What are your Christmas traditions? Trimming the tree? Baking and decorating cookies? Cooking special dishes reserved for the holiday season? If you’re a parent, surely it includes a family gift exchange.

Growing up, those were all traditions we followed, and when I got married and had kids of my own, it was a no-brainer to bring those same traditions into my newly established family.

However, six years and four kids into my parenting journey, I found myself dreading what was supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. Shopping for gifts was taking up all my time post-Thanksgiving, on top of church Christmas play rehearsals, recitals, and countless Christmas gatherings. I was at my wit’s end. I had come to associate the holiday season with utter chaos and overwhelming fatigue.

One December night, frazzled, I asked my husband, Moses, a rhetorical question: “What if we stopped giving Christmas gifts to the kids?”

To my surprise, he didn’t immediately shut down my idea. I guess it wasn’t a rhetorical question after all. By the time the next Christmas rolled around, we had made our decision: gift exchanges would be no more in the Sanchez household. The harder task would be getting our extended family on board. 

Rethinking the Christmas gift exchange

To paint a picture for you, as a first-generation Filipino-American, Christmas is a main event to say the least. There’s an old joke that Filipinos only celebrate Christmas during the months that end in “ber.” If you’ve ever visited the Philippines anytime after September 1, you would see that’s no exaggeration. Not to mention, I have four sisters close in age, and I’m the only one with kids. The tita (aunt) temptation to spoil your nieces and nephews is real, and my parents could hardly help but overindulge their only grandkids.

I’ll never forget the dread I felt as I sent a text to our extended family, politely asking them to skip the gift exchange. I was careful to avoid questioning their motives. Instead, I explained we would reserve birthdays as a time to shower our kids with presents. 

The Christmas season would be our opportunity as a family to emphasize other values: 

1. We want to create memories as a family. In other words, we want to emphasize experiences over things.

My family and I live in New York City, and are fortunate enough to have access to plenty of festive Christmas activities. One experience we’ve experienced together is visiting the famous Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and the Holiday Train Show at Grand Central Terminal. Another memory we’ve experienced as a family for the past several years has been staying at a friend’s cabin in the Poconos over the days leading up to Christmas and spending quality time there eating junk food, watching our favorite holiday movies, and playing board games. 

2. We want our kids to prioritize serving others.

We’ve given out bags of coffee to strangers we pass by on the street, or gift cards to the workers at the bodegas we frequent (small grocery stores common in NYC; if you know, you know), or baked cookies for our neighbors in our apartment building. 

In the animated short film A Charlie Brown Christmas, the wise sage Charlie Brown bemoans the fact that materialism has upstaged the celebration of Christ’s birth and a spirit of generosity has been nearly forgotten during the holiday season. I couldn’t agree more.

Several questions sparked our decision to redefine Christmas traditions for our family:

  • Could there be an alternative to the self-centered, materialistic, American cultural celebration of Christmas?
  • We have the responsibility as parents to shape the values of a generation that will outlive us, how will we steward this well?
Find holiday encouragement for you and your family in our Holiday Survival Guide.

Replacing the gift exchange with new holiday traditions

We are now six years into our holiday tradition, and as expected, we have tweaked it a bit (although the same values steer any changes we make). We still don’t do traditional gift exchanges, but we do a “Secret Santa” in which each kid is randomly assigned a sibling to shop for at Five Below

We’ve been consistent for the past three years to get away to the Poconos, sometimes at our friends’ cabin and sometimes at a Christian camp site. We now have a hot cocoa bar and watch our favorite Christmas movies while chomping on homemade popcorn. One year, my sisters joined us and the plastic wrap game tradition was born, in which small toys and candies are wrapped tightly within a ball of plastic wrap and players take turns unwrapping, keeping any prize that falls out during their turn. For the past five years, we’ve visited Dyker Heights in Brooklyn, known for their lavish Christmas lights displays, and the kids look forward to buying overpriced ice cream from trucks that line each block of the neighborhood. 

I know some of you may be reading this and thinking: “Grinch–ahem. I mean, Marilette, that all sounds noble, but my kids would hate me.” Or maybe, “What would my parents think if I deprived them of the chance to spoil their grandkids?” 

To which I would just offer a couple paradigm shifts that would apply whether or not you decide to buy presents.  

  • What if we valued experiences and quality time over more “stuff”? In lieu of toys, you can offer a trip to the ice cream shop, a movie, concert or sporting event, or maybe consider a gift that keeps on giving like a year-long membership to a museum or botanical gardens.
  • What if we valued buying educational toys or enhancing a current talent or interest? Instead of buying the latest flashy toy that your kid will lose interest in within a couple of days, what if you bought your musically-inclined child a new keyboard or guitar? Do you have a budding artist in your midst? Try buying them a new art kit, easel, or even art lessons for the year. 

Choose what’s right for your family

I recently asked my family members if they remember their initial reaction to that infamous text. To my surprise, my sisters recall not minding at all. One of them, whose love language is quality time, was excited for the opportunity to redirect her funding toward things she could experience alongside the kids. Two were relieved to at least have the opportunity to spoil the kids on their birthdays with no limits. One of them was excited at the prospect to be innovative and create new traditions. 

My mom recalls her and my dad’s disappointment in not being able to see the excitement on the kids’ faces while opening presents during Christmas. I concede that there are different dynamics at play between being a grandparent versus a parent. All that to say, I have a newfound respect for my parents who respected our boundaries, despite not wholeheartedly agreeing with our family’s decision. 

My intention in sharing our nontraditional family tradition is not to be closed-minded and pushy about all families needing to follow in our footsteps. I simply want to encourage parents not to mindlessly follow the traditions thrust upon us by society at large. Instead, let’s realize the freedom we have to create our own family traditions and values. 

As parents, we get to choose what is best for our family in each season. We have every right to switch up the status quo, and must remind ourselves often that there is always room to tweak and pivot from the “normal” as time goes on. I hope hearing a snippet of my family’s story can be a reminder to others of the freedom we have available to us in Christ in our parenting journey and beyond.

Adapted from “Why I’m Rethinking Gift Exchanges This Christmas,” originally published on Marilette Sanchez.com. Used with permission. Copyright © 2023 by Marilette Sanchez. All rights reserved.

Marilette Sanchez is a New Yorker passionate about finding the connections between God, relationships, and pop culture. She is wife to Moses, a homeschooling mom to five young children, and a full-time missionary with FamilyLife. She believes there is more to the Christian life than hypocrisy and more to pop culture than shallow art. College sweethearts and NYC natives, she and her husband, Moses, are FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® speakers known for their transparency and their ability to inject their love of hip hop and pop culture into their discussions of love, sex and marriage. She has recently co-founded an online apparel company to raise awareness for mental health issues in the church and communities of color. Follow her parenting and homeschooling journey on Instagram at @bigcitybigfamily and her musings on womanhood and pop culture at marilettesanchez.com