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Make More Meaning this Holiday Season

By Mark Heller

The Holiday Season is already upon us! Thanksgiving is in the rear-view mirror, the first night of Hanukkah is right around the corner, and Christmas will be here in no time. It’s hard to live in 21st century America and not feel the push for consumption that comes at us in so many forms during this time of year. Our children feel it too. And if the only messages they get about the holidays are the ones they get from swimming in the sometimes treacherous waters of our consumer culture, we run the risk of them growing up having missed the point. We have work to do. How do we help them to make better sense of the frenzy of this season? How can we be sure that they have an appropriate “take-away” from the season, one that is not measured purely in terms of their “take”?

Like many others, I suggest that a key step in this process is that we resolve to teach our children not just THAT we give gifts during this season, but also WHY we give gifts at this time of year.

Christmas gift-giving stems from many places: from commemorating God’s gift of Jesus to the world, bringing redemption and everlasting life, from the gifts the Magi brought to the infant Jesus in gratitude for God’s gift, and from St. Nicholas’ generosity to children, among other sources.

Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates perseverance in the face of challenge, faith in God and God’s power, and freedom to worship as we see fit. The gift-giving tradition comes from the giving of gelt or coins, that commemorates one of the freedoms won by the Maccabees in their against-all-odds victory over the Syrians (the freedom to coin their own money). In modern times, much of the gift-giving associated with Hanukkah has come from the coincidence that the holiday falls during the same powerful season as Christmas.

In our more secular world, we have come to view holiday gift giving as an occasion to show love and appreciation for family. Whether your family’s reason for giving is religious or secular, it should be clear to your children that there IS a reason for giving, and that the season is not just for getting. This is a challenging task, as our children’s deep relationship with the media and consumer culture has contributed to their seasonal sense of entitlement about receiving gifts.

I believe young people are capable of comprehending the differences between excessive consumerism and appropriate gift giving, if they have careful and intelligent guidance from the adults in their lives. If we help our children take the emphasis off of gift-receiving and instead put it on thoughtful, caring gift-giving, we will be doing much to foster both maturity and social responsibility.

I believe children are hungry to find purpose and meaning in all that they do. They are receptive to discussing the big questions. Especially at this time of year, they can be taught to feel the power of giving. They can be inspired by our guidance.

Why not try giving to our community and our world by giving time and/or gifts to local shelters or charitable groups? You could go international through Alternative Gifts International (altgifts.org), Heifer International (heifer.org), or support Rainforest or Coral Reef adoption through the Nature Conservancy (nature.org). There are plenty of gift opportunities out there that can balance your child’s holidays in ways that will bring enhanced meaning to their experience.

This was brought home to me through an experience I had at my school. We have frequently welcomed clergy from many different religions as guest speakers regarding their denomination’s holidays and traditions. A few years ago, a minister who was speaking to our high school students about the religious meaning of Christmas began to decry the commercialization and consumerism that had, in his view, obscured the true meaning of the holiday. Our students were very receptive to his articulate and sensitive approach to the issue, and one of them asked the minister if his family gave each other gifts at Christmas. When he told them that they didn’t, that they gave to others less fortunate instead, our students were greatly impressed and even inspired. They sought more opportunities to give to those less fortunate, and wound up building a strong connection to Metropolitan Ministries through a couple of their clubs.

The ways we speak to children matter. Instead of “What did you get for Christmas?” try asking “What did you give?” Instead of focusing on “What do you want?” how about “What would you like to show with your gift?”

Ultimately, the holidays are what you decide to make of them. You can make your family’s traditions be much more important than the gifts. Follow or create them by spending time together trimming the tree, hanging stockings, baking cookies (especially using passed-down recipes), lighting the candles, or attending the midnight mass or service. Strive to do these things the same way, year after year, for the patterns you follow together will create much more powerful and lasting memories than this year’s trendy toy ever could. Happy Holidays!

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Mark Heller is Head of School at Academy at the Lakes, a PreK3 – 12th grade independent school in the North Tampa area. Academy at the Lakes serves students from Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, and Hernando counties. For more information about Academy at the Lakes, visit academyatthelakes.org.

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