It’s not hard to get into the routine of buying lots of stuff for your loved ones during the holidays. We want them to be happy, they seem to want stuff, and stuff is on sale. But when we’re breaking the bank to do it, when we feel compelled to go over the top or to outdo ourselves, and especially when the result is likely to be something big in the landfill in a year or two, maybe it’s worth reassessing our motives and options.
One of my favorite days as a kid – and my model for healthy gift-giving – was St. Nicholas Day. Each region celebrates this holiday in their own way. In several European countries, kids leave their shoes outside or in front of the chimney and receive small gifts in them from St. Nicholas. Sometimes they use a boot to collect the presents, or St. Nicholas sticks a treat under their pillow. In other parts, people dress as St. Nicholas and leave a bag of goodies outside neighbors’ doors. Dutch children will put out a clog with hay and a carrot for St. Nicholas’s horse.
As you can tell, elements of several of these traditions – the chimney, the shoe (which became a stocking), the gift giving, and even the name Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas in Dutch, which became Santa Claus) – all got rolled together with Jesus’s birthday, Winter Solstice, and many aspects of the Pagan festival of Yule to form Christmas. But in our family, we keep St. Nicholas Day separate – it occurs on December 6th – and this makes it easier to preserve its specialness.
In all cases, St. Nick leaves something modest – it needs to fit in a bag, in a shoe, in a boot, or under a pillow. Because of this limitation, there’s a lot more room for magic and sweetness. When I was young, the bag of goodies typically consisted of some oranges, nuts, a pineapple, a little candy, and perhaps some tree ornaments. This is what we put into the bags we make for our friends today.
We put these bags together as a family, and even though nuts and fruit are a regular part of our diets, the kids handle it as if it’s something really special because they know it’s going to be a gift. The best part is walking or driving to recipients’ houses, putting the bag on their porch, knocking on the door and running away (so it’s a mystery!). Our kids get absolutely giddy with the excitement of it (to be honest – so do we!!) When we return home, St. Nick has visited our house too (wink, wink)!
Because the emphasis isn’t on size or monetary value, the essence of what we’re doing is a lot easier to see. There’s a surprise element – an unexpected and anonymous gift – which is fun. There’s an unspoken communication – we love you and you matter to us. You add sweetness to our lives, and here’s a little sweetness back. And even if they don’t figure out it was from us, we know it was given in the most unconditional way.
What’s your gift-giving tradition like? How do you keep the emphasis on the non-material aspects of the holidays? Share your ideas with us in the comments section below.