by John Ellis
The final day of school before Christmas break was a big day for my family. It was the day we got our Christmas tree.
After cleaning her classroom and packing up all the assorted gifts she had received from her students, my mom, with help from me and my siblings, would take down the classroom Christmas tree and secure it to our vehicle. Back at home, that afternoon kicked off a flurry of holiday activities. My mom would begin her annual Christmas baking – sugar cookies, pies, fudge, and cakes, among other sugar-filled delights. My brother and sisters and I would begin decorating our free Christmas tree. The beaded ornaments we had made as young children, the strand of colored lights with bulbs that got really hot, and, of course, the bird house with the red bird that chirped and sung when plugged in to an outlet were all hung on the tree that was already drying out and in which tinsel hung by our mom’s students still resided. Not only did we not mind having a second-hand Christmas tree, we loved it!
Our family was poor. Our dad was an independent fundamental Baptist pastor and our mom a teacher at a Christian school. Money was tight. Material goods scarce. Things like a Christmas tree were outside the budget. Our economic reality, however, did not stop my parents from constructing a home life that was rich in other ways. Books, music, home baked goodies, family traditions like renting dollar movies (only G-rated movies, of course) to pair with popcorn and ice cream floats (luxuries for us), and the gospel of Jesus Christ were prevalent beats in the rhythm of our family life. Christmas was a time of year when all those things dominated our home.
Like most kids, one of the things that prompted excitement out of me and my siblings were the wrapped packages that began showing up under that overly decorated, dried out, fire-hazard of a tree. Unlike most of our friends, though, the amount of presents under it were minimal. I’m sure this number fluctuated over the years, but during middle and high school I remember that the budget for our main present was around $20. With four kids, that added up to around eighty bucks, a significant pile of money for our parents. Our companion gifts were few and of the low-cost kind. Thankfully, in the early nineties, Louis L’Amour paperbacks could be purchased at Wal-Mart quite cheaply.
I was aware of the paucity of Christmas gifts in contrast to my friends. I knew that my friends were receiving things like televisions, Nintendo games, new bicycles, basketball goals with break-away rims, and the latest Nike Jordan shoes. And I didn’t mind. In fact, I was thankful. My mom’s spirit and hard work caused me to realize that her love was a greater gift than the new Nikes I wanted. I even had the strong suspicion that my mom had spent many months scrimping, saving, and planning Christmas to make the most of our family’s meagre financial resources. The few gifts I did get represented an amount of love and care that were priceless.
All of that partially explains why my children have a large pile of gifts under the tree every Christmas.
Minimalism is all the rage in me and my wife’s circle of friends and acquaintances. Buying your kids only three or four presents is a point of pride for many parents. No doubt, many people in our life look askance at our “bursting at the seams” Christmas tree. On the way home after visiting our house, I’m sure that friends have clucked their tongues at our materialistic excess and sadly worried over what we’re communicating to our kids. Well, let me tell you what we’re communicating to our kids, completing the explanation for why we bestow many Christmas presents on our children.
Our main job as parents is to metaphor our Heavenly Father. You know, the Father who owns, “the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10)” and the Father who “no good thing does he withhold (Psalm 84:11)” from His children. As metaphors for God the Father, we’re teaching our children that He is a Father who heaps blessings on His children simply for being His children and because He loves them.
The main blessing, of course, is Himself. Through repentance of sins and faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we “are Christ’s and Christ is God’s (1 Corinthians 3:23).” And if you think the gift of salvation isn’t excessive, well, it came at the cost of God’s own beloved Son. Giving us Himself demonstrates that God isn’t in the habit of being frugal with His children.
And if you think that I would allow my children to interpret their Christmas bounty in a manner that even leans towards the heretical prosperity “gospel,” I’m going to guess that you’ve probably never sat under my preaching or Bible teaching. However, as the earthly parents of our children, we believe that our home is to reflect God’s family, including eschatological aspects. Yes, reflecting our Heavenly Father means that there are times when we discipline those whom we love, as in our children. Yes, we expect our children to partake in the labors or our “kingdom,” chores that they grumble and complain about. Aspects of our family life reflect the reality that those of God’s children who are on this side of eternity are living, growing, and serving while still groaning under the effects of Sin’s Curse. But, to the best of our ability, our parenting steers away from those things on Christmas.
Christmas is a reminder of how much our Heavenly Father loves us. So much so, that He sent His only Son to rescue His people. And, like the Lord’s Day, it’s also a day that reminds us that God’s Kingdom has arrived, victory has been won, and that there is coming a Second Advent when our King will return. Upon his return, Jesus will usher all whom the Father has given him into our eternal home of the new heavens and earth. And if you think that our eternal home will be characterized by minimalism, I humbly suggest that you haven’t been paying attention while reading your Bible.
So, yes, throughout the year there are, of course, aspects of our parenting and family life that reflect the reality that the Curse affects our life in the family of God. But not on Christmas.
On a lesser note, but still important, I think, I try to honor my mom with how my family approaches Christmas. Her approach was one of sacrifice and, most likely, added stress on her and my dad. By God’s grace, my wife and I do not have to bear those costs, even as we pile presents high under the tree. But I can’t help but think of how my mom would smile her soft yet crooked Bell’s palsy smile while watching her grandkids’ delight as they discover new presents under the tree and when finally opening those gifts. I also believe (because she told me after I had become an adult) that my parents would’ve bought us many more presents than they did if they had been financially able.
I’m aware that some (if not many) reading this will cluck their tongues and scold, “But, John, you’ve already acknowledged that as a kid it wasn’t the amount of gifts your parents gave you that made Christmas special but the love and spirit with which your mom approached the holiday that made it special for you.”
If my mom were here, she’d roll her eyes at that. Being a kind person, she’d most likely let it go. But, I’m not my mom, so, again, stop.
When I was a kid, the gifts I did receive were not inconsequential. Yes, I understood my family’s financial situation and appreciated my parent’s efforts. But, not being an ascetic, I wanted more presents. And my mom understood that presents weren’t inconsequential, too. Why do you think she spent so much time and effort to scrimp, save, think outside the box, and do her best to give us as many presents as possible? In fact, an argument can be made that my parents were far more excessive with their gift giving, considering their financial situation, than my wife and I are. And I knew that as a kid. I was fully aware that the presents I did receive were a big deal; that they were a luxury that my parents weren’t required to bestow on me and could ill afford.
In conclusion, and answering this post’s title, I don’t know how many presents a Christian parent should buy their kids. Frankly, outside of my own household, it’s none of my business. Because unless I’m talking about my own family, I don’t know all the variables and family dynamics that go into a decision like that. My over 1,700 words above aside, I don’t care if you adhere to the “something to wear, something needed, something to read, something wanted” approach to Christmas shopping. I don’t care if your family donates whatever presents you would get to charity. And I don’t care if you spend Christmas Day sitting in sackcloth and ashes contemplating the tragedy of humanity’s rebellion against their Creator …. actually, I do care about that; don’t do that. Just, whatever you do, whatever approach you take, do so in full faith before God. And the only way parents can do so, I think, is to intentionally connect what you do to how you and your spouse are a metaphor for God the Father. My wife and I have decided that the best way to do that when it comes to Christmas is to try our best to reflect the lavishness of the gift of Christ and the eschatological material blessings that God will bestow on His children after the Second Advent.
Soli Deo Gloria
 Considering how hot those lights got and how dried out that tree was, it’s only God’s grace that our tree (and double-wide trailer) never went up in flames.
 I know this, because my mom told me when I was in 7th grade. That year, I asked for Fleer’s complete set of baseball cards. It cost close to 25 bucks and my mom told me that if I got it, that would mean that I would have fewer presents under the tree since it was more than the $20 she had budgeted. I was fine with that. On a side note, when that complete set of baseball cards showed up wrapped under the tree, I was excited and filled with suspense even though I knew what it was based on the shape of the box. Even knowing what it was didn’t stop me from trying to peek through the wrapping paper to see what it was.
 I’ve been wanting to write something about crunchy noses turned up at consumerism for a while now. Maybe in the future, I’ll flesh this out further. For now, allow me to point out what I have always found a delicious irony – those who are the quickest to denounce consumerism are, in fact, the worst practitioners of it. Ideological consumerism isn’t how much you buy/consume or what you buy/consume; it’s defining/identifying yourself by what you buy/consume. Those who smugly denounce people who shop at Wal-Mart or eat at the Golden Corral are defining themselves by the choices they make as consumers. With the luxury of living in the richest nation that has ever existed, many of my crunchy, “anti-consumerism” friends are making choices as consumers that have been denied to the vast majority of humanity throughout this world’s history and they are using their luxurious and privileged consumer choices to shame others. Ironic, indeed.