Why Christmas should mean more than gifts

Most people want Christmas to be more than gift opening. They want it to be a time to express the values that are most important to them. Marriage and Family Therapist Helen Rudinsky has advice on how to celebrate the holiday with family and friends in meaningful ways.

Why Christmas should mean more than gifts
Photo: Jennifer C./Flickr

Unfortunately, many of us have been taught by our consumer-oriented culture to think of Christmas as a time to give and get presents. Presents are the easy way out. But what do people really want and need at this time of the year?

Most people: Your friends, family members, and especially children need a relaxed and loving time with each other. Ironically, this is exactly what many people miss out on during this time.

Ask any child whether he would rather have exhausted, irritable parents and grandparents or ones who are responsive, happy, well rested and available to spend quality time with them, and you will see what I mean.

Reduce spending

Many of us need to simplify our lives during the holiday season. This may mean not baking six types of Christmas cookies this year, or not attending all three Christmas concerts.

Ask yourself does this activity add something of value to your enjoyment of the season or is it just using up time, energy and money with no positive return?

Other questions to ask are: What do I really get out of this activity? Does it teach me something? Does this activity resonate with my values or is it just a distraction?

A significant way to simplify the holidays is to cut back on spending and gift buying. Children and others need realistic expectations about gifts. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles need to have an idea of what is enough – and firmly let the children on their list know that ahead of time.

If a child is voicing a desire for something you cannot afford or you do not approve of, let him/her know not to expect it and why.  Many families set price limits on gifts, or give gifts only to smaller children.

For extended families, sometimes a gift for the whole family is more manageable than gifts for every cousin, aunt and uncle. If you don't have a gift giving budget and strategy already, now is a good time to put one together.

Try to focus on the pleasure of giving by talking with family members about ways you can give to others. Maybe preparing a plate of cookies for the man who begs in front of Hofer would be a fun activity. Or cleaning out the closet and bringing toys to refugees might be meaningful for your family.

It is important to have an evenly paced holiday season. Try to avoid a big build up to opening presents. If there is too much emphasis on presents, it can lead to serious over stimulation followed by a sense of let down and depression.

If Christmas is nothing more than a frantic build up to present-opening, people end up asking: Is that all there is?  

For expats especially, it is important to establish strong family holiday traditions. Even if we spend Christmas in a different country every few years, our holiday traditions can provide us with a sense of continuity and togetherness.

Think about activities that inspire joy, express important values, bring people together and deepen your faith and spirituality. These are most likely meaningful traditions that you will want to keep from year to year.

Maybe writing a holiday newsletter together, making an “I am thankful” advent calendar, buying or making a new Christmas tree ornament each year, sponsoring a family in need, are Christmas traditions you might find enjoyable.

Counteract the commercialization of Christmas by planning a celebration that each of your family members and friends can participate in. Have a Christmas that is interactive and expresses what is important to you with those in your circle.  

You will have more fun, be more relaxed, save money and will spare yourself and others close to you the emptiness of overconsumption.

Helen Rudinsky is a Marriage and Family Therapist serving couples, individuals and children in Vienna's expat community.



How to become best friends with your spouse

Feel like you and your partner are drifting apart? Marriage and Family Therapist Helen Rudinsky looks at how to revive a sense of friendship in your marriage.

How to become best friends with your spouse
Photo: J K Califf/Flickr

Most couples want friendship to be at the very core of their marriage. They want their spouse to be their best friend, someone who supports them, and a loyal companion for life.

Nothing is more important to the long term health of your marriage than to stay very good friends with your spouse. If you have been together for a while and have lost your friendship then it is time to work hard to get it back.

When Glen and Maggie first came to see me, they no longer felt like friends. Slowly their life together had crowded out the strong friendship they had earlier. Cultivating friendship with each other had taken the back seat to competing interests: their jobs, the needs of their children, paying the bills and in-laws.

They didn't even behave like friends any more – they were arguing, treating each other rudely, and letting conflicts erode their friendship.

When couples aren't good at keeping conflict from entering their fun times together, it becomes impossible to keep friendship alive in the marriage. That is exactly what had happened to Glen and Maggie, but they were ready to work hard to get their friendship back.

The following are steps a couple can take to bring back and nurture friendship in their marriage.

1. Make time for each other. Carve out time for friendship and make it a priority. You might need to get rid of some activities or change your lifestyle to allow more time for each other.

2. Cultivate mutual interests. It has been said “When we are doing things together friendship springs up”. Glen and Maggie decided to go backpacking in the summer, and started researching hiking trails and camp sites together. This became an activity where they enjoyed each other as friends.

3. Explore each other's interests. Maggie joined Glen to watch his favourite sports team and found she really enjoyed it. Glen took up gardening so he could spend more time with Maggie doing what she loved.

4. Protect your friendship from conflict. Handle conflict well and use it to sharpen your marriage – not destroy it. Glen and Maggie both needed to learn how to stop bickering and arguing.

5. Separate the time when you deal with problems from the times when you are together as friends. Don't mix the two. Glen scheduled Tuesdays for “Couples Meetings” and Fridays for “Date Nights”.

6. Learn to talk openly and honestly with each other. The stronger the communication, the stronger the marriage. Through videos and role plays, Glen and Maggie improved their communication skills.

Glen and Maggie regained the friendship in their marriage by learning how to resolve their differences and spend quality time together. After a few months of marital therapy they were back on track and felt that they were both looking in the same direction again.

Helen Rudinsky is a Marriage and Family Therapist serving couples, individuals and children in Vienna's expat community.