Giving Gifts with Purpose

In the book, The Five Love Languages, one of them is gift giving. But, truth be told, it’s not my primary love language. With six kids and a lot of birthday and holidays, I’m getting better, though!

At Casa Whitaker we have a mish-mash of family traditions. Scott grew up Catholic and I grew up Protestant and had never heard of St. Nicholas. Well, technically I had, but that’s a story for radio. I had no idea that guy was real. Like, real real. God love Catholics. They canonize some pretty awesome people. St. Nicholas/Santa Claus visits our house twice. On the eve of St. Nicholas’ feast day, December 5, and on Christmas Eve, December 24. He never brings anything big, just small tokens of love. For his first stop, the kids usually receive chocolate coins, a candy cane to represent his crosier and a pair of Christmas pajamas. Many squeals. Much happy. The second stop is just fun trinkets and bobs in their stockings – gift cards to favorite places, art supplies, candy, perhaps a Christmas movie or something to accompany their gold gift. The big gift, the one the kids REALLY want? That “gold gift” comes from us. I’ll chat more about our three gift per kid tradition in just a sec.

And, yes, we take photos with Santa. I mean, our guy in red wears cowboy boots and you just can’t beat that.

Let’s chat gifts.

Once upon a time, we let our living room erupt in way too many gifts. That was six kids ago. I won’t even tell you how obscene our oldest child’s first Christmas was. He was the first grandchild on both sides and let’s just say we all went overboard. Personally, I think gifts and gift giving gets a bad wrap. Get it? Ok, I’ll stop. But seriously, it does.

The truth is, giving gifts is a beautiful thing. We all love to receive a gift, especially one that was carefully selected or crafted, just for us, and then wrapped and presented to us with a kind and generous heart. The problem? We gorge ourselves on the gift. Several years ago, Scott and I said ENOUGH, and we completely changed our approach to gift giving. You can read about how we initially ventured into keeping gift giving under control.

Practically speaking, here’s how we do it:

  1. I have a secret Pinterest board where I pin gifts throughout the year. So, rather than frantically searching for gifts at the eleventh hour, I’ve got a board for that.
  2. In our closet (sshhhh) I have a bin system, way up high, that allows me to stash gifts for birthdays and Christmas, well out of the kids sight and hands. That way, if I find something on sale, I don’t have to do the whole, “where did I hide that?”
  3. While we encourage Godparents, grandparents and other family members to  purchase our children just one gift, we know that’s not always practical. But, because we’re the parents, we ultimately decide what gifts our children keep, return or donate. Sometimes a gift just isn’t appropriate, or it’s a duplicate or our children are no longer interested in that item. Just because someone gave it to you doesn’t mean you have to keep it forever. We aren’t afraid to let gifts go and I certainly don’t expect people to keep our gifts forever, either!
  4. Speaking of abundance. We live with much excess and our children know that at Christmas, for every toy or gift that comes in, two have to go out. No exceptions.
  5. We long abandoned the “everyone must be equal” rule. Let’s face it, the seven-month-old doesn’t need the same things as the teenager. To focus on equal gift giving when it comes to money just isn’t practical. Instead, we focus on the three gifts.
  6. Our children receive three gifts from us: gold (the gift they want), frankincense (a religious gift) and myrrh (a gift for the body). We noticed St. Nick was getting all the glory for that big gift, so we switched the focus back to family and let Santa bring some fun trinkets instead. So far, he likes the new arrangement. Makes the sleigh lighter.
  7. We adopt a child in need. The kids always enjoy picking out the tag from the parish Christmas tree. Honestly, I think we need to do more in this area. Each year, we work on making the season a bit more about what we give than what we get. We volunteer as a family with Brown Santa, a program of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. It is a family favorite!
  8. No matter who we are buying or making a gift for, we pray over their package before handing it over. And, we pray over our packages before opening them – for the people that made them, the people that bought them and our deep gratitude for both. I will forever love this photo of my Mom opening one of her gifts. Look at that happiness. Be someone’s joy!

Christmas traditions at Team Whitaker, where I share our love of Santa and the Elf on the Shelf, along with how we do gift giving with six kids without breaking the bank.


  1. Laura on December 11, 2014 at 5:58 am

    Thank you so much for this post (and the last one on balance – I sent that to several friends). I love your writing! I have resisted the Elf on the Shelf for many years. I am not a fan. However, two nights ago my 7 year old was begging, begging, begging again. I had the “brilliant” idea to let her in on the secret that the elf is not real. Oh, that didn’t go so well …. (I guess this won’t be the last time I will head “you are WRONG…DEAD WRONG! !” :)) Anyway…I started to feel like I was crushing her Christmas spirit so (with gritted teeth) I ordered one on Amazon. “Jingles” should show up tomorrow. Yay. I am going to try to embrace the excitement of my 7 and 5 year old kiddos about this!

  2. Molly on December 11, 2014 at 6:13 am

    I love your interpretation of the 3 gifts! We started doing 3 gifts for us and our son at his first Christmas (after hearing about it from a Catholic mom I work with), but after this year I wanted to find a way to make even those 3 presents not all toys so I’m adding this to my list to ponder for next year (I was also think the “want, need, wear, read” since St. Nicholas brings a book the 3 gifts could fill out the rest).

  3. Beth (A Mom's Life) on December 11, 2014 at 8:01 am

    I love this post!! I was raised Protestant and not doing Santa with my kids was not an option. And even though I haven’t told my 12 year old that he isn’t real, he knows now. And there was no trauma, no not trusting me and his dad, no thought that Jesus isn’t real. My ten year old, on the other hand still believes although I’ve got a feeling this will be her last year. So I say let her enjoy it! And we do the bloody elf on the shelf. My kids begged me so how could I say no? Sometimes you just have to let them be kids!

    I wish when my kids were younger that I had taken a similar approach to yours – with Santa bringing smaller items and mom and dad getting credit for the rest. I love the balance in your approach! And I really need to start a Pinterest board with yearly gift ideas. That would save me a lot of stress in December!

  4. Nicole on December 11, 2014 at 8:36 am

    Growing up Protestant also had a big focus on Santa at my house. My parents, however, always got the credit for the big gift. Santa brought us girls things like stickers, earrings, socks, lifesavers, and lip gloss.

    Now, my husband and I differ on our opinions of how things should be handled. I want it to be that mom and dad get the big gift credit still, but hubby sees it that Santa should be the bearer of that gift, just as it was when he grew up. *sigh* That’s the thing with marriage and combining traditions. It’s complicated.

    Thank you for sharing your traditions. I also believe a focus on service is so very important not just at Christmas, but throughout the year.

    • Kathryn on December 15, 2014 at 11:12 am

      Compromise and keeping the marriage happy and healthy is always the priority 🙂

  5. Pam A. on December 11, 2014 at 11:50 am

    Thank you for another great post! I love how your family celebrates Christmas – with the focus on Christ while still incorporating the whimsy & magic of Santa. I’m still abit taken aback by all the kerfluffle over Elf on the Shelf by so e Catholic bloggers. My kiddos attend a Catholic school and all classrooms for grades 3 and under have their own Elf. The school Elves even attend Mass!

  6. Jenny M on December 11, 2014 at 7:16 pm

    Thank you for sharing your gift giving traditions and thank you to all the commenters for sharing their traditions.
    We do St. Nicholas on his feast day. He brings a few favorite candies and a religious book.
    Long ago with our first child my husband and I tried to express our desire for moderation to our large childless brothers and sisters and well to do parents. Alas, even the idea of moderation is different for each person. So, we instituted the 12 days of Christmas. Each day is designated for a specific family member. For example, the day after Christmas might be dedicated to Aunt A and her family. The children use/play with whatever the gift was and at the end of the day they write a thank you note to Aunt A and her family. We also pray for her family throughout that day. The kids look forward to opening gifts for 12 days (heck who wouldn’t like to get gifts for 12 days!). and so far the older ones seem to understand the idea of gratitude that we are trying to achieve.
    We also have the rule that for each toy that comes into the house 2 toys must leave )and no two lego men do not count as two toys).

  7. Lauren on December 17, 2014 at 10:07 pm

    I love this, Kathryn. We’re a Santa family, too. And we do many of the same traditions as you. Each of our children have always “only” gotten 3 gifts. We tell our kids that we can’t get more presents than Jesus did (or sometimes, when I’m tired and snippy, it’s, “if 3 are good are good enough for Jesus, it’s certainly good enough for you.” haha.) It absolutely keeps the budget in check. And the amount of stuff we have to manage in the house and closets all year round. My kids have never complained or felt that they get less than their classmates. I see so much goodness in them that I think is attributed, in part, to these small but intentional things that we do. I think our traditions, like yours, have helped keep the focus on Christ and giving, while maintaining the magic and wonder of Santa.
    I guess our only significant difference is that all the presents at our house are from Santa Clause. I think it was Kendra who recently pointed out that it was a sacrifice for us parents (and eventually a lesson for children once they learn the truth) to pass on the credit due from giving a great gift; to have your thoughtful gesture be done in secret, your generosity unknown to the recipient.
    Anyway, I love reading about other people’s traditions, both yours and your commenters, and will be incorporating some of them into our traditions, particularly the blessing over the gifts. Wow. How beautiful and thoughtful. Love it!

  8. HDYDI: Santa vs. St. Nicholas - Team Whitaker on December 16, 2015 at 7:58 am

    […] A few years ago, we shifted the focus away from Santa and onto Jesus Christmas morning. It wasn’t any one thing, but lots of little ones. We have asked Santa to refrain from bringing the kids any big things on Christmas morning and leave that fun to us. Gratefully, he obliged. His gifts are usually family games, a little sugar, some small gift cards to favorite places, books and little toys. Scott and I have chosen to give our children three gifts. You can read more about that tradition here. […]

  9. Easy Gift-Giving - Team Whitaker on November 7, 2016 at 7:01 am

    […] than that, I like to give gifts with meaning and purpose. I’ve written quite a bit on our three gift tradition with our kids and why gorging on gifts always leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. I think there […]

  10. […] mentioned our “three gift” Christmas we celebrate with our kids. The gold gift is the one they want the most (within reason), myrrh is a gift for the body and […]

  11. Karla on December 6, 2020 at 10:15 am

    thanks for sharing. A few years ago I decided the “big ” gift should come from mom and dad. No reason Santa should get all the credit. I also give our boys books on the Epiphany. I tell them the Wise Men want them to be wiser. Silly? Maybe. But it’s been fun.

  12. Sonya on December 13, 2020 at 8:25 am

    Love these ideas! My kids are older now, all teens and up, and one tradition we added that is a huge favourite is a gift of wisdom (book) wrapped in gold paper on Epiphany to remember the Wise Men. We find it helps to spread the gift giving out over the Christmas season and we all love getting a new book (Mum and Dad get a book too)!

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