There were years when I read The Hundred Dollar Christmas to remind myself to focus on what matters: Less commercialism, more love. Less spending, more making. Less rushing, more time with family. A shorter gift list, a shorter to-do list, a shorter list of activities. More Jesus.
There’s something almost romantic about having much but choosing to spend little so that we can focus on the real meaning of the season and give away our excess. But sometimes, a far-less-than-hundred-dollar-Christmas might be the reality of our current means. Now, a simple Christmas is not something we romantically choose to do, but it is something that is required of us.
I was talking with my son recently about something, and he said, “You just have to do the best you can with what you have, Mom, just like you always say.”
Yes, I do always say that. And yes it is true. “What is that in your hand?” (Exodus 4:2). What has God given me today? This is what I have to use and to give.
I pull out the two or three small boxes of Christmas things that are stacked in the back of my closet. I’ve only saved a fraction of what I had before, and as I unwrap it all, I’m glad to see that I kept what is most meaningful to me: Some special things the kids made. A couple of ornaments that belonged to my grandmother. A too-big vintage table cloth. And some other things, but not much else.
Nothing I have is beautiful for others to see when they walk in my door. As I set things out and tack things up, I’m struck how ugly the walls are and how harshly the natural winter light falls into my apartment. Everything I’m setting out looks tinny to me, the placement contrived. It’s going to be hard to create “magic,” I think.
Wait. What are you going for, I ask myself? Now is the time to remember that a beautiful life and a beautiful celebration can’t be bought. It is not a matter of decorations; it is a matter of the spirit.
I think of Christmases when I was a young girl. My family was not well-off, but my mother created a special ambience in our home, and the magic was always centered on the gift of Jesus at Christmas. Mom did the decorations well, too, but thinking back, it wasn’t the stuff of magazines. Everything was festive and homey and utterly charming, but Mom created our environment with what was in her hand, and it wasn’t always much.
And not much felt more magical than going to Grammy and Grampy’s house on Christmas morning. The wood stove rumbled heat cozily through the house, women bustled in the kitchen, a small lighted tree sat on a living room side table, decorated with Grammy’s same old ornaments year after year. A dish of hard, old-fashioned Christmas candy was in a dish beside the tree. And there were stockings on the mantle and a few gifts waiting to be opened.
What was wonderful about those Christmases past was the tradition—the family together, the laughter, the games, that sense of wonder that comes so naturally to children. The celebration was the same every single year. The focus was not gifts or decorations. In fact, Grammy was not much of a decorator at all. But there was a spirit of love, welcome, warmth, joy, and anticipation that permeated the house, and to a child, that feels like magic.
Isn’t that what Christmas is about? Anticipation? Anticipating the birth of our Saviour? The celebration we set up is a tangible reminder of that. The advent readings and calender, the decorations, the waiting, the wonder of the gifts and the giving, and the meal—it can all help us to focus our hearts and minds on how wonderful is the coming of our Savior.
So, where is my heart? Am I going to be distracted by the ugly natural lighting and walls of my living room and my quirky, decidedly unbeautiful decorations? Or will I let my heart fill with a sense of the anticipation and joy of the season?
I turn on the living room lamps and start the Christmas music. Singing along with Nat King Cole, "Oh night divine, when Christ was born. . . ," I tidy the room. I hang up a few of the Christmas calenders Lissy made me year after year during her childhood—all open to the December page. I find a little bag of paper snowflakes my children cut to hang in the windows of our high desert home, and I tack a few of them to the mirror. This is not a beautiful decoration, but it is so sweet to my heart. I am eager to resume work on the homemade gift I have in mind for my children. It won’t be impressive, but it will be made with love. I pull out my advent reader and set it with my Bible.
I begin to look for Jesus. And suddenly everything looks different.