The holiday season is here again. Today, I’m stepping away from the Bankruptcy Blog and blogging about some things I picked up over the years that may help you get through the holiday season.

Christmas is my favorite holiday! (Independence Day is a close second.) Here I am at 42 years old and I still look forward to Christmas as if I were 6. Of course, back then Christmas was all about leaving milk and cookies for Santa Clause in exchange for presents; preferably lots of toys. Today, it’s about spending quality time with family and friends and trying to create the same holiday memories for my children that my parents created for me. It’s also a time for me to reflect on the true reason I and many others celebrate Christmas, and that’s the birth of our savior Jesus Christ.

Not too long ago, I lost the Christmas spirit. I hated Christmas and dreaded its arrival at the end of each year! I went on a cruise one year just to avoid everyone. (Apparently, Christmas cruises are extremely popular.) I had become (bah humbug) . . . Mr. Scrooge!

How did Christmas go from being my favorite holiday to one I dreaded with despair? I can explain it in one word; materialism. It’s no secret retailers have hyper-commercialized the holiday season to take advantage of our holiday giving. Each year, it seems like the holiday inventory rolls out earlier and the holiday sales become less of a bargain. Coincidentally, I just read an article confirming my suspicions.

Whether it’s holiday shopping or holiday eating, it’s so easy to let our guard down and throw self-control out the window. In my case, I struggled with both. I love to shop just as much as I love to eat. Every year, I spent so much time, energy, and money buying gifts for a long list of family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, etc., etc. I even bought gifts for people I didn’t like! Most of the time I was motivated by a sense of obligation rather than a true desire to give. Exchanging gifts felt meaningless because I viewed it more as a trade or transaction. To me, a true gift is something given out of a desire to improve or benefit someone else’s life without any expectation of reciprocity.

After the holidays had passed and all the decorations were taken down, I would receive the damage report around mid-January. Opening each bill was a disheartening experience. My debt grew one bill at a time and I would be so angry I had spent so much. Not really how I wanted to start my new year! Looking back, I see how wasteful it was and I’m still angry with myself.

Finally, one year I had enough. I hated myself for hating Christmas and I wanted it to be special again. I wanted it to have meaning, and I wanted my children to grow up knowing we celebrate Christmas to honor the birth of Jesus Christ first as foremost. To get there, I (with my wife’s support) had to redefine how our family would celebrate Christmas.

First, I shortened the Christmas list. A lot of people got taken off the Christmas list not because they were naughty, but because I just couldn’t afford to buy everyone a present. Most gifts today go to my kids and their cousins. As for adults, my gifting is limited to those closest to me and only if I WANT to give them a gift. I will admit it does put you in an awkward position when you don’t exchange gifts with someone who has just given you a gift. However, some of this can be eliminated by having the conversation prior to the holidays. I think most people understand and appreciate when you explain that you limit who you buy gifts for over the holidays. It also relieves them of any obligation they feel they may owe you. But if you do get caught in that awkward situation, be gracious and say, “Thank you.” Let them know how appreciative you are. Later send them a thank-you note and maybe accompany it with some home-made baked goods, but only if you WANT to give. Also, remember to have a good attitude if you give a gift and don’t receive one in return. After all, you gave because you wanted, not because you expected a gift in return. 

After shortening the Christmas list, I started putting a little money aside each month specifically for Christmas. I wanted to get away from “Christmas on Credit.” It’s too easy to spend too much when you put it all on plastic. Unfortunately, at some point, the day comes when you have to pay the piper. Setting money aside specifically for Christmas eliminated the need to spend on credit. I now know my holiday budget well before going into the holiday season. By knowing my budget, I can plan my spending so I don’t have to rely on credit. I recently heard this piece of good advice, “There are two key factors to being a successful saver. First, set aside small amounts at frequent intervals. Second, don’t touch it!” It is a lot easier to save $20 every month than it is to come up with $240 at the end of the year. However large your Christmas budget, it is easier to build it up over 12 months than it is to come up with a lump sum at the end of the year. In doing so, you should be able to eliminate “Christmas on Credit” and the mid-January damage report. Now that’s a gift I can appreciate!

Those two simple things lifted a tremendous burden off my shoulders. Once again, I look forward to Christmas each year. Those who receive presents, receive better more meaningful presents, Christmas feels more traditional and less commercialized, and I stopped avoiding people during the holidays. Christmas can get lonely without friends and family to help you celebrate. After spending several years celebrating with only my wife, I can say I prefer Christmas with a larger crowd. Not that we had a terrible time celebrating Christmas’s on our own. We had a lot of fun and many good memories of quiet Christmas’s. But, it was selfish and Christmas is the one holiday where you should be putting others before yourself. Besides, it’s much more entertaining when you share it with others and you’ll have plenty of stories when you return to work after the holidays.

If you find yourself where I was a few years ago, here’s my advice to you. Sit down and think about how and why you celebrate the holidays. Ignore the pressure of social customs. Ignore the sense of obligation. Focus on what will make Christmas better for you and your family. Once you have a vision of how you want to celebrate Christmas, take steps to make it a reality. I wish you the very best this holiday season and Merry Christmas!