I grew up with Santa Claus, and I’m guessing you probably did too. I still remember the sad day when I learned from some really mean kids on the playground that there was no jolly man in a red velvet suit putting dolls and Michael Jackson records under the Christmas tree. And there were no elves to manufacture the Atari game system, over which Santa received many, many pleading letters. Oh, the horror. It was the grownups the whole time.
But even when that chapter of Christmas magic finally closed, one Christmas myth persisted in my family and in my own experience well into adulthood: the debt fairies.
The debt fairies are a mythical creation with far more impact than Santa. Their legend goes something like this: Because it’s Christmas, you can charge whatever you want and it’s going to be okay. After all, you’re celebrating Jesus’ birthday.
Heard that one before?
I remember as a teen-ager my dear sweet grandmother whipping out her Visa time and time again to buy gifts for people we barely knew, gifts I knew even then she could not afford. When I protested, I got the same response: “But it’s Christmas!” As if somehow trying to be financially prudent around the holidays means you care nothing about Jesus.
Life in Christ is about life in freedom. You know that song, “Victory in Jesus?” I like that song, but it means something to me because down to my very core I seek full freedom in every aspect of my life, the freedom Jesus died on the cross to give me, and you too.
So why do so many of us grab the financial rope every holiday season and tie ourselves up into a most painful and long-lasting kind of bondage?
Debt is torment. I know. We had more than $100,000 just on credit cards when my husband and I hit the financial wall years ago. Climbing out of that hole was the hardest thing we’ve ever done. And going into debt “because it’s Christmas” doesn’t make those credit card bills any less painful come January. So why do we do it?
Because many of us have what I like to call “The Scarlett Syndrome.”
The Scarlett Syndrome is one of the 7 Counterfeit Convictions I outline in my book Your Money God’s Way: Overcoming the 7 Money Myths that Keep Christians Broke.
Counterfeit Convictions are beliefs that started out as biblical truths but that we absorb into our hearts incorrectly. And they’re at the heart of why so many Christians are messed up with their money.
Remember Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind? Her response when Rhett Butler asked a tough question was, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” People with the Scarlett syndrome (and yes, men can have it too) are all about having fun today leaving the cares of life for “tomorrow,” but the day of reckoning is usually a long time in coming.
The Christmas season is like one big golden ticket for people with the Scarlett Syndrome to run through the mall, waving credit cards and snatching up shower radios and tacky sweaters with Visa’s money “because it’s Christmas.”
I say enough is enough.
Christmas or not, we should not spend money we don’t have. That doesn’t honor God, and this season is supposed to be all about Him sending His Son to die for the sins of humanity. It’s about His gift, not ours.
Ignoring financial realities in a seasonal fervor of misplaced generosity makes about as much sense as believing the debt fairies are going to magically appear to make the bills go away.
Sorry, Virginia, but there are no elves, and there are no debt fairies.
However, there is freedom. And in the true spirit of the season, I offer these tips to help you navigate the wonderful celebration of the birth of Christ without going into hock in the process.
Don’t confuse gifts with affection
There’s a great movement out there to seriously reduce the amount we spend on nonsense during the Christmas season and redirect our time, money and energy to more worthy pursuits, like digging water wells in impoverished countries (see www.adventconspiracy.org for more information on that). But I get it that most Americans aren’t there yet.
In the meantime, though, you can make a conscious decision that it is not necessary to buy something for every person you know. And sure, you say you don’t do that, but I bet you a $20 Starbucks gift card that you’re in line somewhere on Dec. 23 buying gift cards, coffee mugs or some other nonsense for the mail carrier, school secretary and dental hygienist because, well, because you feel like you have to.
Here’s my rule: If someone is close enough to me that I celebrate their birthday in a meaningful way (posting “Happy Birthday!” on their Facebook wall doesn’t count as “meaningful” by the way) then I will also honor them at Christmas with a gift. That narrows the circle significantly to the people you really care about.
Now if you have 10 siblings and 40 nieces and nephews and your family culture demands every person receive a gift for every occasion, the solution there is to simply demand a change in the family culture. You’ll be a hero, I promise.
And if the only time certain relatives hear from you is when you send the annual package of gifts, it’s time to change that tradition and call them on Christmas Eve instead.
And I don’t care for the clichéd advice to make homemade gifts for everyone. That feeds the cultural pressure that your Christmas season is meaningless unless you are ridiculously busy 20 hours a day.
How are you supposed to reflect on the gift of Christ if you’re covered in glitter, hot glue and pieces of felt all the time? I don’t have time for that and chances are you don’t either. So don’t.
Limit your access to media madness
If you’re already prone to overspending during the Christmas season, any amount of television time will push you right over the edge.
The ads for the one-day sales featuring children dancing in their new pajamas (what child has ever been excited about getting pajamas for Christmas?) women twirling around in their new coats and men gasping as they open a box containing a bathrobe (again, really?) are now starting in October. The Macy’s closest to my house had Christmas trees up in September. Ridiculous.
Retailers are fighting hard for your money. Let them fight it out and refuse to engage in a battle that is pre-designed for you to lose.
Record the shows you feel you absolutely must watch and fast-forward through the commercials. Redirect your time toward reading, spending time with your family and studying the Bible. Quiet prayer time by the Christmas tree is one of my favorite things about the season. I plan to spend lots more time this December doing exactly that.
Watch your email inbox as well. There are some incredible sales out there this time of year, which is great if there’s something you really want to buy for someone really special. It’s not so great if your shopping is done and your budget is spent. Don’t click on those sale links if you’re done shopping. That’s just a pretty lure to get you to buy something because it’s an incredible deal. There’s no deal that justifies a purchase you don’t need and cannot afford.
Christians tend to be generous, helpful people, which means they also tend to be doormats. If you can say yes, by all means do so. But don’t get volunteered to bring 48 frosted cupcakes to the fourth grade holiday party if you don’t have the time to make them or the money to buy them. I have a friend who gives an enthusiastic “yes!” in response to any such request then wants to call me and complain that she has too much to do. Sorry, but don’t complain that your feet hurt if you were the one waving around your dance card offering yourself up for a jitterbug.
Do what you can, what you can afford and what you wish to do and that’s it. Don’t add more things to your plate unless you just enjoy being too exhausted and broke to enjoy time with your family.
Stick to your list
Around Thanksgiving, most of us make lists of the people we need to buy gifts for and some ideas of what we would like to buy each person. A few days later we add to it. Then a few days later we add to it again. By December 5, most lists have gone on to the back of the page and beyond. Try laminating your list so you can’t add to it. And stick to it in the store.
Think about what the person truly would want and need, and don’t buy the teddy bear slipper socks because they’re on super-duper clearance sale. No one wants or needs the teddy bear slipper socks.
And for anyone except your spouse and children, buying more than one gift is borderline insane. No one in America needs more stuff.
Choose your music carefully
You may think Christmas music and spending are not related. But consider this: start playing “Silent Night” in your head or if you’re gifted, sing it out loud. How does it make you feel? That song always brings tears of gratitude to my eyes and puts me in a worshipful spirit, in awe of the blessing we received at the first Christmas.
Okay, now sing “Jingle Bell Rock.” I love that song! But it makes me think of wrapping paper, packages, parties and putting on a Santa hat and kissing my husband under some mistletoe. It makes me want to go Christmas shopping! There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but be sure you’re balancing out all the different facets of “the Christmas spirit.” There are some spirits we should dwell in more than others.
Kill the consumption-related emotion
Some of us are especially gifted and being irrationally emotional around Christmas. Have you ever felt jealousy because the mom next door bought more for her kids than you bought for yours? What about guilt that you didn’t spend more? Have you regretted decisions you made in the past year – maybe a divorce, a job change that didn’t go well – and attempted to cover up those feelings with more gifts?
Deal with your feelings, but deal with them outside of the shopping mall.
I don’t have to tell you that you can’t buy love and that all the iPods in the world won’t make everything okay when it’s not. But it’s still a very human response to try to use a thing to fix a feeling. Find a trusted friend, a pastor or your spouse and talk about why you’re emotional right now. And take some time to explore how those feelings might trigger unnecessary spending.
Keep the focus where it needs to be
Try printing out Luke 2:8-14 and taping it to your bathroom mirror on November 26 as a reminder that it’s not about Black Friday, it’s about the sanctity of the humble observance of the anniversary of Jesus’ birth. This is the heart of our faith, the purpose of our worship and the reason why we can connect directly with God and not be separated by our mistakes and our sin.
There’s a lot going on to divert our attention from that simple fact. We celebrate because He came. Everything else is just details.
Don’t add financial worries to your list of distractions. Don’t give yourself too many things to do. Celebrate. Worship. Give. Serve. Live free.
It’s why He came.