From October 31 onward it's impossible to forget that Christmas is coming. Before Thanksgiving, the red-coated man with the white beard and bag of toys is seen in stores and by mid-December, most homes are decorated, inside and out, with Christmas trees and lights.

However, the real Christmas story is found in Matthew and Luke chapters 1 and 2. It's about the earthly birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ the Son of God. Conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, He lived and ministered on earth, and then died and arose again -- the promised Messiah. Jesus came as the Savior of all, and identifies Himself with every racial group, every culture, and every society.

Until a couple of centuries ago, in countries where it was observed, Christmas was a noncommercial religious holiday. Gifts may have been exchanged on New Year's Day, but most gifts associated with Christmas were limited to feeding the poor or special gifts to help pastors, teachers and missionaries.

During the 1800s Christmas in America was primarily a time for feasting, going to church and giving to the poor and needy. Giving small gifts to children was occasionally included in the celebration, but it was considered of secondary importance.

Then, in the prosperity of the 1950s, expensive gifts, giving more than one gift per person, giving gifts to adults as well as to children, and a month-long shopping season became prevalent.

Today, the hurry and scurry of shopping, spending and worrying is typical of a November and December for most Americans. Christmas should be a time of family togetherness, sharing in the needs of others -- not an occasion for anxiety and stress.

Christmas today is a far cry from the tranquil manger scene that welcomed Christ into the world some 2,000 years ago. Consider the contrasts of:

-- The solitude of the manager versus today's Christmas rush.

-- God's mercy in sending His son versus the rude selfishness of holiday shoppers.

-- The free gift of salvation versus the forced giving of commercialization.

-- Adoration of the newborn King versus commitments that distract us from worship.

-- The joyful anticipation of the shepherds versus the dread of the holiday hoopla.

Certainly, no Christian intentionally seeks to lose the significance of the Christmas season, but the excesses of gift-giving and the rushing about seems to drain Christians of their joy. This is especially true when trying to combine added obligations of the season with being gracious, sensitive, creative, compassionate and caring -- and trying to have enough money left after Christmas to be able to buy groceries in January.

Unfortunately, for some, this holy season has become a gift-buying marathon. Some Christians go into debt to buy costly gifts they can't afford and their families don't need. Often, families spend hundreds of dollars more than they spent the previous year -- resulting in debt, stress and worry.

We need to shift our emphasis from the shopping cart back to the manger as the reason for the season. Christmas isn't the time to throw caution to the wind and allow a well-meaning generous spirit to dictate spending. Instead, it's the time to honor the One whose birthday we celebrate and be good financial stewards of all He has entrusted to us.

Exchanging meaningful, well-planned presents with friends and relatives can be an important part of Christmas; but we should never let ourselves feel pressured into buying gifts we can't afford under the guise of showing love for others.

Gather your family together and pray about the amount of money that should be spent for Christmas. Personalize a holiday spending budget that fits your family's finances, keep track of all purchases and be committed to spend no more than the amount budgeted.

Mail all out-of-town gifts well in advance to avoid rush delivery charges. Have a family service project and purchase food or toys for needy families. Commit to give at least a tithe from the amount you've budget for Christmas to needy causes and for the spread of the Gospel (see Matthew 25:34-40).

Ask grandparents for practical gifts for the children instead of more toys. That could mean money for music lessons, athletic uniforms, tutoring, or bank CDs for future educational needs.

The best gift parents can give children is love and time. But, too often after the holidays have passed, parents have to work overtime, taking time away from their children, just to pay for accumulated Christmas debt.

As this Christmas season draws near, remember that Christmas gift purchases and gift giving are totally under your control. You choose to buy or not to buy, to go into debt or not.

There's nothing wrong with giving gifts at Christmas. Just be careful not to indulge, and don't divert your attention from Christ to material things. Stamp out Christmas credit, because as bad as commercialized Christmas is, commercialized Christmas on credit is even worse.

Plan ahead and set a realistic budget, stick to it, and have a Christmas focused on Christ and not on a financial crisis.



Howard Dayton is co-founder of Crown Financial Ministries and the current host of Crown's radio program, "Money Matters." Dayton and the late Larry Burkett joined forces in 2000 when Crown Ministries, led by Dayton, merged with Christian Financial Concepts, led by Burkett. The new organization became Crown Financial Ministries, on the web at www.crown.org.

(c) 2007 Baptist Press. Used with permission. All rights reserved.