"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
December 18, 2013
Too Much Christmas
by Emily S. Jorgensen

I recently spoke to my good friend Jenny. She lives an upper middle class lifestyle — she’s a stay-at-home mom with a large house, a big yard, and a much-newer-than-mine minivan. She could afford to give her children a lavish Christmas.

But she is not going to do it.

Instead, she has given herself a $20 budget per child. She said she is tired of filling her house with stuff. She said they have too much stuff. She doesn’t want to just add to the stuff every Christmas and birthday.

Our conversation reminded me of one I had many years ago with another mom, Rochelle, when my budget was $20 per child out of necessity. I was telling her about my plans. I was pretty happy with the things I would surprise my kids with come Christmas morning on such a tight budget.

I knew it wasn’t much, but I also thought maybe this was better anyway, because it would help keep my children’s expectations realistic from year to year.

Rochelle turned to me and said, “We do it to ourselves, don’t we?”

Yeah, I think we do. Sure, the gigantic toy stores, the television ads, and the neighbor kids’ playroom all contribute to our children’s Christmas expectations, but at the end of the day, it comes down to what we encourage them to expect.

We love our children. We love to make them happy. We love to see their dreams come true. Perhaps we want them to have what we didn’t have.

But it is not really healthy to have all your dreams come true. Then what would you dream about?

Growing up, I knew my parents struggled financially. So I tried to put all my Christmas hopes into one thing, and bless them, they always came through.

The guinea pig that lived at my dad’s office for two weeks so it could be presented Christmas morning, the bicycle that was put together under cover of night in the far corner of the basement, the cabbage patch kids my mother sewed by hand night after night once we had gone to bed (because the store-bought ones were way too expensive) — these were all gifts my parents sacrificed to give me; they were all things I dearly wanted.

(Ok, technically I wanted a rabbit, but I accepted the guinea pig with grace. And bonus — it was apparently pregnant when my dad bought it, so then we ended up with three guinea pigs! I’ll take that over one measly rabbit, thank you very much.)

Even though we don’t struggle as much as my parents did, and could theoretically give our children more for Christmas, we are really put off by the perception that Christmas is the time to give $500 iPads to teenagers and motorized ride-on toy cars to kindergarteners.

My oldest daughter always asks for one or two special things, and then some “surprises.” It is times like this I think God knew what He was doing when He sent her to us first, because her siblings have adopted this strategy with their Christmas lists. Their lists are generally very short — perhaps the longest has three items on it.

I think it helps that we don’t have commercials in our home — we get our entertainment via Netflix and library videos. And I pretty much throw the Toys R Us circular straight into the recycling bin. But this attitude comes in part with just being happy with what we have, and that attitude can be modeled by us parents.

Besides the commercial onslaught that I feel we are beating back with a stick every Christmas, I often sense an oppressive onslaught of do-gooding.

Well-meaning traditions that get brought home from Primary, like putting hay on baby Jesus’ manger bed to mark each act of service we do for each other, taking plates of cookies to neighbors, caroling, volunteering at my children’s school parties, and even the ward Christmas party can all add up to just too much to worry about.

We can choose to embrace a small handful of truly meaningful traditions — some sacred, some secular, all of them about family, togetherness, love.

There are a lot of good things we can do around this season, but it seems to me like the ideal time to apply the “Good Better Best” principle of Dallin H. Oaks’ 2007 General Conference talk. For our family, we choose to keep: getting out the stack of Christmas-themed picture books at the start of the season, painting sugar cookies*, taking small tokens to family friends, packing as many colors of the rainbow onto one tree as possible, putting the stockings out on the couch cushions before going to bed, and opening presents after breakfast on Christmas morning so the eggs can somewhat counteract the sugar rush in the stocking.

Growing up, my father always read two things every single Christmas Eve: Luke 2 and The Night Before Christmas. This is another tradition we have chosen to keep. To be honest, both make me cry.

Luke 2 makes me cry because as I have grown older I realize the significance of those verses, and can imagine the discomfort of Mary, the joy of the angels, the awe of the shepherds.

The Night Before Christmas makes me cry because it symbolizes to me the magic of childhood, at its peak in the Christmas season. When I read it to my children I remember my father reading it to me and my siblings. It was my favorite moment of Christmas Eve. Even as a teenager I would stick around in the room and listen to it as he read it to my younger siblings.

In choosing these things, my husband and I have left some traditions behind from our own childhoods. They were all worthwhile and memorable, but there is not enough space in our family life to accommodate them all. So we choose the ones we love best. Someday our children will do the same.

I hope they keep painting cookies, though.

*To paint sugar cookies, dye evaporated milk with food coloring and brush it on the raw cookie dough cut-out shapes with a clean artist’s brush. The milk will turn shiny and bright in the oven when you bake the cookies. This avoids the typical need to decorate holiday sugar cookies with frosting. This is a trick my mom used as she desperately tried to limit our sugar intake. Thanks, Mom!

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About Emily S. Jorgensen

Emily Jorgensen received her bachelor's degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University. She earned her master's degree in elementary music education, also at BYU. She holds a Kodaly certificate in choral education, as well as permanent certification in piano from Music Teacher’s National Association.

She has taught piano, solfege, and children’s music classes for 17 years in her own studio. She has also taught group piano classes at BYU.

She is an active adjudicator throughout the Wasatch Front and has served in local, regional, and state positions Utah Music Teachers' Association, as well as the Inspirations arts contest chair at Freedom Academy.

She gets a lot of her inspiration for her column by parenting her own rambunctious four children, aged from “in diapers” to “into Harry Potter.” She is still married to her high school sweetheart and serves in her ward’s Primary.

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