The Very Best Christmas Money Can't Buy

Family enjoying hot chocolate outdoors at a ski resort
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One Christmas, about 20 years ago, our oldest daughter wanted a doll that was absurdly expensive. It cost over $100, and we lived on a ministry budget. This wasn’t a passing infatuation, however. Allison had been talking about that doll for months, even occasionally sleeping with the catalog’s foldout. The other kids were young enough that we thought we could scrimp a bit on their presents without them realizing it and pull off this surprise gift for Ally.

I’ll never forget that day. As soon as Ally picked up the wrapped box, I stopped what I was doing to witness her response. Ally didn’t disappoint. She squealed when she opened the box and saw her favorite American Girl doll staring back at her. She was so happy that every dollar we spent felt like a penny. She dressed Samantha daily, had tea parties for her, talked to her and slept next to her.

Fast-forward 20 years. I asked my daughter about her favorite Christmas memory. She said, “Drinking hot chocolate in the car while driving around looking at Christmas lights.”

Seriously?

It wasn’t getting Samantha, who cost us over $100 dollars when I was working in ministry and stretching every dollar past its breaking point?

Looking for Christmas lights after Christmas Eve service became an accidental ritual, an afterthought one year that worked so well we kept doing it. We had moved to a new place, and the local newspaper provided the address of a “site to see.” When we arrived and got in line, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Not to sound uncharitable, but it ended up being a trailer park. Every decoration you’d find at an after-Christmas clearance sale covered the small, grassy patches in front of each home. It wasn’t exactly what we were looking for. There was a long line and narrow lanes, however, so we were trapped, forced to circumnavigate a gaudy trailer park to celebrate the birth of our Lord.

We laugh about it still.

Allison remembering an experience over a desired toy may just sound like an anecdote, but there’s scientific evidence that suggests her memories could have been predicted.

Buy Memories, Not Things

A Cornell University study found that shared experiences produce greater happiness than buying or receiving products. In the immediate aftermath of either receiving a gift or sharing time together, happiness levels were about the same, but as time went on, satisfaction with the object decreased while memories of the experience increased happiness.

These researchers found that this was true even if the experience was initially frustrating, scary, stressful or unpleasant (like being held hostage in a line around a trailer park). As time passes, that holiday failure can become a memory that produces much laughter, joy and shared happiness. This means that if you want an especially happy family Christmas, focus on buying a memory instead of a bunch of toys.

Sadly, my wife and I didn’t realize this until our kids were in high school. We realized our time together as a family was getting shorter, so we cashed in our frequent-flier miles and hotel points for an out-of-town vacation. It was one of the best investments we ever made. Even if we hadn’t had the miles or points, however, I would have made it a sacrificial budget item. Splurging (as long as you’re not accumulating debt) to get away as a family is one of the best uses of money there is. Why?

On vacation getaways, you stay connected to your kids. You get to know them all over again and realize how much they’re developing. The rapid intellectual and social growth of kids in their teen years can be surprising if you don’t spend significant, and occasionally, concentrated amounts of time talking to them and watching them interact with others.

In essence, you’re “buying” memories. Our kids were never into acquiring tacky souvenirs, so once we landed, it was all about family time and experiences. We literally put an ocean between our kids and their friends, so there was no possibility of an exciting party or overnight to tempt them away or make them mentally absent for the evening. We wanted time together. If that required putting 1,000 miles between them and their friends and school activities, so be it.

Dramatic Memories

Getting away as a family, however, raises the sticky issue of extended families, particularly those who want you to join in their festivities. Writing as a rather recent empty nester, I’m all in favor of giving Grandpa and Grandma their due time. But at least consider this: Your kids have relatively few Christmases with only you. Over the course of their lives, they may enjoy 80 or more Christmases, but only a handful as young children. They won’t remember the first two, so the number they do remember before they grow up and move away is quite small. Since the older kids leave before the younger kids, you may only have a dozen Christmases with everyone together as children.

Spending some, or even many, of them with the extended family can be a wonderful time of memory making, especially if the extended family provides a healthy and worshipful Christmas experience. Driving to Grandma’s house can sometimes be the easiest route to happy childhood Christmas memories.

If, for any reason, Grandma’s house is not a happy place, think twice about sacrificing your children’s Christmas memories in an attempt to satisfy a spiritually unhealthy parent or accommodate other troublesome family members. The whole notion of a man “leaving” his mother and father and “hold fast” to his wife (Genesis 2:24) is a biblical warrant to make your immediate family your primary commitment.

There’s no Bible verse telling you to place your kids in a toxic environment or around a toxic relative just because it’s Christmas. You can honor your parents without dishonoring your children. You can spend time with the extended family on other weekends; you can call them on the phone or celebrate an extra Christmas a week before or after the actual holiday. You can even spend the occasional Christmas with everyone else, but you certainly don’t have to compromise all of your kids’ Christmases.

Look Ahead

Put yourself in my shoes. When your oldest child is 30, and you ask him or her, “What’s your most treasured Christmas memory?” what do you want to hear?

Once you’ve answered that question, focus on buying that.

I like the fact that Allison remembers being together and driving around in the family car over receiving a doll whose clothes cost more than many of mine did.

If I could go back and speak to myself as a young father, I’d tell myself to spend twice as much time creating Christmas memories, traditions and rituals, and not worry so much about the toys.

I love giving gifts, and I wanted to delight and excite my kids on Christmas morning. But if your budget forces you to choose only one — toys or experiences — go with the memories every time. If it means you can free up the money to “buy” a weekend or special holiday memory with the kids, then make the choice to drive your car a few extra years or get the “leather touch” chair instead of the all-leather recliner.

Things break. Memories grow. For Christmas memories you’ll treasure, invest in gifts that grow.

Gary Thomas (garythomas.com) is the Writer in Residence at Second Baptist Church in Houston and the author of numerous books on the rel="noopener noreferrer" family including Sacred Parenting and The Sacred Search: What if it's not about who you marry, but why?
Copyright © 2017 Gary Thomas. Used by permission.

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