The secret to an intentional Christmas

December 8, 2014 | 23 comments

Kendra Tierney

Kendra Tierney

I was surprised by the wide variety of reactions that bubbled within me when I read Kendra Tierney’s post about how she’s not giving her kids toys for Christmas.

In about three seconds, I went from “THAT’S NUTS!” to “It sort of makes sense but I would never do that” to “Maybe I should do that” to “I TOTALLY NEED TO DO THAT!”

After I thought about it a bit more, I decided that the specifics of the idea might not be the right fit for us (at least not for this year), but I continued to be inspired by the idea behind it. What I love about what Kendra is doing is that she’s questioning key cultural assumptions about what it means to celebrate this season — even some of our most deeply-entrenched assumptions, like the idea that there should be toys under the Christmas tree.

Emboldened by her example, I’ve started to look at every single thing we typically do during Advent and Christmas, and I ask myself two questions:

  1. Do we really have to do this?
  2. Does doing this reflect the values that are most important to us as a family?

I talked to Kendra on my radio show about this this week, and one of the interesting things that came from the discussion was the realization that you can’t choose activities that reflect your family’s values if you haven’t taken the time to clarify what your family’s values are in the first place.

I love the idea of having an “intentional” Christmas, by which I mean a celebration of the season the reflects the priorities that we claim to hold dear. Every year, I have a vague yearning for this concept — but I end up getting caught up in the chaos and feeling like I’m just drifting along, swept away by forces outside of my control.

After my conversation with Kendra, I’ve come to see that the secret to having an intentional Christmas is to take the time to discuss what really matters to your family. Then, once that’s clarified, take each new potential demand on your time, hold it up to that statement of values, and boldly ask:

“Do we really have to do this?”

I’m delighted that my discussion with Kendra is the latest episode on my podcast, which you can listen to below. I hope it provides you with some inspiration for your Advent and Christmas seasons!

(If you’re reading this on email you’ll need to click through to see the player.)

. . .

–> See all previous podcast episodes here.
–> Subscribe to the Jennifer Fulwiler Show here in iTunes or through your favorite podcast player.


  1. Dale

    My father changed the tradition one year. No presents, just Mass, and family and a huge breakfast Christmas morning. It was one of the best Holidays. The next year when we received one or two presents, we were so thankful.

  2. Elizabethe

    I’ve thoufht of this. I’m not quite brave enough to do it yet.

    What we have done is minimized and displaced time spent with family members who tend to commercialize the holiday. We don’t travrl on Christmas Eve or day, we save visits for a few days later.

    The other thing I’ve thought of doing is giving gifts on at Nicholas’s feast day and on epiphany instead of Christmas and to tie getting new presents with a session of purging and giving things away to good will.

  3. Theresa

    When my kids were little we started a tradition that they only got three gifts, like Jesus. One that we could do as a family, like a game; one thing they need (like clothes, or socks or underwear) and the third was something they wanted (like a toy). It worked well for us. As they got older we changed one of the gifts to be something from a Sharing Tree for someone else.

      • Renee

        Slight warning on this idea. We have a charity gift-tag tree at our church, and one older girl expressed the idea of just wrapping up her ‘old’ toys that matched a request. Her mother was quite embarrassed.

        Perfectly used items are fine and what sounds like ‘a sharing tree’ seems to be vs. a request for a new item by a charitable organization.

        In our area the biggest items are not actually toys. Items in need of donation are kitchen tables w/chairs and mostly complete dish sets. Hair dryers, microwaves, toaster ovens, bakeware.

  4. Renee

    Yes, intentional. I’ve been writing this week about why there is still a nativity display at city hall.

    Probably “the invention of electricity that municipalities and retailers decorated streets and centers for the holiday. Lowell (my city) also has a parade with sponsored floats, high school marching bands, politicians, and Santa. Make sense someone might want to put up a Nativity with it. Right?”

    Now we have volunteers putting up the Nativity, not city employees who do all the rest. This makes it intentional. (FYI, we have a large Buddhist community and they use public space as well for religious expression)

    It’s hard getting over the toy issue. I only have four children, and even they acknowledge they have everything they need. They can’t even come up with something they want. I grew up with the ‘gotta have that two” culture, it’s weird now that I”m religious looking back at that.

    One year when Cabbage Patch Dolls were ‘the thing’ I got one. I didn’t actually want one, but I had an older cousin who worked at a department store (before Walmarts) and as an employee she snagged one up for me and purchased it before the general public went in on Friday at 9am after Thanksgivng (Gasp….).

    Of course after Christmas break, every girl who got a Cabbage Patch Doll brought it into school. And only girls who had a Cabbage Patch Doll could sit at a particular table. I could sit there.

    Lovely Christmas memory…..

    The ‘war’ isn’t just Christmas, it,s everything. Look at poor Thanksgiving. We can’t even intentionally have dinner. Even our atheist friends are upset about Thanksgiving, and you don’t want them blaming the birth of Jesus for the stores being open at 6pm Thursday evening! The only national tradition in which things shut down is the Super Bowl, and that’s only because everyone wants to watch commercials.

    Having an intentional Christmas is a great start, to probably question a lot of our other practices.

  5. The other Becky

    The younger your family the more easily you can establish good habits, or gently bend the ones you have. If you try to change real family traditions then you have not only disappointment about no presents, or fewer presents, or less glamorous presents, you also have the disappointment of loss of family traditions. Also, none of this works unless your spouse and extended family that you celebrate with are on the same page. If you can’t do it as well as you want to, just remember that God can make good come out of all sorts of things.

  6. Jenny Evans

    “Do we really have to do this?” That’s the question that changed everything for us. Every year we bake like 6 different kinds of cookies in the days before Christmas and arrange them into cookie plates and drive around delivering them to people. Which is fine if you like it, but it really stresses me out! This year in particular I just could not deal with it, and it was like a lightning bolt hit me: we did not have to do this. The funny part is, probably none of our friends/neighbors will even notice, even though it was practically giving me an ulcer because I felt like we HAD TO DO IT!

  7. Sarah H

    I’m trying to be more intentional this Christmas. My two are older and we’ve been doing a Jesse Tree, which has been fantastic…but, of course, is never quite the peaceful activity I envision when I start. However, just spending a small time every day without the TV on together doing something focused is good. Whether it will become a tradition remains to be seen – it could become a RULE and then I’ll get stressed. It’s learning that if we don’t have time to do the Jesse Tree one day it’s not the end of the world and I’m not THE worst mother ever (I tend to dramatise).

    We’ve always been quite low key on present giving, finances prevent any more extravagance.

  8. Kendra

    It was great to chat with you Jennifer!

  9. Mary

    This touches all kinds of emotions for me. As kids, we had everything we needed, but my Dad, who’d lived through the Depression, thought Christmas was too commercialized. We got one or two gifts. All my friends got scads (to us) of stuff. My Mom still doesn’t put gifts under the tree. I have a very tough time enjoying the season, except for when I’m at church!!!

  10. Anonymous

    I cringe listening to this because it reminds me in many ways of how I was raised.

    I’m sorry to comment anonymously, but in the off chance my parents read this I don’t want to hurt them.

    “We do things the hard way because we’re the Smiths [not actually our name], and we don’t care that it’s the weird way. Our way is better.” My parents both grew up “in the world,” and raised us very differently, reacting against all the negatives they saw in our culture and trying to keep us from making the same mistakes we did. And I think they went overboard.

    We grew up hating feeling branded as the “weird Smiths” and feeling a deep craving to be normal. Not normal as in engaging in immorality. Just feeling like we could blend in and socialize easily with our peers.

    I notice little discussion of what Kendra’s kids actually _want_. Of course, the younger a child is, the more a parent’s discretion outweighs the child’s wants.

    But I grew up with the sense that harder is always better, and what I wanted was not a legitimate consideration in making life decisions.

    30 years later I have anxiety issues and emotional and physical exhaustion from doing things the BEST way ALL the time, never considering much what I actually wanted. There’s quite a bit of tension between some of my siblings and my parents to this day because of how we were raised.

    And my parents loved us. They were not abusive. They did loosen up in the later years. We all love each other. We all grew up okay, practicing Catholic even.

    But there are some deep deep problems with how we were raised.

    I think it’s important to be humble when we parent. We can’t create perfect children. We can’t create a perfect environment. We can show our children’s God’s love, give them a good example, teach them the Faith. They are not clay in our hands. God had them born into a particular society, and we don’t have to shield them from it and separate ourselves from it just to keep them Catholic. We can’t keep them Catholic. We can lead them to God and pray they stay with HIm.

    I don’t know if Kendra and her husband’s parenting has the same problems my own upbringing had. Maybe they don’t.

    But I really hope people will be cautious before taking this sort of “our way is better, harder is better” attitude. I prefer to take parenting advice from people whose kids are already grown!

    • Faith

      Thank you, Anonymous. My husband was raised “the harder way is the better way” and weeps every Christmas and birthday when we give him gifts. It is sweet (he didn’t cry at his baby’s births, or at our wedding) but also a bit sad. I wish he had had more joy growing up. An important consideration. I’m with you on the following the older and wiser; no insult to these lovely ladies. 🙂

    • Caroline M

      Yes, extremism tends to backfire. Part of intentionality is also “why” are we doing this? Is it in reaction to our past? Is it to look better or holier than our neighbors? Not saying your parents had bad intentions, but that must have been how it felt to you kids. I’ve read other accounts of kids who didn’t have a “worldly” Christmas (sometimes to the point of ignoring it altogether because it was “pagan”), and it seems so sad. I have so many happy memories of Christmas, and yes, some of them include presents, like when my parents had a puppy with ribbon around her neck waiting for me when I got home, or when I bought the first “real” present for my mom (a mug tree).

    • BlueSkiesTX

      Great post! I totally agree with you.

      • BlueSkiesTX

        Meant to say…”Great post, Anonymous! I totally agree with you.”

    • ellen

      This is a valid, charitable response and my thoughts exactly. Thank you, Anonymous.

  11. Julie Dienno-Demarest

    I loved your focus on “intentional.” I loved the insights that came out of your conversation with Kendra. Whenever I talk to folks about living intentionally, I usually end up referencing Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits–particularly Habit 2 and writing the Mission Statement. Doing so helps a family be explicit about which values they want to guide their family. And it’s not hard to do! Grab a sharpie and some scrapbook paper and discuss what values you want your family to live by. Even to say you’re Catholic… which virtues and practices do you want to guide your family? Are your decisions and priorities flowing from those values? It’s a great substantive conversation to have with your spouse and children.

    I also appreciate how you (Jennifer) recognize up front that the “no gifts” idea might not be for everyone–especially not right now, but that the idea of living intentionally, as it flows from your values, should be the focus. Too often we focus on the end result instead of the process… I hear you trying to get folks to pay attention to that process, particularly with your two questions.

    I wrote my own post after I reflected on yours. Thanks again!

  12. KAthleen

    I think her title, “Why I’m not giving toys to my kids” title is a bit more provocative than the actual idea behind what she is doing… She’s basically saying she’s giving games and art supplies.. but it isn’t that she isn’t giving her kids any gifts. If she said that I would probably disagree with her as being too puritanical. God is a generous and loving father who delights in showering gifts on his children. Our children learn that sometimes we receive unmerited gifts and sweets from God almighty and I think that wonder can begin as a young child during the Christmas Season. We do the 3 gifts (something to wear, something to read, something to play with) to keep over buying at bay, but I am always encouraged to be generous when I read the following GK Chesterton quote:

    “As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good – far from it.
    And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me. . . . What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.
    Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.”

    • Wright

      I read this post a few days ago and it’s been bugging me since. I completely agree with Kathleen in that God is generous and loving and he rejoices in our pure joy. The Christmas season drives me nuts because of this very thing. Frankly, I don’t think hijacking your kids’ Christmas is going to teach them any more about love and selflessness. They are kids. They want Santa to come! I think this whole idea is more about the adults wanting to assuage their own guilt for not being selfless the other 364 days of the year. Which brings me to my main point…the OTHER 364 days of the year! Why do we feel that we must make this grand display of love and giving and selflessness at Christmas when there are countless opportunities to do so the rest of the year…and right in front of our kids! Do you think little Timmy is still going to be down with no Christmas gifts when he hears you yelling at the car in front of you that won’t turn at the green light? The real lessons we can teach our kids come at the most mundane and almost unnoticeable times. THAT, I believe, is when they are really watching and learning. It’s not about making a point to the rest of the world, but it’s about acting out of love and selflessness when no one else, we think, is watching. But they ARE watching.
      As a mother of four, two of whom are teens, I’ve learned that nothing does more damage to the spread of His kingdom, than hypocrisy.
      So, to close, I think there are many ways to make Christmas more about Christ, and less about materialism. And I think that there are some really great ideas on this post. But remember, Saint Nicholas loved children and he loved giving. He is about joy and wonder and receiving even when we don’t always deserve. Let’s celebrate that kind of giving and be grateful. Let’s be like children!

  13. De Maria

    I think its wonderful that you have discovered how to have an “intentional” Christmas. As long as you don’t begin to think that your idea of an “intentional” Christmas is the way one should celebrate Christmas.

    One of the greatest joys a parent gets is the opportunity to give to their children. At the same time, this very act is a lesson for the discerning parent. It is a lesson which you can joyfully expound to your children. Everything that we have is from God. Be thankful! This is a lesson which we intentionally taught our children, not just at Christmas, but in birthdays and on any occasion when we had the opportunity to show them how much we had to be thankful for.

    Not only did we encourage them to receive with grace and thanksgiving, but we also encouraged them to give with joy, because God loves a cheerful giver.

    Perhaps, you shouldn’t limit yourself to having an intentional Christmas. But begin to have an intentional Catholic life. A life where you can explain to your children why you give, why you receive with grace and thanksgiving, why you attend Mass and give thanks the way that God wants you to do it through the Eucharist, etc. etc.

    I hope that didn’t sound harsh. I didn’t mean it that way.

  14. De Maria

    After I posted the above comment, I could no longer come back to your blog. I kept getting and x.vindico error?

    I had to get on another internet service provider to come back.

  15. Caroline M

    My husband and I don’t have kids yet, but I’ve been thinking about Christmas and how it will go. He lost his job last month, and we are scrambling to gather enough income between various part-time jobs. So yeah, presents to each other and our parents/siblings will be Good Will. I haven’t had the money or energy to decorate, so the apartment doesn’t look “Christmasy” either. But none of that affects the real truth about Christmas. If anything, it’s a tiny bit closer to the reality of most people on Christmas who have little to give or receive. God is rich in mercy, even when we are broke.

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