How to keep your focus on what’s important during Christmas.
By Donna Hein • Photos by Yiqian Barba
With the holiday season here, your mind already may be spinning with thoughts of Christmas shopping, baking and decorating to do. And then there are the multiple gatherings to plan and attend. When you combine all of that with a stressful job or maybe even feelings of loneliness from losing a loved one or struggling with a relationship, you easily can find yourself wishing the season were over.
Instead of having a sense of contentment during this season of joy, you’re stuck in a state of discontent.
Vanessa Russell can relate. As a mom, wife and founder of a nonprofit, she has every reason to feel stress this time of year. But instead, the Dublin, California, Thrivent member is focusing on her faith. She’s letting that guide how she spends her time and her money, and she’s loving people more than gifts and gatherings.
Oh, that doesn’t mean there won’t be gifts under the tree and gatherings with family and friends. They’re just not going to be the focal point.
Russell wasn’t always this content over the holidays.
“I grew up with very little,” Russell recalls. “So when I had kids, I wanted to give them everything. At Christmas, I was focused on buying the most expensive gifts, getting to all the stores.”
That changed about nine years ago when one of Russell’s dance students, a teenage girl, disappeared and became a victim of human trafficking. Russell’s outrage and concern led her to found Love Never Fails, a nonprofit committed to restoring, educating and protecting those involved or at risk of being involved in human trafficking.
"The Lord calls us to contentment. Paul learned to be content in all circumstances—whether in a season of much or a season of little." (Philippians 4:11–12)
- Nancy Ray
“It’s humbling to do the work we’re doing,” says Russell, who retired from Cisco Systems earlier this year to lead Love Never Fails full time. “Being with children who are elated at the gift of a bouncy ball, or a young woman who is elated at the gift of a bottle of nail polish, changes you.”
It becomes less about the gift and more about the act of giving and receiving.
Russell and her husband, Pastor Timothy Russell, have seven children, ages 11 to 30. They don’t spend as much on gifts as they used to, and they find that their younger children seem to appreciate their gifts more than the older ones did at that age.
And that, Russell says, brings contentment. “I don’t have a guilty conscience like I used to. My kids aren’t going to have all the latest electronic devices. But this is how we’ve decided to instill in them something much greater—humility, a level of gratitude and awareness that they are not the center of the universe. They know they are loved deeply, but they also know they are not the only people important to God.”
Nancy Ray, blogger and author of the Contentment Challenge, describes contentment as looking at what you have and being satisfied with it, being grateful.
“Instead of looking out at all the things we could have, it’s looking in at what we have in our own hands,” Ray says. “The Lord calls us to contentment. Paul learned to be content in all circumstances—whether in a season of much or a season of little.” (Philippians 4:11–12)
5 Steps to Find Contentment This Christmas Season
- Be Intentional
Everyone approaches gift-giving at the holidays in a different way. Whether you give extravagantly to mirror the extravagance of God’s gift of Jesus to the world, or if you focus on creating meaningful experiences or other ways of giving to others, it’s important to set your boundaries so you can make intentional decisions that fit your budget and expectations.
Everywhere we turn, we see messages to buy more, do more and go more places. “Marketing today creates a false need in us,” Ray says. “I didn’t even know I needed this item, and all of a sudden I have to have it. It’s stirring up discontent in our lives.”
Thrivent Financial Professional Josh Jones encourages people to be intentional about remembering what—and whom—we’re celebrating.
“Sometimes we simply need to pull back from the obligations we put on ourselves,” says Jones, of Ridgeland, Mississippi. “We have to have that party; we have to buy these gifts. We financially strap ourselves by our own expectations. It’s helpful to remember that celebrating doesn’t always mean spending. Maybe even ask yourself before you make a purchase: Will spending this amount cause financial stress and hurt my ability to celebrate the holiday?”
Whatever you choose to give, Jones suggests you look at your budget before you begin shopping. “There’s simply no substitute for planning,” he says.
Most effective planning starts with asking yourself probing questions such as: What can I spend this year? Where can I put the guardrails on the holiday experience, so I don’t go into debt?
“Be intentional and make a plan for shopping that allows you to live within your means,” Jones says. “Come up with a set amount that you will not go over when it comes to spending.”
And then turn off the media and limit trips to the store, Ray adds. “Go with a list and don’t allow yourself to be subjected to all the marketing you know will be prevalent.”
- Seek Experiences
Focusing on memories rather than material things helps you reach contentment, Ray says. Get the family together and brainstorm ideas of what you’d like to do. Then choose two or three experiences to do as a family. And put them on your calendar.
“Commit to that before the shopping list,” she says. “The experiences can be simple, like making hot chocolate and driving around to look at Christmas lights, or wrapping presents together for other family members.”
The cost is minimal, and the experience is memorable.
Ray recalls when she was little, her family read the Christmas story out of a children’s book. Each of the children had a part to play. Her dad had the flashlight to represent the star, and her mom read the story. They brought out a birthday cake and sang “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.
“Looking back, I remember that’s what Christmas was all about,” she says.
- Be Generous
One of the greatest gifts you can give your family is to model generosity, Ray says. Her family would get the names of families in need, go shopping for gifts and then deliver them.
“In one of the homes, one of the adults had never learned to read, so we gave her the Bible on cassette,” Ray says. “That was such a remarkable experience.”
Jones suggests that you can be generous with your time, not just money, working at a soup kitchen or raising funds for your church or favorite nonprofit. “Look for resources available to you, such as Thrivent Action Teams. If your time and resources are tight, take a look around your house. You may have something to donate to a thrift shop. That one item could very well be the gift that someone else is looking for,” he says.
You also can involve your family in making gifts for people—for your loved ones but also for others, Russell suggests. Make cards, put together gift boxes, create a basket of goodies. (See page 19 for a soup kit gift you can make together.)
“Being generous and creative is some of the most fun you can have in your life,” Ray says.
And using your talents generously and creatively is a great way to feel contentment.
- Take Time for Reflection
“The Bible tells us to be content at all times, but as humans, we’re not wired like that,” says Russell. “Spending time in reflection and prayer gives us a sense of peace. Being more connected to the people around us gives us a sense of humility and centering. It puts life in perspective.”
And then, Russell says, we can be prepared to act: to do the budget, to be generous. “But it’s hard to do when we don’t have that peace and perspective.”
Ray suggests starting a gratitude journal. “If you commit to writing down three things a day for a month, it can open your eyes to all the things around you that you take for granted.”
- Look Ahead
It’s also important to think about what you want life to look like after Christmas, Ray says. “You don’t want Christmas following you around with lots of debt in January and February. Nor do you want to add clutter to your house with items you don’t need.”
Create wish lists and make sure they’re the items you really want.
Also, consider creating next year’s “ideal” Christmas right after Jan. 1. “Reflect on what you spent your time and money on and put together a plan for Christmas 2020 that may include traditions, monthly budgets or experiences you’d like to have,” Jones says.
We often think that for Christmas to be special, it has to be extravagant, Rays says. “Yet we often remember only a handful of the gifts we got as children. It’s the family memories and the traditions that mean the most.”
Christmas is about the best gift—Jesus—and the hope he brings to the world, Ray concludes. “It doesn’t matter what you have, what you’re lacking or the season of life you’re in, you always can find Jesus.” ◾
Donna Hein is editor of Thrivent magazine.
Looking for more inspiration? Check out our Advent calendar as well as several 60-second holiday-themed Thrivent radio features at Thrivent.com/holidays.
How to Budget Based on Values
Does the thought of creating a budget, even for Christmas shopping, make you a little nervous? Thrivent offers a workshop—Values-Based Budgeting—that can help you learn to manage your money within a budget that reflects your values and goals. Learn more about the workshop at MoreThanMoneyMatters.com. Or contact your Thrivent Financial professional for more information.