Presence, Not Presents | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Presence, Not Presents

My Aunt Peggie has 48 miniature Santas. Each year, not long after Thanksgiving, she painstakingly takes her Santa collection and displays them around her home, along with the Christmas tree, Christmas villages and all the other holiday décor. When she's done, the entire house is in such Christmas picture perfection that HGTV Design Star David Bromstad would take note.

While living there, my participation in cleaning and decorating was mandatory. Aunt Peggie made it seem like a choice, but I knew it was nothing of the sort.

I complained about having to help, under my breath naturally, but little did I know spending Christmases with her would be a priceless gift that I measure my own family holidays against today.

I'm sure she sounds like a bit of a tyrant; far from it. Aunt Peggie is remarkably organized. She is the reason I fell in love with Christmas. She didn't go out and spend a ton of money; she accumulated everything over the years. Aunt Peggie made an enjoyable experience out of it, and I always felt she did it to make others feel comfortable and inspired.

The true reason for Christmas—the birth of Jesus—is what I celebrate. Nonetheless, I love all of the other positives about Christmas, too: the music, the décor, Tiny Tim and even the Salvation Army reps ringing the bell.

What I don't love about Christmas is the emphasis so many people place on gifts. I'm by no means an Ebenezer Scrooge, and I love a good, thoughtful gift, but I do believe that Christmas is more about experiences, and mindfully participating in those experiences with family and friends, than material things.

Christmas doesn't have to be an annual gift-giving competition. The Christmas holiday is a time for new beginnings, celebrating togetherness and extraordinary demonstrations of love. When did these demonstrations of love include depleting a year's worth of savings or burning up the limits on credit cards so that our friends and loved ones will be impressed with the gifts we give and our neighbors impressed by our new, whole-house musical light display?

It seems that we go to extremes to make sure we are creating the perfect Christmas, mostly at the expense of our budgets and our sanity. We want to make sure we get the latest and greatest gifts and the best decorations. The problem is that most Americans are purchasing those perfect gifts and other items with money they don't have.

U.S. consumers spent $460 billion on Christmas expenses in 2008 according to an IBISWorld report. The average American family uses credit cards to fund this shopping binge and takes about six months to pay it off. This is where stress and depression become a major issue. And when the big day finally arrives, enjoying the day fully becomes next to impossible because half of next year will be spent recovering from a debt hangover.

What could you do with all the time you spend shopping, stressing about and wrapping gifts? When is the last time you sat down and had a real conversation with your family members? Why not play a few games, watch a good movie together, read stories to the kids, and create new traditions that do not involve swiping a card?

Gifts aren't the only stress-inducing holiday issue, of course. Cooking Christmas dinner, being the best-decorated house on the block and planning travel arrangements are other topics that can put a damper on this day. Try a potluck. Use discount travel sites. Stay at a relative's house instead up racking up hotel fees. Recycle last year's decorations and use LED lights to save on electricity.

This year, I am focusing on spending time, not money, with my family and friends. After all, time is our most precious commodity. If a tangible gift is necessary, the question I'll ask myself is: "Is this an expression of love, or am I trying to impress?"

While the rest of the world is spending monopoly money on needless gifts, I'll be relaxed, sipping on a hot tea and enjoying the company of others. What will you do?

This Christmas, create new traditions or expand old ones. Refuse the commercial temptation to spend December spiraling into a sea of insatiable spending for the sake of having what everyone else has. Instead, focus on others and giving your time. Here are a few examples:

• Have the family decorate an ornament for a member of the family not living in your household.

• Volunteer at Stewpot, or another food bank, as a family.

• Give items, new and used, to domestic-violence or other shelters.

• Adopt an elderly person at a nursing home and take them gifts on Christmas.

Love, Not Money
Americans plan to spend about $638 each this year on Christmas gifts, according to That's billions of dollars each year. I'm not saying don't buy at all; simply buy less and make it meaningful.

Here are seven ways you can spend less on gifts and more on love and happiness.

• Tell your friends and family that you are giving from the heart this year—no gift cards or thoughtless pajama sets. Make sure they know that you are not spending a ton of money on gifts this year. Set a dollar limit of $5 to $20 per person, pay cash and be creative.

• Match your gift to the recipient's personality. Purchase a small gift that embodies their qualities. For example, if your sister enjoys shopping for vintage clothes, why not buy her a vintage beaded wallet.

• Write a heart-felt letter instead. Keep it positive, of course. Sometimes our true feelings come across better on paper than they do in person. Your loved one will cherish a letter for a lifetime.

• Buy or make recycled or green gifts—the more eco-friendly the company, the better. Local is always best. Search for "Mississippi" at; you'll find tons of excellent handmade, and local, choices from stores like CutesyGlamDesigns for amazing crafts, Montagyoo for beautiful nature photography and SimplyTayloredDesigns for one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces. If you want to visit a brick and mortar store, Marie's Gifts in Byram (7128 Siwell Road, 601-346-0027) is fabulous; she has the most amazing vintage furniture pieces and exquisite handmade jewelry with authentic crystals.

• Buy or make a one-of-a-kind ornaments.

• Give wine. Enough said.

• Give in the name of charity. Charities are hurting. They need monetary donations to help those less fortunate. Give a donation in the name of someone on your list. Stewpot, Catholic Charities and CARA are great organizations.

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