Mom’s Christmas Legacy


People have complained about Christmas spending for years. Yet, far from addressing the problem, it seems worse than ever. Fox TV has even conflated Christmas (December 25) with the holiday shopping season, taking offense at people not calling days other than December 25 “Christmas,”  and seeing a hesitation it as an assault on the religious meaning of the holiday. The commercialization of Christmas is complete.

We have models for celebrating Christmas differently. In Spain, Christmas (December 25) is a day for family to gather and to go to religious services. Gift-giving happens in January on a day commemorating the gifts of the Magi, Dia de los Reyes. You’d think American commercial interests would be all over that idea – extending “Christmas” by two weeks? Plus they would get credit for separating the religious from the commercial observance – a win-win.

Mothers always have better ideas than advertisers. It took a national tragedy to provide my mother with the catalyst.

After the attack of September 11, 2001, our 85 year old mother spoke to my brother and me about what we were going to do for Christmas that year. She told us  that, after the terrorist attack, gift-giving didn’t feel appropriate, and she suggested an alternative.

Mom loved Christmas more than most. She loved baking Christmas cookies, decorating the house, and buying great presents for her boys and other family members. There was that one lime green sports coat – which fit perfectly, alas – but she was usually almost psychic in her ability to pick just the right thing. She wasn’t anti-consumerist at all, but she kept it in check because she was a devout Catholic and the real reason behind the holiday was never out of view for her.

But after September 11, pretty little things in pretty wrappings just seemed wrong. Maybe she intended her suggestion to be taken just for that year, but my brother and I found it so obviously right that it has persisted beyond Mom’s death 5 years ago. It is a simple, unoriginal, idea: instead of buying stuff, let’s give the money we’d have spent on gifts to a charity in each other’s name.

My brother and I have very different priorities: the charities I favor are not in keeping with his priorities, and vice versa. We decided to give to charities on which we could both agree – an exercise with its own merit, as it required a conversation to discover a thing or two on which we agreed. It turned out not to be difficult at all, and I recommend it.

We also agreed that we still enjoy getting a little something from each other for Christmas. We haven’t set a firm dollar limit on those gifts, but we keep it under $50. Jim also suggested that his son, who was in his teens at the time, be excluded from this arrangement – something on which we disagreed, but on which we found middle ground.

I recommend Mom’s idea for its many benefits. You may think of other reasons, but this is why it is so appealing to me.

  • It puts the control of the commercialization of Christmas in our own hands, not in the hands of retailers and advertisers who want a commercial Christmas.
  • It focuses gift-buying on quality and expression, not on quantity or expense.
  • It makes “Christmas” purchases tax deductible in most cases. We can double up on year-end donations by sending a favorite charity a bit more.
  • It eliminates the belief that we must accumulate more debt during Christmas if we are to “do it right.”
  • It does away with the awkward questions of Christmas: what do I give to one who has everything? What if someone gives me something but I have not bought anything for them? What if they spent more on me than I spent on them? “I give to charities for Christmas” answers all those questions, and may give others a similar idea.
  • You might feel embarrassed if you can only afford a very small gift; but who would criticize a person for giving some of what little you have to charity? We know from the New Testament story of the widow’s mite, and O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi, that generosity’s virtue is not diminished by coming from those of modest means.
  • It makes it easy to request small things for Christmas, since you don’t have to worry about seeming greedy. For example, one year I asked my brother and my nephew and his new wife for photos of themselves, so I can complete the rogues’ gallery of family portraits on my wall. This lets them know what I want, in case they were stumped, and they can control the minimal cost. It provides a way to open the discussion about which charities we are choosing for each other. And you know it won’t add a burden to their budget since they are only getting you one small thing anyway.
  • Rather than stressing about lines at the mall and getting the latest geegaw before it’s sold out, Christmas became an occasion for giving to the Tiny Tims of the world – and isn’t that what the true value of Christmas ought to be? Even for those who are not Christian?

It is a simple transition to make. It requires only a conversation with family members, most of whom will be relieved at not having to deal with “Christmas” mall mobs and glad for the chance to do good rather than buy stuff they’re not sure you want anyway.

This year I will split my donations between two charities.

The first is the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Those of you who know me won’t be surprised at my continued support of this outstanding organization.

The other is Rolling Jubilee, a new organization that is raising money to buy and dispose of distressed debt. This latter is particularly appropriate during a season when so many often make purchases they cannot afford, adding to their other debt. Instead of our giving adding to our national weight of personal debt, let it be used to settle the debts of those who are struggling. If the organization does well, I would hope that in subsequent years we might begin tracking how much debt is canceled, rather than accrued, every Christmas.

I have shared this with friends over the years. One decided to buy a family tree each year, some to make sure they shop at local stores, and so on. I would be interested in hearing if you decide to adapt this to your family, and what form it takes when you do. If you need ideas for charities, see the site at Charity Navigator, which will tell you which charity in many different categories is best at spending donations on the cause, rather than on administration.

That is the story of Mom’s greatest Christmas present. She passed away five years ago, at midnight the night of December 2nd, during her favorite time of the year. I share this now, not just because it’s a great idea that deserves wider use, but as a way to honor Mom’s compassionate spirit. I miss her most around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I wish you a very happy, relaxed, contented holiday season, and a very merry Christmas. God bless us, every one.

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4 Responses to Mom’s Christmas Legacy

  1. Marie Morgan says:

    John,
    Thanks for the great ideas. You asked for variations on the theme. For the school-age children in our family, I send gifts to Heifer International http://www.heifer.org I can send the girls pictures of the specific animal “they are sending” to a specific country, along with pic’s of children holding or caring for that animal. I also encourage their mom to help them find that country on the map and otherwise see what they can learn about these children less materially blessed.

  2. Anne Withrow says:

    Great idea. Last year, the first Christmas season I spent alone in 60+ years, I did this. I bought myself a couple of little things, and little things for my daughter and her fiancé. But then I donated. It feels good.

  3. Jane Bahls says:

    Hey john,
    Good ideas! We’ve been doing this in my family for decades. I come from a very large family. Long ago, our extended family went to a gift drawing, so we would each open one gift at our large family gathering, after we sing Christmas carols and read the nativity story from Luke.. Even then, it was hard to know what Uncle Darrel might want if you haven’t seen him for a year. So we started taking up a collection for a charity, and we each contribute one $5 gift to one of two big baskets (one for men and one for women). It’s fun to see how creative people can be with their $5. And then to learn that the chosen charity will get a check for, say, $645 from our family.
    Among my parents and siblings, we decided on two gifts per person, with each of us assigned who we’re to buy for. We can send in hints, but they’re all for gifts in the #00-40 range. And many family members ask for a gift to a particular charity (which might come with, say, an ornament.) Oh, and children under 15 are exempt, so they typically get a little something from each pair of aunts and uncles. And it seemed that my parents would get a bigger pile of gifts than anyone else. We told them a few years back that people over 90 don’t have to buy gifts for anyone….

  4. Martha Somerville says:

    John, I feel sure your mom would be real proud…

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