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Downsizing Christmas

Roxanne Henke, Inspired Living author and novelist from rural North Dakota.

The packages spilled waist-high into the middle of the room. I tiptoed through the maze with my arms loaded, ready to add to the pile. “This is ridiculous,” I thought, as I tried to tuck our presents in among the excess. I wonder where everyone will even sit?

As if it were a Christmas miracle, all 14 of us found a perch. Our youngest daughter, then in her late teens, sat morosely on the couch, arms crossed, blinking back tears. I knew the source. Earlier in the evening, she’d pulled me aside, upset at the ridiculously large stack of gifts we’d be opening later that night. She was well-aware that not everyone’s Christmas would be so gifted.

I watched as my young nieces and nephews ripped colored wrapping from gift after gift. “Who’s that one from?” I asked, hoping to at least draw attention to the giver, even if it was for only a nano-second.

“I don’t care,” yelled my wild-eyed nephew. “Where’s the next one?” He tossed a crumpled ball of wrapping paper over his shoulder and reached for the next gift.

Is this what Christmas had come to?

I watched as the tears gushed down my daughter’s cheeks. There was no way this greed and excess felt anything close to “Silent Night, Holy Night.” I knew exactly what she was thinking. As a part-time job to help with college expenses, our daughter had joined a mentoring program to work with disadvantaged children. She’d been assigned a young girl in junior high.

“Jenna told me what she was going to be getting for Christmas,” my daughter had related in a choked voice. “Her mom took her to Walmart and she got to pick one thing for her Christmas gift. Do you know what she picked?” My daughter’s eyes filled as she told me the answer to her question. “A pair of slippers.” Her voice broke. “She was excited about a pair of slippers.”

My heart broke, too, as I compared the one simple gift that would be delighting one young girl this Christmas and the stack of presents that couldn’t begin to satisfy the children in this room. I vowed next year would be different.

My first tactic was to talk to my two sisters about downsizing, and turning our celebration into something more meaningful, instead of the celebration-of-consumerism it had evolved into.

The next year was what we called an “in-law” year – the every-other-year we celebrated with the in-law side of each family, instead of our huge, gift-laden tradition. Our small family of four strived to do something different that Christmas Eve. Each of our daughters had, unknown to the other, requested that instead of buying them a bunch of gifts, their dad and I do something to make Christmas special for people less fortunate than us.

As God so often arranges, our pastor called me within days. “I know you have a generous heart and an organization (in a town near ours) is looking for gifts for children who have been abandoned by their families. Could you possibly help?”

Could we help? Of course we could! The pastor’s request was a direct answer to prayer. Armed with names and a detailed list, my husband and I hit the mall. I don’t know when I’ve had more fun buying blue eye shadow and stuffed animals, sweaters and candy, even plain-old shampoo seemed to take on a holiday aura as I imagined these young teens opening their gifts on Christmas Day.

My daughters opened the envelope, bearing both their names, that I’d tucked beneath the tree. At first their big brown eyes widened as they opened the note and realized their gift was actually a gift to two other girls. Then tears streamed over their smiles as they learned that gifts had been given in their honor to two young girls who had no family, two young girls who had been abused and neglected, who wouldn’t have had much of a Christmas had it not been for the Christmas wishes of two privileged girls I was proud to call mine that night. None of the gifts from any previous Christmas quite measured up to the gift of giving instead of receiving.

Again the following year, living miles apart and without consulting each other, both my daughters once again asked to give gifts to someone else before they asked for a thing for themselves.

I wish I could say I found the secret to downsizing Christmas. That I’d discovered a formula guaranteed to put greed and spending in check. I haven’t. But, what I have found is that giving without thought of getting in return turned out to be the best gift of all.

But isn’t that exactly what God gave us that first Christmas? The gift of his son. He didn’t expect anything in return, except love. And there’s no price on love.


Roxanne (Roxy) Henke lives in rural North Dakota. She is so excited that her Texas grandkids will be in North Dakota for Christmas! She’s doing her best to remember that fun memories last longer than any present. Roxanne is the author of eight novels. You can contact her at