Every year, I find myself struggling with Christmas gift shopping. I want to be generous, I like to give people gifts, but I don’t want to give in to the temptation of consumerism that plagues us during the holidays.
On the one hand, I’m reminded of St. Nicholas’ words about the source of our desire to be generous: "[Christ,] the giver of every good and perfect gift, has called upon us to mimic his giving, by grace, through faith, and this is not of ourselves.” On the other hand, I can’t ignore Pope Francis’ words of caution: “Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending” (Laudato Si, §203).
So, every year I revisit these four questions, and if you struggle like I do with Christmas gift-giving, I invite you to consider them this year too:
How many gifts should we give?
This question is becoming more important as my husband and I think about what Christmas traditions we want to establish within our young family. I like the idea of gifting “something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read.” I’ve also heard about giving three gifts like the magi gave Jesus; some families choose to do this by giving one large gift and two smaller gifts.
Within our extended families, we're also considering drawing names for a gift exchange rather than giving individual gifts to everyone or only giving gifts to the grandparents (our parents) and cousins (our nieces and nephews).
What can we give other than more stuff?
Most of us don’t need more clothes, toys, books, tools, or kitchen gadgets, but we could all use a little more time with the people we love. Last year I gave my husband (and myself!) a Learn to Luge adventure at a local winter sports complex. We’ve also given loved ones gift cards for favorite restaurants, and we’ve received a “weekend getaway” with free babysitting from my in-laws.
In my gift brainstorming, I try to think of how I can help the recipient create fun memories with family and friends. Gifts like memberships to the zoo, aquarium, or museum are fun for families, and adults might enjoy concert tickets or gift cards for a nice meal out. I also like to give games as gifts; even though that probably still counts as “stuff,” games make for fun experiences that can begin as soon as the gift is opened.
How can we give to those who have material needs?
Most of us don’t need anything. We want things, sure, and we like to receive gifts, but our basic needs are likely covered. So how can we use our generous holiday spirit to help those who do have material needs?
Many parishes have Giving Trees, offering the opportunity to help others right in the community by purchasing gifts for families in need. I also really like the idea of giving to a charity in place of giving a gift to a loved one, but I’m terrible about putting this into practice. I feel guilty about not giving a gift, so I end up just giving gifts and not giving to charity.
One thing I’d like to try is supplementing Christmas gifts with charitable giving. Why not spend $10 less on gifts (or whatever amount makes sense given your budget) and donate $10 to a charity in the name of each gift recipient?
How can we be thoughtful about where we buy our gifts?
Our desire to be generous is good, but, as The Good Place taught us, being good is complicated. Were the gifts made under unsafe working conditions? Will these plastic toys harm the planet? Were the people who worked to make this product paid fair wages? Where am I supposed to find information about every gift I buy?
Look for “fair trade” or “ethical trade” gifts. CRS and Ten Thousand Villages are great places to start, but a quick internet search for “fair trade toys” brought up lots of options. You’re going to spend a bit more because the workers are paid fair wages and, most often, the gifts are made with sustainable materials (i.e., not cheap plastic). Still, it’s important to remember that God, who is the giver of all good gifts, has called us to imitate his giving. If we have the ability to buy Christmas gifts for our loved ones, shouldn’t we do our best to be thoughtful and responsible about the gifts we give?