Three Christmas Traditions For A More Focused, Joyful Holiday

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HI. Today I’d like to share with you three of my favorite Christmas traditions that serve to keep the focus on the true reason for the season… and result in a more joyful holiday.

I grew up in a home where Christmas was centered on Christ’s entrance to this world, the ultimate Gift celebrated. We never opened so many presents that we didn’t know what to do with them. We never believed in Santa Clause. And yet we never felt short-changed. Our Christmases were always extra special, thanks to some strategic and beloved traditions reinforced by my parents. 

1. Lay Christmas books under the tree

The space beneath poky pine branches is often occupied by presents for much of December. Let me suggest NOT putting gifts underneath the tree right away. Wrapped presents have a way of stealing the show, of encouraging wonder about what might be inside and therefore the family’s minds are focused on the thing in the box. Redirect curiosity to a healthier alternative—fan favorite Christmas books around the tree skirt for family enjoyment.

My mom keeps a box of special Christmas books with the ornaments and Nativities. When we put up the the tree, we arranged the books under the tree where they would remain until replaced by presents late Christmas Eve. The genius of this tradition is two-fold. First, the focus is moved from “what will we be getting” to getting lost in wonderful takes surrounding the holiday. Second, it is a setup for magical memories. Many of my sweetest Christmas recollections are centered on flipping pages beneath lighted branches or listening to my dad read How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Displaying Christmas books under the tree is a way to allow the Story to seep deep into your family’s souls and memories.

“But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Luke 2:19


2. Let children give their own gifts

 Another way to keep your family’s focus on what matters during Christmas season is to intentionally target giving as a lesson and joy. I mentioned earlier that we never believed in Santa so we always knew from whom a gift came—and we could respond with eye contact and a heartfelt “thank you”. But our real highlight was giving. When we kids were old enough to be set loose in a store my parents would set aside a night to commandeer a dollar store. Each child would choose presents for everyone else in the family. I vividly remember roaming the halls, basket full of trinkets in hand, trying to avoid the family member I was currently shopping for while collaborating with a separate sibling. Fond, sweet memories. Also, this sort of cat-and-mouse activity is wonderful training for CIA hopefuls. Bonus!

When Christmas morning finally arrived, we didn’t mindlessly devour gifts as a chaotic unit. We savored the giving. Each family member would gather their wrapped bundles, and we took turns lovingly presenting the carefully chosen items to one another. It was—it is—special. Without a doubt, the giving of gifts is the highlight for me and each of my siblings. We learned to love giving and giving well.

“So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity;
for God loves a cheerful giver.” 2 Corinthians 9:7

[Oh, and a minimalist tip for those who like the idea but cringe at the thought of several baskets of dollar store junk invading your home?? EEK! Yeah, I’m right there with you. Consider encouraging everyone in your home to MAKE their own presents, or to give intangible items like music gift cards or experiences.]

3. Limit gifts to three (or less!)

 For parents, limit gifts to for children to three or below. My parents chose to honor their budget and curbing our appetite for more! more! more! by mirroring the presents young Jesus received from the wise men. Besides our stockings, we opened a “gold”, a “frankincense”, and a “myrrh”. Usually these items were a toy, an outfit or piece of clothing, and something practical. The benefit of this system is that we knew what to expect, so the number of presents couldn’t disappoint. Also, my parents could budget appropriately and limited the volume of new stuff marching into their home. It’s a win!

“And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:11


Being intentional about Christmas traditions is one way not only to compound cherished memories each year, but also to reinforce the pieces of the holiday you wish to most impact your family. Books under the tree, children giving their own gifts and limiting the number of physical presents are traditions that we hope will shape future Christmases in our family to resonate Christ.

{…By the way, I am well aware that not all Smallish readers celebrate Christmas. You wonderful people visit this tiny corner of the web from all over the world, from different sized homes, from unique backgrounds and faiths, and I don’t want to alienate those of you who won’t be putting up a tree or buying any presents. Just know that even as I share our traditions for the holiday we celebrate, I’m glad you’re here.}

What about you? What ways does your family chose to focus on the real, unseen blessings of the season? Comment and share your favorite traditions with us below.


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  • Kim
    December 16, 2013

    Great ideas to set parameters and leave room for the expansion of the heart for what truly matters. Even though my family is getting older, there is still time for new traditions. We do the Dollar Store gift exchange, but I want to begin to incorporate your other ideas, too. Thank you for sharing your heart, Evelyn.

    • Evelyn
      December 16, 2013

      Thanks, Kim.

      • Kim
        December 9, 2014

        We incorporated the book idea last year, and I really liked the emphasis on the Story. This year we are trying to buy fewer gifts. It really is very satisfying.

  • Jane Sasser
    December 16, 2013

    I wish I had known about the books-under-the-tree plan about thirty years ago. 🙂 You really are blessed with the sweetest family.

    • Evelyn
      December 16, 2013

      I can’t argue with that! On BOTH sides. 🙂

  • Christy King
    December 16, 2013

    Wonderful ideas – setting limits while still enjoying gifts.

    • Evelyn
      December 16, 2013

      Thanks for reading, Christy!

  • Joy @ Joyfully Green
    December 16, 2013

    Evelyn, this is really lovely. Although we celebrate Hanukkah, the ideas can translate. We already let our children buy a little gift for each of us (our school has a fundraising holiday sale, which lets parents donate new or gently used items–a win/win because we all get to reduce some clutter!). The kids seem to enjoy selecting and giving (almost) as much as getting their gifts.

    • Evelyn
      December 17, 2013

      Thanks for chipping in, Joy! I’ll bet your kids DO enjoy choosing gifts as much as receiving. We always did and I’m excited to start the tradition with our children… maybe next year… 😉

  • SarahW
    December 20, 2013

    Thanks for giving our brand new family some great ideas! I share MANY similiar childhood memories, and am incredibly grateful for our parents’ influence on our lives. May you all celebrate many, MANY more Christmases to come 🙂

    • Evelyn
      December 21, 2013

      So true. Love you lots Sarah!! xo

  • Jaime
    December 20, 2013

    I can’t tell you how much I love these ideas! Just starting out our young family, I’m so blessed to have come across such Christ-centered traditions that we will adopt as our own moving forward. Thanks for sharing!

    • Evelyn
      December 21, 2013

      Glad you liked them, dear friend. So thankful for you!

  • Melanie Furr
    December 22, 2013

    I love the traditions you share! Our family also focuses on the quality, not quantity of giving, and takes turn opening gifts rather than everyone tearing into their gifts all at once. I love the idea of making Christmas books a focal point!

    • Evelyn
      December 22, 2013

      Thanks for chipping in, Melanie! Glad to have you here… and Merry Christmas! 🙂

  • Sara
    January 19, 2014

    In my family we have a tradition of doing a round of compliments before handing out the gifts. We focus on one person at a time, and everyone in th family say something nice about this person, how they have seen this person develop or grow during the past year, or why they appreciate this person. It is a lovely tradition since it is great to get this feedback from your family, but it is also a great practice to actually train to notice good things in others.

    • Evelyn
      January 20, 2014

      That is a beautiful tradition, Sara! Learning to appreciate the gift of true verbal affection, I think, is huge. 🙂

  • Beth
    September 13, 2014

    I am soooo glad I found this post! I love the idea of Christmas books around the tree. I try to buy a new one every year, and then store them until the next Christmas. Your idea flows perfectly with my plan! Thank you! I am glad I found your Christmas post and your blog!

    • Evelyn
      September 14, 2014

      Hi Beth! It sounds like this season will be especially rich. 🙂 Glad to have you here. Thanks for commenting!

  • Michaela
    September 30, 2014

    I’m not sre why bbut this website iis loading very slow for me.

    Is anyone else having this issuue or is it a
    issue on my end? I’ll check back lawter on and see if the problem stil exists.

    • Evelyn
      September 30, 2014

      I’m sorry Michaela. I’ll ask around to see if anyone else is having a slow issue.

  • Leli
    December 13, 2016

    So so great Ev I love this quote “Displaying Christmas books under the tree is a way to allow the Story to seep deep into your family’s souls and memories.” I’m doing this tonight!!!! Our kids asked for duffle bags, towels and watches and toothbrushes in their stockings have they been reading your blog?

    • Evelyn
      December 14, 2016

      Bahah! What practical kids! I LOVE that. 🙂 And yes, the books under the tree is my FAVORITE. My mom gets all the credit for that gem of an idea. 😀 xo

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