Once upon a time.
That’s what I think when it comes time for Christmas and the holiday season.
Call me old fashioned, but I remember once upon a time when Christmas was simple and truly magical.
Sebastian here, and I’m old enough to remember the days when Christmas was about family, friends, celebration, and spirituality.
Christmas wasn’t about iPhones, new cars, Xbox’s, or any other such nonsense. Christmas wasn’t about compiling a wish-list a mile long, year-end sales events, or families going into debt trying to fulfill their kids every desire.
It was about spending time with family and friends, and showing your appreciation for them with simple homemade gifts. It was about the midnight mass and Christmas Day service. It was about wonderful food and a day of rest to reflect on our lives and our blessings.
Christmas was about much more than presents.
So what the hell has happened? What happened to Christmas?!
Media happened to Christmas. Keeping up with the Joneses happened to Christmas. Consumerism happened to Christmas.
Christmas has become commercialized.
No matter your religious affiliation or involvement, I think we can all agree that Christmas is supposed to be about much more than how much crap we can get.
Despite what many seem to think, Jesus DID NOT die for your consumption.
So what do we do? How can we get back to something that better resembles the roots of Christmas?
How can we shift our mindset from consumerism to frugalism when it comes to Christmas?
First, we need to understand the roots of Christmas and the tradition of gift giving.
The Origins of Christmas and the Tradition of Gift Giving
Whether you’re a Christian or just celebrate Christmas as a national holiday, it’s important to know that Christmas and the majority of its traditions come from three main sources.
All three sources include gift-giving, which is partly why this particular tradition has become so central to the modern holiday. That, and of course, consumerism.
The three sources are:
- Winter festivals
- The birth of Jesus
Let’s look at each one in a bit more detail.
Before the birth of Christ and Christianity, ancient civilizations believed in many gods that controlled all aspects of their lives, and were most commonly related to weather and harvests.
The most recognizable are the gods of the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, but polytheism was practiced by early German and other peoples as well.
These peoples worshiped their gods in many ways, hoping to please them to bring favor.
One of the forms of celebration were winter festivals, which marked the winter solstice and the return of the sun (which was, and still is, essential for life). In fact, the sun and festivals celebrating it were so important that most major religions still hold Sun-day as a holy day.
Aside from winter festivals getting us in the holiday spirit, we also owe many of our modern-day traditions to them.
Evergreen tree branches were used to decorate homes during these festivals, and whole trees were decorated with edibles, and later, small glass ornaments. The ancient Romans also used firs to decorate their temples during the festival of Saturnalia (the Roman god of agriculture).
The origin of gift-giving can also be found in winter festivals, as small homemade gifts were often exchanged during these times.
You didn’t know you were perpetuating Pagan rituals, did you?
The Birth of Jesus
While the origin of many of our Christmas traditions are clearly grown from Pagan roots, most people point to Christmas as celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
And even if you’re not religious or too familiar with the story of Jesus, I bet you’re aware of the tale of the Three Wise Men giving baby Jesus gifts on the day of his birth.
The three gifts were gold (a valuable), frankincense (perfume), and myrrh (anointing oil).
There are a few theories about the meaning behind the gifts. One theory is that these were simply common gifts for a king, while another states that the gifts held spiritual meaning. In the later theory, gold would represent a symbol of kingship, frankincense a symbol of a deity, and myrrh a symbol of death.
No matter where your affiliations lie or what you believe, all can agree that according to the Bible baby Jesus was given three very special gifts on his birthday.
Thus, the emphasis on gift-giving to those special to you on Christmas day.
Last but not least, the third main source of the traditions of the modern holiday and gift-giving come from the legend of St. Nicholas (who may or may not have turned into Santa).
All joking aside, St. Nicholas was a real person.
St. Nicholas was an early Christian Bishop in Myra, which is in modern-day Turkey. He was born to wealthy Christian parents who died from an epidemic while he was young. As a devout Christian, Nicholas chose to dedicate his life to serving God, and used his inheritance to help those in need.
Many tales of generosity and miracles are attributed to him, but the most famous led to the birth of yet another Christmas tradition: stockings.
According to legend, St. Nicholas was fond of children and wanted them to have some joy in a time where most children had to work at a young age. He wanted to leave little gifts for them, but did not want his generosity to be seen.
Legend has it that St. Nicholas saw stockings hanging above the fireplace to dry, and had the idea to leave little gifts there for the children to find. Children were told to leave their stockings hung up and to go to bed early or St. Nicholas wouldn’t come (sound familiar?).
Once again we see a source of Christmas with gift-giving at the heart, and this time specifically targeted at children to bring them joy.
Gift-Giving Takes Over
While gift-giving has always been a central theme of Christmas, it has exponentially grown into the main focus over the last 100 years, especially in regards to children. Not too surprisingly, this jump in focus correlates with technology advances, media and marketing increases, and the advent of the internet and social media.
However, what you may not know is that Christmas was transformed into a version of what we know today in the early 1800’s as a way to keep the classes separate and to shield children from a changing world.
Urbanization increased dramatically in the first part of the 1800’s, which put an increasing number of working people in close proximity to the middle and elite classes.
At this time, and in the centuries before, the poorer classes would celebrate winter festivals in the streets and demand food and drink from the wealthy. Historically, these events were a way to placate the poorer classes, but the elite classes increasingly worried about protests growing out of them.
As a result, a group of wealthy men began slowly establishing new traditions that moved these celebrations out of the streets and into homes. They experimented with multiple days, but ultimately celebrating on Christmas day was established as a result of Clement Clark Moore’s popular poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
Or, better known to you as “The Night Before Christmas.”
But what about gift-giving to children?
Originally, gift-giving was done more for instructional purposes. Again, middle and upper-class families wanted to control children’s exposure to corruptive entities and instill moral and spiritual ideals.
As consumer goods increased, parents began purchasing children’s books and magazines. The children’s toy industry also began developing. Eventually, the spread of consumer goods made it more difficult to control children’s exposure, and parents began buying gifts targeted at entertainment as opposed to instruction.
By the turn of the 20th century, retailers were targeting children in their marketing efforts hoping they would convince their parents to buy more goods.
Jump to the early 2000s and those in the U.S. were spending around $4 billion each day during the Christmas shopping season, and the average individual was spending around $1,000 on gifts.
What Kind of Gift Giver Are You?
Now that you know the history of gift-giving and the motives behind gift-giving to children in the United States, where do you fall?
Like most, you probably give gifts to those you care about, which is well-within the spirit of Christmas.
However, it is the kind of gifts and the number of gifts that has gotten out of control over the last 30 or so years.
You’ve probably already done the majority of your Christmas shopping by now, but after reading the history of gift-giving and Christmas I want you to take a moment and reflect on your own spending and gift-giving traditions, as well as offer tips for getting back into the true spirit of Christmas.
What Kinds of Gifts Did you Buy?
First off, the kinds of gifts you buy are very important. It’s okay to give gifts, but they should serve a purpose other than rampant consumerism and entitlement.
Try to plan your gifts so they do one or more of the following:
- Provide education
- Are useful
- Provide experiences
Did you buy toys? If so, are they educational or just entertainment? Do the toys encourage your kids to get outside and be active or sit on the couch? Do they encourage imaginative play?
Aside from toys, did you buy gifts that are useful? Perhaps you bought clothes or other needed items. Maybe the adults in your life have been needing something and you bought it for them.
Another good bet is to give gifts that provide experiences, such as concerts, sporting events, or a night at the movies.
How Many Gifts Did You Give and How Much Did You Spend?
How many gifts did you give and how much did you spend?
While the number of gifts will apply primarily to those with younger children, the amount you spend on gifts is relevant for any age.
The focus of any gift should be on the time spent procuring the gift (money needed or time spent making it) and the love that went into that time. However, if children are used to getting their every desire fulfilled then they begin to equate love with things rather than people.
If you love me you’ll buy this stuff for me. The more you buy me, the more you love me.
Of course it’s fine to splurge occasionally if you’re able, but buying all the latest stuff isn’t the way to go.
This is especially true if you’re going into debt to give your kids the “perfect” Christmas.
In order to rein in your finances and shift the focus back to family and love we recommend the following tips:
- Create a budget for your overall spending and for each person.
- Plan the majority of your gifts based on needs, educational/activity factors, and desired experiences.
- For children, choose 5-10 gifts that fall within budget. For adults, we recommend 1 larger gift or a few smaller ones that fall within budget.
- Try to plan ahead so that you can get gifts during sales and save yourself some money.
- If you use credit to purchase gifts, make sure you can pay those balances off within the next 3 months (although we would highly discourage making purchases you can’t pay off right away).
Moral of the Story
What happened to Christmas?
Religious or not, for most Christmas has turned into nothing more than an excuse to indulge our desires, and worse, to leverage those desires with debt.
But if you go back to the roots of Christmas you’ll see that it’s about much more than gift-giving, and that the gift-giving was very different once upon a time.
Gift-giving, and most modern-day Christmas traditions, come from three main sources: winter festivals, the birth of Jesus, and St. Nicholas.
Societal changes in the early 1800’s and an attempt to shield children from a changing world put the emphasis on family and children, but a growing consumer goods industry put gift-giving firmly in the driver’s seat by the 20th century.
What was once a tradition of sharing simple gifts and love has become a consumer’s paradise.
While we’re not suggesting a return to the days of paper dolls and wooden carvings, we do suggest that people put more of the focus back on family and friends rather than on things while saving themselves a little money in the process.
We recommend limiting the number of gifts and the expense of gifts by having a budget. We also recommend prioritizing gifts that are educational, useful, or that provide experiences.
It’s difficult to avoid the consumerist trap in our world of today because it’s all around you, along with evidence for all the ways you’re not stacking up to your Facebook friends.
But if we really think about the true spirit of Christmas, along with the way that corporations are lining their pockets with your money, it becomes a little easier to resist.
Try making this Christmas more about spending time with those you love and value and celebrating the joys in your life, not about the presents under the tree.
Talk about Money Saved.