The One-Present Christmas

What would happen if you truly pared down this year?

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Imagine this unusual holiday tableau: It is Christmas morning, and your Christmas tree spreads its lower branches over just a few wrapped boxes. Not a tumbling, dripping, “holiday creep” of gifts, but just one gift per child.

In this make-believe Christmas morning, that’s all the kids are getting.

“Is that it?” you can almost hear them wail as they look from the tree, then to you, then back again. Disbelief, outrage, and a general outcry of, “I’ve been robbed!”ensues.

Just One
That might be your kids’ initial reactions to a “One Gift Christmas.” But if you stick with it through the years, it may be the biggest blessing you can bestow on your children, bringing them a lasting sense of meaning and freeing the whole family from the rampant consumerism that chokes out organic family connection.

The issue is not the kids, said Massachusetts parenting consultant Jon Mattleman.

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“Kids will acclimate eventually,” he said. “The harder nut to crack is the parents, and answering the question, ‘Can we get a handle on ourselves and what we’re buying?’”

The kids might surprise you with what they value over the years if you stick with a One Gift Christmas.

“For several Christmases, when my girls were young adults, in addition to the usual gifts I wrapped a small box in simple cloth and a burlap bow,” said Jean Purcell, from the Baltimore, Maryland, area. “Inside was a poem, a Bible verse, or some other simple thing, offered for the recipient’s health, spiritual development, and happiness — happiness of the soul.

“We drew names to see who would open it, and it was amazing to see how each person hoped to be the one whose name was drawn. The gift has no material value whatsoever, and yet it was sought with such joy and anticipation,” she recalled.

One Massachusetts mom loves the idea of a One Gift Christmas.

“If you started it when the kids were really young, I could see it working,” she said.

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“We have created these monsters — I hate to call them that — who need so much, such an overabundance of toys, games, and electronics,” said the same mom. “And the parents are exhausted, racking up debt while keeping up with the Joneses, and underneath it all, they feel horrible about it.”

Materialism is hardly limited to America. In Britain, noted author and playwright Jeremy Seabrook took on the wreckage of Britain’s great cities in his 2014 book “Pauperland: Poverty and the Poor in Britain.” He wrote that the infatuation with over-the-top commercialism is a sign not of economic success, but of profound moral failure.

Is commercialism new? Hardly.

“These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar,” wrote John Muir, the Scottish-American philosopher, in his 1912 book “The Yosemite.”

What would Muir think of our unbridled consumerism today? American shoppers have said they’re planning to spend an average of $882 for gifts this holiday season, up from $861 last year, according to the 31st annual survey on holiday spending from the American Research Group Inc.

Parents are waiting in long lines to buy toys with money they don’t really have — and it sometimes gets ugly.

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“I was in line, right here in my town, when a man was buying a $500 ceramic castle — it must have been 4 feet tall — for a baby,” a New Mexico mom said. “None of us in line could believe it — in fact, it caused an instant camaraderie among us. When the clerk told him he couldn’t have it because it was the last one, he cursed her out. Merry Christmas, right?”

A Change in Tradition
You begin the One Gift Christmas by simply beginning.

“The one gift they receive can be an item they have really wanted. It doesn’t have to be flimsy or super cheap,” said Mattleman. “Explain your intentions, so that your kids can learn to understand another’s perspective. It’s important to clue your children in to the thinking behind the action, which in this case is, ‘One gift is sufficient, I offer it with love.’”

Also, try a concept that one blogger calls “strategic deprivation.” It tempers your child’s expectations throughout the year.

As Kristen Cross at wrote, “For us, this strategic deprivation has happened sort of naturally, because for most of our children’s lives, our income has not allowed us to buy them everything they want. Mind you, they’ve always had the necessities of life, along with a few extras, but their lives have not been anywhere near extravagant.”

She added, “Because of this, they’ve been quite happy with the number of presents they’ve received, and they’ve also been delighted with some fairly simple presents.”

It comes down to your will, as a parent, to do right by your kids as well as your faith. It’s a loving leadership in the home, and the beginning of a tradition that doesn’t add, but instead strips away — exposing the seriousness with which you regard your children’s development and the core message of a holy season.

Remember the Three Wise Men, who did not load down their camels with gifts for an infant. They brought one item of great value as a token of love and deference, and offered them in a spirit of reverence and awe.

And maybe there is an appropriate karmic aspect to the One Gift Christmas. We were given One Gift long ago, with the birth of Jesus Christ. Perhaps One Gift given today is the best way of acknowledging that.

Respect yourself and your family. Strip things down to a single gift.

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