As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"

"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." - Luke 10:38-42

Luke 10:38-42There is perhaps no better place to see how stressful the holiday season can become than the parking lot of a shopping mall on Black Friday. Some people, it seems, will run you over for a parking space. And the frantic shopping rush doesn't let up until Christmas morning.

Even with the best of intentions, the Christmas season can all too easily dissolve into a frenetic scramble to decorate the house, put up the tree, send Christmas cards, bake, shop, wrap presents, and attend various holiday gatherings. As we get ready to celebrate our Savior's birth, we'll need to be intentional if we are to avoid becoming "distracted by all the preparations."

One step that may help is to reflect on the findings of a survey I conducted with the market research firm Synovate right after the holidays a couple of years ago (read the "Holiday Regrets" news release here).  We asked people to think back on the holidays and consider what they wish they had done differently.  If they could have a holiday do-over, what would they have done more or less of?  The findings were very telling.

Topping the list of what people wish they had done more of were spending time with family or friends, spending time reflecting on the "religious/spiritual significance of the holiday season," and giving money to charity.

What did people wish they had done less of?  The top three answers all had to do with gift giving.  People wish they had spent less on gifts, spent less time shopping for gifts in stores (as opposed to online), and spent less money on themselves while holiday shopping. 

Parents with at least one child living at home were especially likely to regret how much they spent on gifts, not spending enough time reflecting on the spiritual significance of the holidays, and not giving enough money to charity.  This highlights the unique tension parents feel during the holidays of wanting to make the season special for their kids while also wanting them to know that it's not just about the gifts.

Realizing ahead of time that these are among the most common post-holiday regrets may help us plan accordingly for a less costly, more fulfilling Christmas celebration.  Are there people on your list who might welcome the suggestion to not exchange gifts this year, but instead to spend some extra time together? 

Is there something you could make for people on your gift list instead of buying them a gift? I know someone who enjoys baking and gives homemade pies as holiday gifts.  She puts them on nice but inexpensive pie plates so the recipients have something to keep after the pie is gone.  If you have young children, the use of an Advent calendar or a Jesse tree could make for an enjoyable tradition that helps them focus on the true meaning of Christmas. 

Most of all, let's remember Jesus' teaching that "only one thing is needed." He never asked for a perfect feast to be prepared in his honor or for our houses to be decorated in Martha Stewart fashion. And he certainly didn't encourage us to stress over finding the perfect gifts or to go into debt to pay for them.  He asked only that we turn our attention to Him. 

As we prepare for this holiday season, be sure not to overlook the one thing that is truly needed: time with the One whose birth we celebrate.

November 27, 2009


Matt Bell is the author of two personal finance books published by NavPress: "Money, Purpose, Joy" (September 2008) and "Money Strategies for Tough Times" (April 2009).  He speaks at churches, conferences, universities, and other venues throughout the country.  To learn more about his work, visit his web site at www.MattAboutMoney.com.