Making Merriment Meaningful

I love Advent, a time of preparation, hope, and light in a month dominated by darkness. When my kids were small, I looked at the season with fresh eyes. How could we share the joyful anticipation while minimizing commercialization?

My local library had a wonderful book that addressed this question: Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson and Jean C. Staeheli. The authors suggest readers consider how and why they celebrate, then offer practical advice on making the season more meaningful and less stressful. Bill McKibben’s Hundred Dollar Holiday addresses the cultural history of Christmas shopping and suggests creative alternatives. provides tips for simplifying holidays and Leo Babauta at Zenhabits recently posted a  “No New Gifts Holiday Challenge.” There will be some used (like new) books under the tree at our house this year. I’ve suggested my family check out my favorite consignment shops for stocking stuffers.

Around the same time I was ready to “unplug” our holidays, my husband’s cousin died suddenly. We decided to make donations in his memory that Christmas, and suggested to our families that instead of shopping we give donations for the adults and one gift per child. To maintain the fun of unwrapping presents, we created certificates explaining each donation and made candy and small gifts.

We’ve made this our tradition, sometimes adding fair trade goodies. My kids are teens now. Their current gift specialties are notepads printed with original artwork and blank greeting cards adorned with photos.  We enjoy choosing donations to match family members’ lives and passions. Charity Navigator is a good place to “shop” for nonprofits.

Our Advent includes volunteering together, choosing gifts for “giving tree” recipients, and celebrating St. Nicholas Day, along with lighting advent wreath candles, baking cookies, and eating latkes at Hanukkah (part of my family is Jewish). We try to stick to one gift each under the tree, plus a family game or books for the kids. When we purchase holiday supplies or gifts, we shop locally if possible.

Our stockings are filled with treats, Heifer animals and gifts to help kids nearby or faraway, based on our interests (donations of soccer or basketballs, art supplies, books, etc.). Even young children understand giving that’s related to their own lives. We gave our nieces and nephew a donation of school supplies for Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project in Uganda last year.

Picture books about nonprofits’ work, like Beatrice’s Goat by Paige McBrier or the delightful new Christmas story The Carpenter’s Gift by David Rubel, make a nice gift to accompany a donation. Did you know the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is made into lumber which Habitat for Humanity uses to build a home?  Rubel’s earlier book about Habitat’s work, If I Had  a Hammer, is perfect for all ages and would be a unique hostess gift paired with a donation of a box of nails.

Our Advent and Christmas aren’t entirely noncommercial, but they are simpler. My kids have grown up knowing both the excitement of receiving and the warmth of giving, and they’ve channeled their talents and passions into gifts for others. Most importantly, we shifted the emphasis of Christmas from shopping to sharing, and our merriment seems much more meaningful.