Gifts that give this holiday season

Costco, August 21

As I entered Costco this summer and passed the beach towels and swim goggles at the door, I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw Christmas wrapping paper on sale.  I took a picture and sent it to my husband with the caption, “It’s August.”

It seems as though each year the stores we frequent are pressuring us earlier and earlier to remember that “consumption season” is coming.  Everywhere I turn, the message is clear:


No matter your beliefs or the holidays you celebrate, I imagine we can all admit that it’s easy to get wrapped up in unwrapping gifts.  I love a good gift as much as the next person, and if Greg were reading this, he would find out I would love a new espresso maker.  (Hint, hint, the one we have is broken.)  For me, it is so easy to forget that the reason I celebrate this season is the ultimate no-strings-attached-gift-ever – the gracious birth of the Savior of the World. If the meaning is different for you, I think we can agree our culture pressures us earlier and earlier each year to consume more.

I’ve wrestled with how to point my children to the giver of every good and perfect gift during this season, to make our faith the focus instead of an afterthought. We can all do better in this area.  Here are a few ideas:

  1. Do a gift exchange within your family so you buy a gift for one person instead of for many.

  2. Give small, homemade gifts to friends and neighbors such as baked treats, homemade body scrubs, or flavored simple syrups. Pinterest is a great place to go for ideas that are both from the heart and won’t break the bank.

  3. Focus on gifts of time instead of gifts of stuff. Buy your bestie concert tickets so you can go together, or museum passes.

  4. Look for gifts that give and serve the purpose of life-sustaining work to those in need. Some of my favorite companies are ABLE (, 31 Bits (, Purpose Jewelry (, Raven and Lily ( and Noonday Collection (

But perhaps my favorite focus shift for the season is not in the gifts we give, but in daily Advent service projects.


Years ago, my mom gave me an Advent calendar in the form of a house.  It has little drawers for treats that can be discovered each day in December leading up to Christmas.  I decided to include notes with an act of service my children could do (with help). When I started this, I had a four-year-old and a nearly three-year-old, so our first one included pretty simple tasks such as “go through your toys and find some to donate” and “give a friend who is sad a hug.”  Today, of the 24 drawers we open, those two acts still make an appearance.  But as the kids have grown, we’ve added age appropriate service items.






Around Thanksgiving, I come up with the list by looking at our calendar.  I look for days when service projects are already scheduled and include those.  Then, I think about the various activities we do annually and where they might fit best based on everything else that’s going on.  For the busiest days on our calendar, I choose activities that won’t take up a lot of time. Here are some examples from years past:

  1. Send Eliza to school with underpants and white shirts for the orphans in Kenya.
  2. Stack our cord of firewood so we can enjoy fires.
  3. Help mommy weed the garden.
  4. Pack six homeless bags to keep in the car so we can pass them out at traffic lights.
  5. Pack a basket of snacks and water bottles and set outside for delivery people.
  6. Go through your toys and games and pick at least three to give to Toys for Tots.
  7. Go through your books and pick at least three to give to Milk and Bookies.
  8. Choose a pair of your old shoes to donate for children in Sierra Leone.
  9. Go to Build-a-Bear, make bears, and put them in the donation bin at the store along with our other Toys for Tots donations.
  10. Build our Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes and deliver to Samaritan’s Purse.
  11. Write letters to your teachers to thank them for all they do for you.
  12. Write thank you letters for all your coaches and music teachers for all they do.
  13. Write a letter to our Compassion International child and mail it to her.
  14. Bake cookies and deliver them to our neighbors.
  15. Pack backpacks for the kids in need at our local elementary school.
  16. Volunteer at A Wider Circle’s North Pole Holiday Program.
  17. Collect hats, mittens, gloves or scarves to donate to a local coat drive.
  18. Take a meal to a family with a new baby.
  19. Clean up all your messes in the house today without being asked.
  20. Make a care package for a college student we know who’s taking finals and mail it.
  21. Send a care package to each of the deployed military members we know.
  22. Shop for our Angel Tree selection and take it to church.
  23. Take some canned goods to Starbucks and donate them in the collection bin.
  24. Deliver Christmas treats to daddy’s co-workers.
  25. Make a casserole and deliver it to a local homeless shelter.
  26. Forgive someone who hurts your feelings today, even if the person isn’t sorry.
  27. Make your siblings feel special today.
  28. Spend the day with friends and be kind to them, putting them first.
  29. Visit a nursing home and make crafts with the residents.
  30. Deliver breakfast to firefighters or nurses in a hospital.
  31. Throw out a piece of trash you find outside.
  32. Take the dog for a walk and play with him in the yard.
  33. Bake a birthday cake for Jesus.

Of course, the list will continue to change over time as the children become teenagers and perhaps come up with ideas of their own.  They – now 10-, eight- and five-year-olds – receive a lot of gifts.  I do love the wonder of Christmas morning and of unwrapping gifts that have been carefully made or bought with each other in mind.  But it warms my heart every year when I pull out the Advent house and the kids get more excited about it than any other Christmas decoration.

May this Advent season be filled with the wonder of gifts well gifted and graciously received.










De-clutter your kids’ Christmas

If you’re like us, people bought your children way more than they need for Christmas or Hanukkah.  (Okay, maybe you had something to do with it, but I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad.)  I decided I would go to the toy store to get “a few things” and ended up finding all kinds of goodies that were just too cute to leave there.  In my defense, I was able to pawn some of the items off to my brothers (at market value of course) to give to the kids, as they hadn’t shopped yet.  I also got sucked into a bit of the “best toys of 2010” frenzy and I ordered not one, not two, but FOUR Singamajigs.  (What on earth made me think that was a good idea, I’ll never know.)  And of course, Zach turned one on December 17th, so I had a bit of parent’s guilt going on, thinking I needed to make sure his birthday was special and that he received more than his sister did.  (As if a one-year-old would ever know the difference.)

The point is that now we’re in Florida with a minivan that was already full on the trip down, and I have no idea how to get it all home without paying money to ship some of it.  (This is something I am in principle against.)  I had already been thinking that we need to come up with a family tradition related to receiving and giving gifts that fosters gratitude, sharing, and putting others ahead of ourselves.  So here are some ideas to ameliorate the excess and put the focus on others.

1) A no new toys policy – A friend of a friend has four kids and a rule that they buy no new toys for their children.  For birthdays and Christmases, they receive some new gifts from family and friends, but they never buy anything new themselves.  They buy toys at yard sales, consignment stores, and the like.  I LOVE this idea because it probably makes taking the kids shopping anywhere (like Target or even the grocery store) a much easier process.  I was going to adhere to it except I have found myself incapable so far.

2) A three gift policy – My mom told me Kathie Lee Gifford said on the Today Show recently that they give each of their kids only three gifts on Christmas because that’s how many Jesus received.

3) A giveaway policy – We’re toying with the idea of asking the kids after every birthday and Christmas to choose one item they receive and give it away to a child in need.  As they’re a little young right now, we can do this for them this year.  (I think some Singamajigs might need good homes.)

4) Leave some things at grandma’s – Some of our new toys are going to have to stay here.  And that makes sense anyway so that the next time we come, there are already things to play with that will seem new to the kids.

5) Ask for what you need most – Set up 529 college plans or savings accounts for your kids when they are born, and have family members put money into them for each birthday and Christmas in lieu of buying other gifts.  When they receive cash gifts, have them save a percentage in these accounts as well.

6) Periodically purge – After every event in their lives when your children receive new toys and clothes, go through what they currently have and get rid of a set or proportionate number of old items that they can live without.  Then take a special trip to a homeless mission or Salvation Army and have your children personally deliver the toys they are donating.

7) Set a budget – It’s a simple concept, but not easy to adhere to.

8) Stay out of toy stores – This Christmas was only the third time since I’ve had children that I went into a Toys ‘R Us.  Every time I do, I have a list and end up buying things that weren’t on it.  It’s a dangerous place to go.  I’m going to refrain from going and instead use Amazon where I can get free super saver shipping and avoid paying sales tax.

9) Give the gift of time – A former co-worker’s twin daughters were premature and spent a lot of time in our local NICU.  The girls are 10 now, and every Thanksgiving they still bake cookies and take them to the nurses at the hospital to thank them.  I read about another family in the book “Crazy Love” that spends its first hours on Christmas morning making hot chocolate and going downtown to hand it out to homeless people.  I really wanted to do this but the truth is I got lazy about it.  I hope next year I am more motivated; perhaps we can come up with our own idea that is similar but will be “ours.”

If you’re feeling a bit over-indulged like I am, or just that as the New Year approaches you want to “get organized and de-clutter,” let me know if the above suggestions are helpful.  I’m always looking for new and great ideas!  Now I must go and find a way to convince Zach that his new toy cell phone is just as cool as my real one (because he’s screaming about it).