.