It’s the most wonderful time of the year, claims the old song. But what if it’s not? What if it is not visions of sugarplums, but mounting bills, a less than full bank account and a bare pantry dancing in your head? With advertisement after advertisement claiming to have the perfect gift for your loved ones, how do you deal with Christmas if you feel more like Bob Cratchit than Santa Claus?

The simple answer of course, is to remember the reason why we celebrate Christmas in the first place. The birth of Jesus took place on a cold, dark night in a small stable a couple of thousand years ago. From those humble beginnings, how did we get to the idea that we must break the bank in order to provide wonderful Christmas memories?

There was a time, not so long ago, when handmade Christmas ornaments, gifts and decorations for the house were the norm. In the last few years, we have decided that our homes must look like the perfectly decorated examples we see in the magazine spreads that permeate shelves in every store. 

“Have the perfect Christmas décor!” 

“Perfect Christmas dinners!” 

“Perfect gift ideas for everyone on your list!”

The problem, of course, is that perfection is impossible for most of us. And trying to attain it usually causes more stress than we need, especially if times are tough financially.

For most people, December is the month of racking up charges on credit cards, only to face a frightening reality once January’s bills come in and it is time to pay for those seemingly important purchases. Many articles tell you to make – and then stick to – a budget.

Going one step further, decide not to buy anything unless it is with cash. Using cash, not credit, forces you to think about whether the gift you are about to buy is really what you want to spend your hard-earned money on, and if the person you are buying it for really wants it.

You could also embrace more traditional customs. How many of us, as small children, strung together popcorn and cranberries to make garlands for the Christmas tree? Or made tree ornaments from salt dough? Many older people remember getting an orange in their stocking on Christmas morning and the sheer joy that accompanied such a small thing. Compare that with the iPads, cell phones, computers and various other electronic devices and mountain of gifts many parents break the bank on to try to provide the best Christmas for their children. 

Maybe we need to re-examine our priorities. 

Instead of simply paying lip service to the idea that less is more, and that our families are the most important part of the Christmas season, we should act as though we believe that truth. We need to stop trying to buy the best Christmas ever, and live the best Christmas we can.

Years ago, when a friend of mine began having kids, he and his wife decided that to keep things in check, each child would only get three presents. Their reasoning was that since Jesus had only received three gifts, it was good enough for their children. 

It is this kind of simple, yet seemingly radical, plan that might help with this year’s celebrations.  

The idea translates to the adults in your life too. Does Aunt Ida really need another teacup or warm cardigan? Perhaps what she would really like is for you to drop by and share a cup of tea from one of the many she already owns. Giving the gift of your time and presence will mean far more than buying another trinket for the already stuffed china cabinet.  

It is hard to not get swept up in the outer trappings of the Christmas season. Everywhere you look this time of year, we are trying to outdo one another to show that we have given our families a Christmas to remember because we have bought the most, or most expensive, gifts to prove our love. 

What we need to remember is that Jesus gave us the best gift of all; himself. And the gift of spending time, of giving ourselves, is what we should be giving our loved ones, not just at Christmas, but all year long.

Barbara Lilley is a writer and mother of four living in Ottawa, Canada.