Remember the TV show Supermarket Sweep? Contestants had several minutes to fill grocery carts with as much stuff as possible. But the winner wasn’t determined by the quantity of stuff jammed into the cart but by the total monetary value. The contestant with the biggest tab won the game.

The strategy was simple. Pass up the low-value stuff and load up on what’s going to pay off big at the checkout. Smart contestants had a plan of action and knew exactly where to head the minute the clock started ticking.

Christmas is like that. Once the season begins, you’ll start filling your shopping cart. You’ll have lots of choices. What you choose will either pay off in terms of happiness, satisfaction, and pleasant holiday memories, or you’ll get negative results of dissatisfaction and disappointment fueled by guilt, obligation, and trying to meet others’ expectations. What you end up with when it’s all put away for another year will depend on the choices you make between now and then.

Measuring holiday value

In their book Unplug the Christmas Machine, authors Jo Robinson and Jean C. Staeheli say that while children may be quick to tell their parents they want designer clothes, the latest electronic gear, and name-brand toys for Christmas, they really want:

  • relaxed/loving time with family;
     
  • realistic expectations about gifts;
     
  • reliable family traditions.

I think that’s what adults want too. Just imagine how Advent and Christmas might look this year if we have the courage to hold each of our choices and holiday decisions against the measuring stick of the three things we really want for Christmas.

Relaxed and loving time with family

If you’re looking for a big payoff in terms of happiness this holiday season, this is where you want to concentrate your efforts. That’s because experts tell us that happiness is the process of enjoying what we’re doing. Happiness is found in our relationships, our free time, our family, and our lives.

The secret here is to schedule blocks of family time in the same way you would an important meeting with a client or lunch with a friend. Write them on the calendar. Do it now and do it in ink. It’s that important.

  • Idea: Fill shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child, an organization that distributes gifts to children in desperate situations around the world. For specific information on how to get involved, go to Samaritan's Purse.
     
  • Idea: Spend time alone with each of your children, putting together puzzles, making gifts, decorating the tree, baking, shopping, laughing, reading, or playing video games.

Realistic expectations about gifts

No one can determine what having realistic expectations about gifts means for your specific situation. But it’s safe to say that if your gift plan requires you to go into debt, it’s not realistic. If it means 60 gifts per child, it’s not realistic. If it means feeling obligated to exchange gifts with each member of your extended family, that too may be unrealistic for you this year.

Now is the right time to decide what is right for you and your family. Set boundaries when it comes to both giving and receiving gifts. Realistic gifts for you may be simple, handmade gifts from your kitchen.

  • Idea: No new gifts. The idea is that you can only give something you already have that another person would enjoy.
     
  • Idea: If you have very young children, arrange with other families to swap toys instead of everyone buying new ones this year. Clean and sanitize them, wrap them up, and the kids will be none the wiser.
     
  • Idea: Some families include service to others as part of their holiday gift-giving. Make coupon books that family members can redeem for services such as car washing, making a favorite meal, or cleaning the garage. Physical labor never goes out of style.

Reliable family traditions

Traditions give families assurance that even in an uncertain and changing world, they can count on some things to be the same. Anything you do in the same way at the same time, year after year, counts as a tradition.

Make a list of your family’s best traditions. Talk about them, treat them with a sense of respect and joy, and add to them. Repeat them often, and in time they will become trusted anchors in your lives.

  • Idea: Honor your family’s heritage by teaching your children how to prepare foods that are common in the place from which your ancestors came. Learn about the songs and customs of that culture.
     
  • Idea: As Christmas draws near, go out into your community to look at Christmas lights. Everyone gets ready for bed (PJs on, teeth brushed), then the entire family piles into the car. Take blankets along to add coziness. Vote on your favorite light display—everyone in the family gets a vote. If you’re especially ambitious, write down the address of the “winning” house and send a Christmas card thanking those people for brightening your holiday season.
     
  • Idea: When no one is looking, Santa’s elves string Christmas lights in the kids’ rooms. No matter how many times you do this, it will still be the best surprise!