Why We Don’t Give Gifts on Christmas (and what we do instead)

why-we-dont-give-gifts-on-christmas-morningIt’s no secret that Jake and I can be a little unconventional.

But, it may surprise you that we don’t give our kids gifts on Christmas morning. None. Zero.

When we tell people this, we get a variety of reactions:

  • The wild-eyed are-you-freaking-kidding-me, what-kind-of-person-are-you look (my personal favorite).
  • An I really want to roll my eyes at you because aren’t you taking this Jesus thing a little too far look.
  • Honest confusion. Why? 
  • Ohhhh, I get it, you must be a super fundamentalists look (btw, we’re definitely not).
  • Genuine Sadness for our kids. Oh. That’s so sad. You must have a really boring Christmas.

All of these are fair responses- it IS a little strange. But our family loves Christmas. It just looks a bit different than what other people are used to. 

When we first decided to experiment with our Christmas traditions, I worried that Christmas Day would be boring. If we don’t open gifts on Christmas morning, what is there to look forward to?

It was also this very issue that compelled us to find an alternative way of celebrating the birth of Jesus.

So, instead of waking up to a bunch of packages under the tree on Christmas morning, our kids wake up to a baby doll in a manger.

Before we’re all awake, Jake sneaks downstairs and sets up baby Jesus in a makeshift manger. When the kids wake up, they run into our room with excitement. Mom! Mom! Baby Jesus was born!

Together we head downstairs and see that indeed, Jesus WAS born, and He is in our living room. We gather around on beanbags, lights dimmed, and we peer over the edge of the manger. Baby Jesus. Silent Night, Away in a Manger, and O Come O Come Emmanuel play softly in the background, and we wonder out loud what that morning was really like a couple thousand years ago. We read the Christmas story together.

As we sit and listen and talk, we have homemade cinnamon rolls baking in the oven. By the time the buzzer goes off, the music has turned more upbeat, we pop on the lights, and have a little birthday breakfast for Jesus. When the kids were younger we would sing happy birthday, but now we acknowledge the occasion but skip on the singing.

What happens next changes from year to year, depending on where we are. Some things we’ve done in the past:

  • Played board games
  • Made Christmas ornaments.
  • Watched Christmas movies.
  • Cooked a meal.
  • Read some Christmas books.
  • Worked on a big puzzle.
  • Went outside and played in the snow.
  • FaceTimed/called people we love.
  • Spent the day hanging out with extended family.

And some things we haven’t done yet, but are future possibilities:

  • Invite people over who might be lonely or don’t have family around.
  • Do a cocoa bar.
  • Craft something that we can give away.
  • Plan and cook a “fancy dinner” together, and maybe even invite another family over!

The truth is, at first I was worried that making this choice would be disappointing for everyone. As a kid, I loved waking up on Christmas morning to a pile of gifts! I remember the year I received a Cricket doll, which I was convinced sounded and looked just like me. And then the one where I got my first CD player (along with Paula Abdul and Gloria Estefan CDs). I remember the year my dad gave me a diamond ring.

And while these memories are precious to me, I want to offer my kids (and myself) an opportunity to separate the celebration of Jesus’ birth and all that represents from the receiving of stuff. This is not an assault on presents or giving. We view it as an act of worship, and an intentional step in our family’s spiritual formation.

We’ve been celebrating like this for almost 5 years, and it’s still not easy for me.

Each year God and I have this little thing we do where I ask Him if this really makes a difference in our hearts… and will this screw my kids up later on… and isn’t it not-really-a-big-deal if we do the whole American Christmas thing because HELLO! I’m an American, and gifts and stuff is what we do here. And anyway, the wise men gave Jesus gifts so why wouldn’t we give gifts to each other? I mean, for the love, God gave Jesus to us as a gift, so my kids need to receive gifts too! How else will they know the joy of receiving Jesus as a gift if they don’t receive a bunch of toys?

And then I sit with that mess for awhile and my heart is quieted as I get to the bottom of my verbal outpouring to God.

Deep down, I’m afraid that I’ll be bored. Discontent.  I don’t believe Jesus will be enough for my family on Christmas. I’m afraid that if I don’t give my kids stuff, they’ll feel less love towards God later on. Part of it is that I just want to be like everyone else. And I’m afraid that I’m robbing my kids of something magical.

Each Christmas Eve I beg God to be enough to our family on Christmas morning.

And truly, my kids love it. Our celebration makes perfect sense to them, and I sense no hint of resentment. They know our family tradition isn’t the normal way of celebrating Christmas, and they’re fine with it. We laugh. We have fun. We celebrate. We all go to bed with full bellies and full hearts, thankful for the hope that Jesus brings to the world.


p.s. Before you think we’re super scrooges, we actually do give gifts. Our kids wake up on January 1st to a small pile of gifts under the Christmas tree — we call them New Year’s Gifts. The kids are always excited to see what they received. And they are excited to see if the sibling they gave a gift to loves it as much as they thought they would. It’s fun and simple and over pretty quickly.




6 thoughts on “Why We Don’t Give Gifts on Christmas (and what we do instead)

  1. this post is so wonderful!!! thanks for outlining and articulating it all so well. this is something I’ve wanted to attempt somehow and I just love what you wrote. wow, the makeshift manger idea is awesome!!!!

  2. Hi Jenna! Our family does still give gifts when we visit them over winter break. We talk about them as “New Years gifts” or “Winter gifts” to our kids. This year we opened gifts with my side on Christmas Eve and with my husband’s side on New Years Eve– so we were able to make Christmas Day a day without gift opening, even though we were with family on that day.

  3. Thanks Amanda! We’re still working it out and it’s not without kinks, but it’s been pretty fun to try and re-think things!

  4. Hi Claire, Thanks for reading and the encouragement! I hope that it sparks ideas for you and your family. If you end up trying something different out, let me know. I love to hear how others are experimenting and changing things up! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *