I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, but there it was. Right behind the aisle of Halloween decorations and candy stood a selection of Christmas trees. The juxtaposition of the two holidays took me by surprise at first, but I soon shrugged it off as just another sign of the times. For whatever reason, the Christmas season seems to start earlier and earlier each year.

While part of me can’t wait for Christmas, it’s sad to see one of the most sacred holidays on the Christian calendar overtaken by commercialism. Many Christians share a strong desire to protect the holiness of Christmas, yet struggle with what to do.

My wife, Tanya, and I faced this question early in our marriage. We were married on December 15, 1995. When we returned from our honeymoon (just two days before Christmas), we were immediately faced with a thousand decisions about our Christmas. Which parent’s house would we visit first? Which traditions would we follow? What about presents?

After a few very disappointing and stressful Christmases, we realized that we had a problem. We had managed to create an unholy mess filled with endless shopping and very little joy.

We knew we needed to make some changes, so we decided to engage in a radical experiment to reboot Christmas in our family and cut back on the influence of commercialism. Some of our solutions were pretty counter-cultural; but in the end, they proved to be worth it—especially as we began raising our children.

If you find yourself longing for a purer, less commercialized version of Christmas, then you might want to try our experiment yourself. Be warned, however; purging commercialism from your Christmas might be harder than you think.

1. Stop asking your kids what they want for Christmas.

From the moment my kids were able to speak, every well-intentioned person they spoke to in the months leading up to Christmas asked them “What do you want for Christmas?” Over the course of a child’s life, they will hear this question countless times, helping to frame their expectations for Christmas as a time to receive, not a time to give.

I realize that we all hate to disappoint our kids. If little Johnny tells us he really, really, really wants an overpriced Super Mega 2000, then some way, somehow, a Super Mega 2000 must find its way under the tree. But too many gifts are bought more out of obligation than a genuine desire to give your child that particular gift.

A better question to ask your kids would be, “What do you want to give for Christmas?” With that simple change, the focus is moved off of self and onto others. It gives them a practical opportunity to apply the words of Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Naturally, this will make your gift-giving job harder, but it will also make it more personal. Your gift will be driven by what you know about the person and what you think that person might enjoy. It may even force you to get to know them a little better.

2. Ditch the Christmas list.

Christmas lists can certainly ease the gift selection process, but they also have a negative side. They create expectations—they lead us to focus on what we want. These expectations often cause a great deal of stress. One simple way to relieve the pressure is to eliminate the expectations. Give your loved ones the freedom to express their love for you in whatever way they see fit. They might not choose what you would expect, but remember, it is the thought that counts.

In our immediate family on Christmas morning, we receive only three gifts—one from each member of our family. When we are choosing the gifts we will give, we ask ourselves, What is something that this family member would really enjoy? The only real requirement is that we must be excited to give that particular gift.

We give money to our children to purchase the gifts they are giving. At times, if the gift is right, we have allowed them to be extravagant (within reason). Sometimes they come up with some pretty wild ideas, but the joy in their eyes as they give their gifts is priceless.

Today, no one in our nuclear family creates Christmas lists. In fact, asking for a particular gift would be a sure fire way to guarantee that gift doesn’t find its way under the tree. The fun is in the surprise. We sneak around and hold secret meetings to help each other think through gift ideas. The clandestine operation creates excitement and builds anticipation.

It also gives us a chance to think through the life situation of each family member. What’s going on in their lives right now? What do they need? What would they enjoy?

Some of the most memorable gifts we’ve had would never have made their way onto a traditional Christmas list.

3. Forget Santa … or at least downplay his role.

I know, I know, I’m hitting a touchy subject. Santa represents the fun, magic, and childlike wonder of Christmas to millions. What harm can come from adding a little Santa fun?

Well … you probably wouldn’t be reading an article on how to fix what is broken with Christmas unless you recognized that something wasn’t quite right. Somewhere along the line, Christmas was hijacked by commercialism. And while we can’t blame Santa for all of it, he’s not completely innocent either.

For all the good that he did, the story of Santa taught many of us to focus on receiving. It teaches us that the impossible, way-too-expensive gift will somehow magically appear under the tree. Once we grew up and learned Santa wasn’t real, the childlike wonder of Christmas became elusive. Increasingly, Christmas became a holiday “for the kids.”

If you want to take the focus off of getting, then you’ll need to find ways of downplaying the role of Santa. We taught our kids the historical story of Santa, but he was never given an active role in our Christmas.

If Santa is already deeply ingrained into your traditions, you can start by putting your name on the “big” gift and letting Santa take credit for one of the smaller ones. Eventually, relegate his gift to a simple stocking stuffer. Over time, the “magic” of Santa and his gift is replaced by appreciation for the real giver … you. Your kids will come to know that you are the one who knows them, loves them, and sacrifices for them, not Santa. How can that be a bad thing?

4. Focus on the real gift.

Christmas is not primarily about the presents we give each other. It’s not even primarily about family, food, and friends. While all of these are welcome additions to the Christmas celebration, at its core, Christmas is about Jesus. The whole reason we celebrate Christmas is to commemorate the gift that was given to mankind when Jesus was born.

Many of us go through the tradition of Christmas each year without paying attention to this most important gift. We know in our heads that Christmas is about Jesus’ birthday, but it doesn’t go further than that. It is as if God gave us a Christmas gift that we have refused to open.

Have you ever unwrapped the gift offered through Jesus? Jesus didn’t just come to save the “world.” He came for you. Even if you were the only person on earth, He still would have come. As we read in John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

If you haven’t yet opened this gift, there’s no better time.

For those of you who have opened this gift and accepted Jesus’ sacrifice on your behalf, use the Christmas season as a reminder and celebration of what He has done. That’s what my family tries to do. At some point during Christmas afternoon, we gather in the kitchen and collectively prepare a birthday cake. When it is ready, we light a candle and sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. It may seem silly, but this simple tradition has helped us to remember why we celebrate. It also creates a natural moment to read the Christmas story together.

5. Invite Jesus to the party.

Focusing on the real gift at Christmas can be more difficult when the extended family meets. It’s often all we can to do to gather our motley crew and have it end peacefully.

Look for ways to help the family focus on something beyond the gift giving. FamilyLife, for example, offers some creative questions to use around the dinner table. Whatever you do, remember that your behavior is the best witness for Christ. By virtue of your presence alone, Jesus has already been invited to the party. Let His love, peace, and joy shine through you. When you do, people will see the real meaning of Christmas.

We’ve done this each year by singing Christmas carols up and down our block. In the beginning, I was only able to convince a couple of brave souls to join me out in the cold, but now the crowd has grown to include harmony singers, a guitar, violin, and even a trumpet (So much for having a silent night!). Not everyone in the family sings, but even those who don’t care much for the religious side of Christmas typically join in the tradition.

It wasn’t easy for us at first, but we’re glad we did something to prevent commercialism from overtaking our Christmas celebration. We’ve followed these guidelines in our home for the past 20 years, and I’m glad we have. Christmas today looks much different than it did when we first started. It is simpler, calmer, and more joyful.

When the time comes for us to exchange gifts, the pace is slower, more deliberate, and much more meaningful. Each gift has a story, each choice a “why.” Gifts are not just opened and tossed aside in a mad dash to open them all. They are discussed and individually appreciated. If anything is coveted, it is the honor of who gets to be the first one to give their gift.

In this environment, it has also been much easier to keep the focus on Christ. He is no longer simply an afterthought but the very heart of our celebration.

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