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Tsh OxenreiderNovember 18, 2021
Why not use the opportunity to buy fewer and simpler gifts? (iStock/Zolga_F)(iStock/Zolga_F)Why not use the opportunity to buy fewer and simpler gifts? (iStock/Zolga_F)

Creating a plan and budget for buying Christmas presents is something families do every year. We want to emphasize “the reason for the season” and avoid going overboard with gifts, while not appearing stingy or curmudgeonly. But this is no ordinary holiday season.

While I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, my parents would spend a few afternoons and evenings in December finding gifts at local stores. If it wasn’t stocked in our general vicinity, it wasn’t meant to be under our tree. Now we buy almost anything from almost anywhere at almost any time, and we have all but forgotten how to live without this luxury. If we are out of laundry detergent, we can use our phone to get a doorstep delivery within hours, so of course we can order a new toy manufactured across the world and have it wrapped and under the tree by Christmas Eve.

We are being told to order early and then order some more. But what if instead we recognized how little “just right” gifts actually matter?

This year the supply chain crisis, illustrated by unloaded shipping containers piling up at our seaports, has led to understocked stores and unpredictable delivery times for gifts ordered online. So we are being told to order early and then order some more, before our neighbors toss everything into their own digital shopping carts. But what if instead we recognized how little “just right” gifts actually matter?

This idea is not new, of course. Storytellers from Dickens to Alcott to Dr. Seuss remind us that Christmas is not about presents; it is about people and family and home and Jesus. We might do well this year to try living as if this is true.

What could this look like? First, we can limit our shopping to stores within a five-mile radius of our homes. We can restrain ourselves to what we can pick up with our actual hands and place in a real-life cart. Not only can we better support our local shopkeepers; we can also temper our own desires by drawing a literal boundary around our options.

Perhaps this is the Christmas when we finally say “enough” earlier than we usually do and discover that this won’t ruin the holiday.

We can also prioritize events as gifts over tangible items. When you reminisce about childhood holidays, do you remember everything you unwrapped? Probably not—but you may better remember what you did with family and friends. You may remember going to a concert or a midnight Christmas Eve service, gathering with your family and sitting at the “kids’ table” with your cousins, baking cookies with your friend or boarding a plane. In the same way, tickets to a concert or play may not be as much fun to unwrap as bulky gifts are, but they are often more fun to use.

We can also go the homemade gift route, as hackneyed as it may feel. My teenage daughter bakes and wraps a batch of cookies for her father every Christmas, Father’s Day and on his birthday, and he never tires of it. He knows they are coming, yet he cannot wait to see what she has concocted each time. Knitted hats, hand-carved bowls, a well-framed photograph of a beloved place—there are ideas ad infinitum; and none of them are trite, no matter what the stores say.

Finally, there is the obvious solution we might be forced into anyway: Buy less. Perhaps this is the Christmas when we finally say “enough” earlier than we usually do and discover that this won’t ruin the holiday. In fact, we may create an abundance of another kind, in which we open gifts more slowly, take more time with that group puzzle or start a new tradition of a long neighborhood walk on Christmas Day.

The encyclical “Laudato Si’” invites us to “return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things...and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack” (No. 222). This year’s supply-chain slowdown might be the invitation we didn’t know we needed to live with more intention. May this holiday season be more about the simplicity of small things, and may we carry that gift with us into the Christmases to come.

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