From November onward it's impossible to forget that Christmas is coming. By mid-December, most homes will be decorated with Christmas trees and lights on eaves, walls, columns, trees and shrubbery. Even before Thanksgiving, the little old man with the long white beard, red coat and bag of toys is seen, and children are captivated by the expectation that Santa will magically appear on Christmas Eve to bring them gifts.

However, the real Christmas story is found in the Bible: Matthew and Luke chapters 1 and 2. It is a story about the earthly birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ the Son of God. Conceived of the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary, He was born, He lived and ministered on earth, and then He died and rose again, the promised Savior.

Jesus was not then nor is He now exclusively European or American, and Christianity is not an exclusive Western religion. Jesus came as the Savior of all, and He 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 and gifts were exchanged on New Year's Day. In fact, most Christmas gifts were generally limited to feeding the poor or special gifts to 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.

It wasn't until the prosperity of the 1950s that 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 American Christians. But Christmas should be a time of close fellowship, family togetherness and sharing in the needs of others -- not an occasion for anxiety and stress.

The way we observe Christmas these days 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 rudeness and selfishness of holiday shoppers.
• The free gift of salvation versus the forced giving of commercialization.
• The 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.

Most Christians wouldn't intentionally want to lose the significance of the Christmas season, but the excesses of gift giving and the rushing about can drain Christians of their joy. This is especially true as they try to combine added obligations of the season with being gracious, sensitive, creative, compassionate and caring -- and then attempt to have enough money left after Christmas to be able to buy groceries in January.

Unfortunately, this holy season has become something of a gift-buying marathon. Some Christians actually go into debt to buy costly gifts they can't afford and their families don't need. Americans have steadily increased holiday spending in the last 10 years, and families often spend hundreds of dollars more than they spent the previous year. The result is debt, stress and worry.

We need to move away from the materialism of December and 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're celebrating 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.

Set a realistic budget and plan ahead. It's possible to have a Christmas focused on Christ and not a financial crisis.

Get together with your family and pray about the amount of money that should be spent for Christmas. Establish a holiday spending budget that fits within your family's financial means and be committed to spend no more than the amount budgeted. Then stick to it and keep track of all spending.

Mail all out-of-town gifts well in advance to avoid rush delivery charges. Do a family service project such as purchasing food or toys for needy families. Commit to give at least a tithe of the budgeted Christmas spending amount to needy causes and for the spread of the Gospel (see Matthew 25:34-40).

Remember that the best gift parents can give children is their love and their time. So often after the holidays have passed, parents have to work overtime, taking time away from their children, just to pay for accumulated Christmas debt. Ask grandparents for practical gifts for the children instead of more toys. These could include money for ballet lessons, athletic uniforms, music lessons or tutoring.

Stamp out Christmas credit, because as bad as commercialized Christmas is, commercialized Christmas on credit is even worse.

As this Christmas season draws near, remember that Christmas gift purchases and gift giving are something totally under your control. You can 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.


Howard Dayton is CEO of Crown Financial Ministries. 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.

© 2004 Baptist Press. All rights reserved. Used with permission.