Three Gifts for Christmas

A bit over a decade ago, my husband and I became good friends with a classmate of mine and his wife–for the blog, I’ll call them David and Georgia.  We spent lots of free time together–everything from watching movies to cooking to running errands together.  As you can imagine, when the holidays rolled around, we spent them together, too, and I was struck by a tradition our friend David told us about.  He and his two siblings received only three gifts apiece at Christmas from his parents.

I was amazed by this kind of minimalist Christmas idea, but I also knew enough about David’s family to know that his mom put flags on her front porch for every season and holiday, so they might not consider themselves minimalists.  David grew up in a military family, and Georgia was great at not being attached to stuff–they purged their stuff on a regular basis, so their apartment was always tidy, unlike the one I shared with my husband, brimming with the detritus of too many hobbies and decorations and sentimental items.  I was always amazed at David and Georgia’s ability to not be attached to stuff the way that I was (and still am).

When I learned that David got only three items at Christmas, something clicked for me.  He was TAUGHT to not put too much importance on STUFF.  Keeping gift-giving as a smaller part of Christmas, not the main event, kept his family’s priorities in order.

We are far from Scrooges, I promise!
We are far from Scrooges, I promise!

Growing up in my house, money was always really tight.  My mother was always notably more stressed around the holidays because she always felt the pressure of more, more, more for Christmas.  I don’t think it was any one thing that made her feel this way–it was just an expectation in society that children should receive lots of gifts.  She felt the pressure, and of course four kids writing out long wish lists didn’t help, either.

When David told me that his parents conscientiously had this rule of three gifts, I realized that my mother would have been much less stressed about the holidays.  Sure, maybe I would have protested as a twelve-year old, but if I knew that I was getting three gifts from my parents, I wouldn’t really be able to complain if I got only three gifts. It would have been the expectation, not a shortcoming, to have three gifts under the tree with my name on them.

Since learning about this practice, I’ve occasionally heard of someone else who practices this.  When I do, I usually hear the words, “If it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us.”  I couldn’t agree more with that particular line of thinking.  Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s birth, and although there are many pagan practices tied into it, the holiday is undoubtedly more commercial than ever.  I even hear friends who aren’t Christian lament the excess of Christmas, which makes me think that the idea of three gifts would be a good one to spread.


My husband and I decided to follow the footsteps of David’s parents and implement the three gift (plus one Santa gift) rule from the beginning of our children’s lives.  Here is what I’ve learned from following this so far:

  1.  Giving your kids only three gifts is hard.  It is actually a lot harder than I thought it would be.  I love to buy gifts for people I love, and of course I want to make all my children’s dreams come true.  When I get the urge to bend the rules, I remember the second thing on this list.
  2. Remember why you have this limit.  For us, we have lots of reasons.  For one, it makes Christmas feel more like a celebration of Christ when we limit our gifting to three gifts, just as Jesus’ received three gifts from the wise men.  For another, we want our kids to value experiences over things, and this is one tool we use to teach that.
  3. I know when I’m done shopping.  In the past, as long as there was time before Christmas, I could add to the pile under the tree.  I always had a long list of people to shop for, and for the people I loved the most, I wanted to show my love by giving them lots of gifts.  I could buy many gifts per person and still not feel done.  Now, by imposing a reasonable limit, I know exactly when my shopping is done and I can spend time with my family without worrying that I haven’t bought enough.
  4. I put more thought into what I buy. Sure, it is fun to open lots of gifts, but too many of those gifts were forgotten very soon. I’ve always tried to be a thoughtful gift-giver, but buying quantity and quality really doesn’t work so well.  Now, I feel confident that the gift I give a person will be appreciated and loved.  For my kids, I really think about what it is that they will love at this stage in their lives.  It makes me more observant of their habits, interests, and wants throughout the year.
  5. We more easily stay within our means.  Since we aren’t shopping to feed a pile of gifts under a tree, it is much easier to set a budget and stick to it.  We are also usually able to buy nicer gifts for one another, but if we are having a lean year, we aren’t stressed about whether or not we will be able to give gifts for our children.
  6. They still get to unwrap a big pile of gifts.  Because my husband and I have large families, one gift from each branch of the family tree can add up to a sizeable pile of gifts. My children also have very loving and involved grandparents who like to spoil them.  Although I do have a tendency to get overwhelmed by all the stuff, I know that it comes from loving hearts.  I’m also confident that the values that my husband and I are trying to instill through giving few gifts will also stick.
  7. Santa still comes.  We love having St. Nick visit.  Aside from leaving things in our stockings, he leaves an additional gift for each child, bringing their tally up to four gifts per year.  Is this a cheat?  Maybe, but it works for us and I’m ok with it.

My goals for this Christmas include making some re-usable gift bags (we know that we will need three per kid) and scaling back on stocking stuffers.  Our stockings always contain an apple, an orange, some in-shell nuts, a can of smoked oysters (long standing family joke/need, all stemming from my mother’s love of them), so I really only need a small toy, a book, or maybe an art supply to fill them the rest of the way.  I realize that I have a tendency to sneak in another gift because I really do love to give gifts (but I really do want to stick to my rule, too!).

Having a three-gift rule has been a little bit of a challenge, but ultimately it is liberating.  I’m able to focus on what really matters, which is spending time with my family, creating memories with them, and teaching them to love others in a Christ-like way.

Does your family have any rules like the three-gift rule?

Read on, my friend...

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