How Our Family Emphasizes Giving, Not Getting, During The Holidays

With kids, keeping the focus off gifts can get tricky.

The first year my husband and I “adopted” a family for Christmas it happened by accident. I heard through a friend that a local women and children’s shelter had a shortage of volunteers to buy presents for families in need. Our daughter was only six months old and certainly did not need anything for the holiday, so my husband and I selected a family from the shelter and headed to Walmart with their wish list in hand.

When we got to the store the list pulled at our heartstrings. Each child had chosen a toy they wanted, but they also listed necessities like underwear, coats, and toiletries. By the end of the night, our cart was heaping full. Instead of choosing a few items from each family member’s wishlist, we had brought nearly all of them, believing that no child should have to choose between having warm socks or warm gloves beneath the Christmas tree.

The evening cost us a few hundred dollars, but we both agreed it was the most meaningful money we had ever spent on Christmas. As we wrapped the presents and delivered the bulging bags of gifts I felt like Santa himself — giddy at the possibility of making this family’s Christmas something truly special.

That was three years ago and we have continued the tradition since, recruiting other family members to help us “adopt” a family in need during the holidays. This means we can supply gifts for larger families who are harder to match with donors since there are more people contributing.

For me, this is the perfect solution to balancing the screaming pull of consumerism with the true meaning of the holidays. I am still able to shop and get the thrill of finding a gift that is just right, but those goods go to someone who really needs them, rather than a family member who could quite easily buy what they want for themselves. As a bonus, my husband and I find it easier to stay on budget when shopping for strangers and our donations are tax-deductible since the program is organized through a charity.

Last Christmas, my daughter barely understood the idea of Christmas and Santa. She helped me select gifts for the family we had chosen, but she wasn’t aware enough of what was going on to wonder why the toys didn’t wind up beneath her tree.

This year, I anticipate a bit more of a learning curve. Christmas is weeks away, but my daughter now talks about Santa regularly. With the help of her preschool classmates, she has realized that Christmas is synonymous with presents. Although she’s aware in that sense, she’s still young enough that it will be hard to explain why we’re buying toys that are going to someone else. There will probably be a few meltdowns involved. However, I want to involve her in the process from an early age, so she grows up knowing that giving is more important than getting during the holiday season.

So far my daughter is being raised in a very different financial situation than I grew up in. We are careful not to spoil her, but as the only child and first grandchild on both sides of the family, she has everything she wants. Although we try to stick to buying “something to wear, something to read, something she wants and something she needs,” she inevitably ends up with quite a few presents on Christmas day. After all, giving her gifts brings to the adults who love her.

I want her to enjoy that aspect of the holidays, but also recognize that she’s in a place of privilege. Not everyone has money to spend on gifts (or even necessities) during the holidays. I hope that as she grows she will eventually get as much joy as I do from giving to others, and realize that for our family giving back is the true focus of the holiday season.

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