A parenting dilemma: Finding the religious meaning of Christmas gifts

The Rev. Eric Peltz and his wife, Ellen, are raising four young children, and every Christmastime they wonder how to teach their two boys and two girls that Christmas is about the birth of the Savior they believe in.

That’s not what the mall or the TV commercials or the cartoon specials or the other children at preschool are teaching the Peltz kids. The message everywhere seems to be: Christmas is about presents. Lots and lots of presents.

So the Peltzes took drastic action. They decided they would give gifts on St. Nicholas Day, which falls on Dec. 6. After that, they would focus on the religious aspect of Christmas – meaning no gifts from them to the children on Christmas morning.

Does it work? Cut to the Peltz’s living room in Silver Spring, Maryland, on Dec. 21.

In the apartment building lobby, there’s a gift-wrapping marathon going on. But up in the family’s home, Ellen Peltz is lighting the nightly Advent candles, reading aloud from the book of Acts, and helping the kids fold their hands to pray.

“What are we going to do on Christmas?” she asked.

And the children shout: “Santa!”

Oh.

Swimming against the tide of Christmas gift-giving is tough.

For parents across the nation, Christmastime raises questions of how to balance religious inspiration with materialism – and how to find the deeper spiritual meaning in the practice of gift-giving itself.

Katey Magill of Austin, Texas, thought about not giving gifts anymore to her five children, ages 4 months to 10 years. Between all their relatives who shower them with presents, they get enough toys at Christmas, she thought.

But she read Matthew 7:11: “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

“I feel like there’s something really nice about parents giving gifts to their kids, that aren’t based on anything they had to do to earn the gifts – just because we love them,” she said.

Thinking about how to “give good gifts,” she decided to make something homemade for each of her children each Christmas. That’s led to all sorts of fun craft projects: the time she made them travel carriers with their names on them, so that they could take their Legos in the car; the time she made marshmallow shooters out of PVC pipe. This year, her gifts include a clock with a rocket soaring toward the moon that she’s painting for one son, and a painted box for her girls to keep their paper dolls in.

She feels she’s found meaning in gift-giving again – she stocks up ideas all year. And her children have joined in; now they take joy in making homemade gifts for one another.

Sandra Hoekstra-Lower of Tinley Park, Illinois, wanted a biblical basis for her gift-giving as well. When she talks to her 5-year-old, the oldest of her three children, she tries to connect the presents to the purpose of the holiday.

“We started explaining to him as much as he could understand from the very beginning. He knows Jesus is the ultimate gift, and He’s the reason we have Christmas, and we wouldn’t have gifts without Him. We try to emphasize that,” she said.

To connect the story of Jesus’ birth to the pile of toys under the tree, Hoekstra-Lower carries on a tradition that she and her cousins used to enact when they were children: Before he can open his gifts, her 5-year-old has to recite as much as he can memorize from Luke 2, which describes the birth in Bethlehem.

He knows 14 verses. “When the angels do, ‘Glory to God in the highest; peace on earth,’ he basically shouts that,” Hoekstra-Lower said. “He’ll really shout and get excited about the angels.”

She knows he’ll shout, too, when he sees the roller skates waiting for him on Christmas morning this year.

The Christmas shopping craze is unavoidable, everywhere a parent or child goes from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. A CNBC survey asked those who plan to buy holiday gifts how much they expect to spend. The average shopper said they’ll spend $1,026 on gifts this year, up from $777 in 2016.

To many parents, showering their children with gifts is compatible with their religious beliefs. God’s lavish gifts to the world and a family’s extravagant spread under the tree go hand in hand.

Many other families, looking to cut down on holiday excess, follow a variation on the popular four-gift formula – something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.

When Katie Foutz of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was a child, her parents had a more religious version of that custom: Because the infant Jesus received three gifts, Foutz and her brother did, too. To represent frankincense, an ancient luxury, Foutz got something she wanted. For gold, a currency, she got something she needed, such as clothing. For myrrh, used in religious rituals, her parents gave a spiritual gift, such as a Christian book or a cross necklace.

Now that she’s a mother of three boys, ages 4 to 11, Foutz looks back fondly on those gift tags labeling each of her three presents “frankincense,” “myrrh” and “gold.” But she hasn’t kept up the tradition.

“I like the simplicity of it, but my husband really likes the magic of a pile of presents at Christmas,” she said. “Christmas has turned into magical wish fulfillment in our family. . . . There’s a whole pile of Amazon boxes in my closet right now.”

That’s the scene that the Peltzes wanted to avoid when they decided to remove gift-giving from Christmas. “We were just trying to figure out what we can do to separate the kind of Americanized version of all this, from what is the essence of the good news of Christmas,” said Eric Peltz, a pastor at Chevy Chase (Maryland) Presbyterian Church.

But it’s hard. At home, the kids talk about Santa, Santa, Santa. “Sometimes if you give presents to Santa, you get more,” 6-year-old Theo said.

“I would get Santa a squirting potty that squirts in his face!” chimed in Henry, 4, before they dash from the dinner table into their bedroom to play with the toys they already found in their stockings on St. Nicholas Day two weeks ago.

Their mother picks up 9-month-old Waverly and swings her out of her high chair. “It’s so interesting to hear them talking about Santa,” Ellen Peltz said. They’re at an age where you try to teach them something “and it sticks, and then it slides down the wall.”

But soon, she’ll summon them back to the table to blow out the Advent candles, a favorite nightly activity. Somewhere in the confusing mix of wanting and getting and praying and squabbling and singing, she knows they’re making memories.

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