Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Gift

It’s Christmastime once again. More specifically it is the final weekend before Christmas Day itself. This certainly means that over the next two days there will be a mad rush by many folks to complete shopping for their gift lists.

That perfume or pajamas for your wife, a book for your pop, a couple of gift cards for aunts and uncles, one more toy for the kids. For many (from what I hear) it will be one final attempt at picking up a “Wii” gaming system.

For the next two days it will most certainly seem in many respects as if it is, as Andy Williams famously sang, “the most wonderful time of the year.” There will be house parties among friends, relatives, and neighbors, Christmas carols will be heard from homes and cars, home light displays will be sparkling for longer hours.

For many it will be a weekend of anxiety. Worrying that you simply must complete your shopping. Worrying that you won’t have enough money to buy all the presents that you want. Worrying about the limits on your credit cards, and the balances in your bank accounts.

Whether you are reading this as the weekend begins, and I can help you right now, or sometime later when you can take this to heart for next year, stay with me a minute and let me try to help you out. Let me try to calm you down, straighten you out, ease your anxiety, and vastly improve your Christmas enjoyment.

Are you ready?

Stop buying everyone gifts.
Stop trying to be all things to all people. Stop breaking the bank, running up your credit card balances. Stop taking money from your family’s bills and food tables because you feel that you need to go overboard on Christmas gift spending.

Trim the tree? How about we trim that gift-giving list down a bit?

Now, some folks are keen on saying that Christmas has become too commercialized. You know, I have been hearing that for so many decades now that it has lost all of it’s effectiveness as an argument. The fact is that gift-giving has been associated with the holiday ever since the very first one.

The Gospel of Matthew tells the story of how the Magi, three kings from the Orient, followed a star which led them to the little town of Bethlehem. There they found the newborn Jesus: “They saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. They they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

The commercialization of Christmas is linked to all kinds of other alleged evils: consumerism, greed, jealousy, the all-consuming fundamental of the American dream to “keep up with the Jones’s.” Frankly, I think that all this concern over the commercialization of Christmas is just so much “humbug!”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with buying your wife a new car for Christmas. There is nothing wrong with buying your husband a season ticket package to the Phillies games for Christmas. There is nothing wrong with buying your kids a Wii system and a bunch of games to go with it. There is nothing wrong with buying a present for every relative on some massive gift list.

To that end, there is also nothing wrong with advertisers trying to sell their wares. That is what capitalism is based upon, the market economy. Capitalism is not an evil, it is the tremendous engine that has given rise to America’s greatness. I would even dare to say that capitalism itself is a gift, from our nation’s historical roots to today’s society.

The problem is not in the lights, the packages and bows, the parties and presents. The problem is within ourselves. There is a large segment of our people, and in fact people around the world, who are so quick to blame other people for their own problems. To go back to my advice: stop.

Stop buying everyone gifts. Trim that list down, both in the number of people on it to begin with, and then in the number of gifts you give as well. I suggest strongly that you only give gifts to your immediate family: children, parents, grandparents, grandchildren, spouses. One rule of thumb: if they live in your home, give them at least one gift.

One easy way to take care of everyone else is the traditional Christmas card. There are many options out there today, with boxed cards available on every level from the inexpensive to the lavish. Go with your economic situation, and every year go out and pickup a few dozen Christmas cards to send out.

A card can display your own reflection of the season. Are you more secular? Then send a general holiday card. More religious? Then send a religious-themed card. To really make your card a gift, for each one take the time to write a short note on the inside flap that is appropriate to the receiver. The cost of the card itself and the stamp to mail can usually be kept to about one dollar each. That is a pretty affordable gift.

For the folks who remain on your shopping list, narrow things down. Besides your kids and spouses, keep everyone to just one gift. These are the people closest to you in the world. You should know their likes and dislikes. Pick them up something they will really enjoy receiving.

As for the kids, make those Christmas memories special. Let them wake up to a lighted tree on Christmas morning,with wrapped gifts strewn beneath it. That’s important too, taking the time to wrap them. They key is to stay reasonably within your family’s means, and to spread gifts around evenly among multiple kids.

For your spouse there is one simple rule: make sure that whatever you do for them, large or small, that your gift or gifts reflects your appreciation for everything they are to you, for everything they do for your family. It is a great idea for spouses to actually sit down and talk about Christmas as it approaches, and to get a plan together where perhaps limits are kept on their gifts to one another to allow more assets to reach the overall holiday experience.

The most important aspect of material gift-giving is that it must bring joy to the season. You are not bringing joy into the season for your family when you are spending money that you do not have. Don’t give gifts beyond your means. Don’t put your family into debt that takes months to pay your way out of, year after year.

And there is another important thing to consider. Gifts do not need to actually cost you money out of your pocket. There are three things that you can consider giving of yourself that usually won’t require a hit on your credit card. These are gifts of your time, your talent, and the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Give your time. Volunteer with a social services group that feeds the homeless. Join your church choir or volunteer to help in some other way with their preparation for the holidays. Go to the home of a relative who may be ill or who perhaps doesn’t have many close contacts, and help them out for a day, letting them know that they still have family, and that someone still cares about them.

Give your talent. Every one of us has something that we can do that is special and particular to us. If you have a professional skill, donate your skills to help an individual or group that could use them. Find a niche where you can utilize them each season as a regular gift that you give to your family and community. Draw cards for a senior citizen home, or go Christmas caroling. Everyone has talent to give.

Forgive and reconcile. I recently saw an episode of the “Dr. Phil” television show where the good doctor was trying to see if there was any way that he could help mediate a family where grown adults could not set their differences aside and simply enjoy one another’s company. In particular, in sharing the holidays together with their elderly father.

Dr. Phil’s advice in the end was to not try to force something at the holidays that was not there all year long. He said that the holidays were not the time to try to fix the problem. I disagree with him. I think that the Christmas holiday is the exactly perfect time to forgive anyone, to set aside differences, and to celebrate those things we have in common, even if those things are few and as simple as blood relations.

My wife, Debbie Veasey and I were sitting around the television in the last few nights, and she turned to me and asked “Wouldn’t it be nice if we never had all of this to think about at Christmas? If people didn’t think about shopping and decorating, but just put their time and thoughts into celebrating the birth of Jesus?”

She was dead-on straight in that assessment. It would be nice of more of the emphasis to the season were on “the reason”: the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The celebration of the sacrifices made by our Virgin Mother, her sainted husband Joseph, and of God Himself in becoming man. But that choice is up to each of us, individually and as a family.

Buying gifts isn’t the evil. Commercialization isn’t the evil. The evil comes in bad choices by individuals, families, and communities. Enjoy the holidays, and giving gifts when you can, within your means. But never forget the greatest gift of all, the gift that God game of Himself to all mankind. And then give of yourself when you can.

Merry Christmas to all, and may God bless you and yours this holiday season and in the new year to come.

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