Should I have my kids only receive gifts for a charity this Christmas or would that be against our tradition?

Question: Should I have my kids only receive gifts for a charity this Christmas or would that be against our tradition?  We’re pretty well off but I understand that we really should exchange some kind of gift during the Christmas season?

We live in convoluted and confusing times.  Before the present economic crisis, people in the USA spent $200 Billion a year on Christmas gifts (de Graff cited in Malloy 2007:144).  That’s $850 per person! (I need go get better friends).  All this to celebrate the birth of Jesus born in poverty.  We often give someone something they really don’t want or need, and, a few months later, cannot remember what the gift was (or what was given us in return).

Nowhere in canon law or in the catechism are there any instructions on how much or how little one should spend on Christmas gifts.  But the overall thrust of Catholic Social Teaching would lead us to reject the “Lexus with the Red Bow” way of life in favor of the self-sacrificing generosity modeled for us by Jesus (cf. Phil 2:6-11)

Personally, I think the best way to deal with our cultural realities surrounding Christmas is to give small, meaningful gifts to one another (I’d rather get homemade cookies than a $20 gift card) and work together with family to give something to a group or organization that can really use our generosity.  Nancy Gavin’s wonderful story, “The Christmas Envelope” poignantly expresses how such a practice transformed her family’s Christmas giving.

For small children, I’d say indulge them.  Give little kids the most wonderful Christmas you can.  But also include them in planning what the family is doing for others, especially those of modest means.  As kids grow, we must wean them away from the “What I have makes me what I am mentality.”  We really do teens a disservice by turning them into selfish, mindless consumers.  93% of American teenage girls say their favorite activity is shopping (de Graff cited in Malloy 2007:144).  By 13 or 14, teens should be giving and getting small, meaningful gifts, and encouraged to participate in Advent and Christmas reflections on the deeper and more profound meanings of the celebration of our God becoming one of us.  Give a teenager the O. Henry short story The Gift of the Magi.  Sit and watch It’s a Wonderful Life together with family and friends to remember that “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away” (the embroidered sign under Peter Bailey’s photo in George Bailey’s office).  Practice Advent, not four weeks of Christmas.  Late November until Dec 25th and Jan 6th all the way to Feb 2nd, really can be “the most wonderful time of the year” when we spend some of the time in silence, reflection, personal and liturgical prayer.  Our family and communities need us to realize and relish the awesome reality of the incarnation and become once again the Body of Christ for all.