When you think about the holidays of the past, what comes to mind? Do you remember each gift that you received and how well it was wrapped? Or, do you remember the stories that were told around the dinner table, the jokes that made you laugh until your cheeks hurt, and the feeling of togetherness? For many, the holidays are centered around the giving of gifts. Each year, it seems that holiday shopping deals arrive earlier in the retail shops, with Christmas trees, lights, and bulbs adorning the walls immediately following the Halloween promotional displays. Christmas tunes are being played over the airwaves and every other television commercial is focused on convincing you of how their product would make the perfect holiday gift.

Gift giving has been a part of celebrations throughout time. Prior to Christmas being established as a celebration of the birth of Jesus on December 25th, there were winter festivals in Europe and the Middle East that celebrated the winter solstice. Saturnalia, a Roman winter festival in honor of Saturn, was a weeklong festival where people gathered together to eat, drink, and share gifts in order to lift each other’s spirits for the long, cold, winter days ahead. During the fourth century, Christians phased out this pagan festival and replaced it with a celebration of the birth of Jesus, continuing the tradition of gift giving and fellowshipping, just as the three Wise Men brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the manger where Jesus was born.

With gift giving during the winter holidays going back centuries, it’s no wonder that marketers have taken advantage of using this time of the year as a way to increase their profit margins at the end of the year.  Additionally, most of us have become so accustomed to giving and receiving gifts during the holidays that we spend most of our time worrying about what to buy for each of our family members, friends, and co-workers, rather than taking time to enjoy the joyful spirit of the season. According to a 2016 Motley Fool article, “an alarming number of parents are putting their finances at risk to make their kids’ holiday wishes come true. An estimated 25% are taking drastic measures such as withdrawing money from their 401(k)s, dipping into their emergency savings, or taking out payday loans in order to purchase holiday gifts. And while a fair number of parents understand the importance of creating a holiday budget, a good 58% of families fail to actually stick to one.”

For those who have fallen on hard times, this ritual can also be a source of depression. If one has lost their source of income, it can be difficult to be around others during the holidays where gifts will be passed around. According to a friend who found herself in a similar situation, “Even though people understood what I was going through, I felt embarrassed when I would receive gifts from friends and family when I was unable to give them something in return. I really believe that it didn’t matter to them, but that didn’t change the way I felt about it.”

Parents in difficult financial circumstances may be afraid of disappointing their children if they are unable to meet the well-thought-out Christmas list requests. My friend and guest blogger Rodara Nelloms shared a story with me about a father who had fallen on hard times during the holiday season. “I remember dating a widower who had three children. Unfortunately, he had lost his business, was in the process of losing his home, and it just happened to be Christmas time. Rather than explain what was going on to his children, he chose to place himself further in debt by purchasing the high-end gifts that his children had requested. Knowing what he was going through, I often tried to encourage him to explain his position to his children, who were old enough to understand, and minimize the amount of money he planned to spend to fulfill his children’s Christmas wishes. But, the pain of his situation was too great, and he felt that it would be better for him to continue with Christmas as usual rather than disappoint them. I feel that it’s more important to teach your children while they’re young that gift giving is only a part of the holiday season. Spending time with family and building relationships will be the invaluable gift that they will remember when they’re older.”  By not fully sharing his situation with his children, Rodara’s friend may have lost the opportunity to build a deeper and perhaps, more meaningful relationship with his children, that could have taught valuable lessons to them all.

When money is not a factor, the giving of gifts can be beneficial for the gift-giver, according to Harvard professor Ellen J. Langer, “If I don’t let you give me a gift, then I’m not encouraging you to think about me and think about the things I like. I am preventing you from experiencing the joy of engaging in all those activities. You do people a disservice by not giving them the gift of giving.”

For most givers, the real gift is seeing the excitement and elation on the faces of the recipients upon unwrapping their gifts. After observing a loved one over time, it excites the gift-giver to provide a present that they’ve been eyeing for quite a while. In O’Henry’s story, “The Gift of the Magi,” young Della and Jim each sold their most prized possession to give a gift that the other had desired. Della cut off her hair in order to buy Jim a chain for his watch. Jim sold his watch to buy combs for Della’s hair.  Each wanted to see the excitement on the other’s face after opening their gift; however, they both realized that their gifts were actually the one thing that each had sacrificed for the other.

Too often, the holidays are overshadowed by the highlight of the retailer season, but the true celebration isn’t just in the act of gift giving, but in the time spent with family and friends. When loved ones get together during these times, there is often a joyful spirit that fills the air. It’s the perfect time to share stories with each other and catch up on major life events, such as promotions, baby announcements, or even the occasional wedding proposal. When you spend time together, you’re giving something more precious than a retail gift. You’re spending quality time with each other—something that cannot be exchanged or returned.

In spending time with your family and friends, you are creating memories. Our memories are the stories of our lives. As we get older, our memories give us something to remember. We all know that life can pass by very quickly. When we’ve lost a loved one, it’s those memories we’ve shared with them that will help us to keep them alive in our hearts. Remembering their smile, how they made us feel, and various activities that we’ve shared with them help us to feel their closeness well after they’ve departed from us.

If distance separates you from your loved ones, the holidays are usually the time where people make the effort to travel great distances to spend time together. This allows family members the opportunity to reconnect. Often, with busy work schedules and in starting new families, grown children do not always make the time to connect with their parents and other relatives throughout the year. It’s during the holidays that these trips are often planned, offering the space and time to reconnect with old family members and connect with new family additions.

For those who may be distant from their family, either emotionally or logistically, you can always create, de facto “family” with friends and others who have influenced your life. You may find that your life experiences have broadened your beliefs and perspectives, which may cause a separation with your immediate family members. As you surround yourselves with positive and supportive people with whom you can share a kindred spirit, you’ll find that rather than feeling the loss of not being able to connect with your family of origin, you can, instead, create a family of selection.

In my early days, while serving in the Air Force, I met an older couple that lived next door to me. Over time, we went to church together, spent some holidays together when I was unable to fly home to see my own parents and family, so their family became my family. I became known as another daughter to them, as they had three children of their own, and they became like parents to me. Granted, they were in no way replacements for my own parents as I have a great relationship with my family, however, it was nice to have another family with whom I could spend time with when I was unable to travel home to be with my family. Today, even though we are no longer neighbors, I still consider them to be family.

Although the giving of gifts has been a part of many celebratory traditions for centuries, the most important gifts that we can give each other is the gift of our ourselves through our presence, which is not necessarily through presents. This season, take the time to let those nearest and dearest to you know how much you love and appreciate their presence and influence in your lives. Gifts will wear out over time, but the memories and experiences that we have with our loved ones will last a lifetime.

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