My shopping list includes “Halloween candy,” and my neighbors’ yards feature cobwebs, ghosts, and the Grim Reaper. Yet I just received a gift catalog from an aid organization, an invitation to a holiday brunch, and ads for Advent products in my social media feeds. It feels too early to think about whether to include marshmallows on the sweet-potato casserole. But we also know planning ahead will help make the holidays more meaning-full, right?
Here on the Engage blog, I have annual tradition of offering suggestions for doing so. Here’s my 2023 Top Ten list:
- Pray over your life and how best to steward the days ahead. What do you hear the Spirit whispering? Get bolder? Slow down? Spend less? Demonstrate more generosity? Embrace community? Pull away in quiet? Listen.
- Select your reading plan and devotional practices. If you want electronic readings you can get on an app, sign up for these two YouVersion reading plans: “Advent Chai with Malachi,” which my seminary students and I wrote, and “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” If you subscribe to one of these (or any) plans through the free YouVersion Bible app, you’ll receive daily reminders. Dallas Theological Seminary has not yet released their Advent guide, but I contributed a reading this year, so I know it’s coming. You can sign up on the DTS web site once they announce it.
Prefer a book? I love Fleming Rutledge’s Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. I get through only about half of it annually, so every year during Advent I pick up where I left off. The Dwell app, which I love because I can choose the voice in which it reads aloud to me, has a good list of Advent options.
Do you need to order a Bible study or devotional book? Find an MP3 copy of A Christmas Carol? Plan and/or order now. Will you do an Advent calendar or Jesse Tree? Gather the pieces now. Do you do an Advent wreath? Maybe it’s time to make sure you have good matches and order candles—three purple tapers and one pink, plus a big white or red one for the middle.
3. Give intentionally. Like me, you have probably already received some catalogs and tossed out a few appeals for money. Expect more to come. And as you recycle them, give thanks for the existence of so many organizations seeking to help those in need. Ask yourself, “What’s the best use of my dollars. What organizations or causes are closest to my heart?” If you have a spouse and/or kids, make decisions together.
Get intentional. What individual or group would do the best job of stewarding your hard-earned cash? Once you’ve decided, hop online and make your contributions, Venmo your dollars, and/or write and mail checks. Having done so, feel free to toss out solicitations from other organizations guilt-free (but also with a prayer for their thriving).
Empty quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies from trays or banks where you collect them—including the bottom of your purse. Keep these coins handy for when you pass bell ringers standing by kettles. Plan to offer your silver and copper with a greeting for the person soliciting out in the cold.
Also, when post-Thanksgiving food goes on sale, know what canned goods you’ll grab for the local food pantry. This article provides a wish list, along with what to leave on the shelf. Applesauce, canned beans, and canned meats top the list. Maybe you should consider doing a Reverse Advent Calendar (starting 3 days before Advent on December 1), filling a food basket with one new item daily that will benefit a family in need. This exercise offers 25 teachable moments for the littles.
4. Plan your charitable time. Will you serve the homeless instead of hosting your own feast? Do your college kids have a fellow student you can welcome at your table? Does your church musical need ushers? Will you make volunteerism part of your Advent season? If you have a family, can you serve together? Will you offer to help out with someone’s childcare? Work out scheduling before the craziness hits.
- Determine what events you really want to attend. Speaking of scheduling, make a list of the cantatas, concerts, family dinners, school programs or parties you know about, especially events requiring you to take food or make costumes. Go ahead and say no to some so you can say yes to the ones most dear to your heart. if you love attending your city’s production of Handel’s Messiah, going to the Singing Christmas Tree at a church across the city, or wandering through Christmas at the Arboretum, get tickets now. Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith coming to town? Want tickets to a livestream of Behold the Lamb? Schedule the events you really want so you can plan around them. While you’re at it, schedule haircuts, nail appointments, physical therapy, flu shots, booster shots, and/or doctor visits now before everything fills up. Remember any birthdays that fall over the holidays and get lost in the shuffle. And—this is really important—make sure you pick one day a week that’s off limits to events. Maybe for you that means marking off every Tuesday as “unavailable.” What do you need to cancel, put off, or say “no” to? Maybe something fun needs to wait until Christmas 2024?
- Select gifts wisely. While making lists, remember: experiences are better than stuff. Can you invite someone to one of those Christmas concerts? Will you give someone a trip? A day at the museum? A weekend at the beach? Free childcare? Avoid last-minute gift panics. Decide on a date for when you will make gift lists and shop. Take inventory of boxes, wrapping paper, tissue paper, gift bags, tape, ribbons, bows, gift labels, and scissors. Do you have what you need?
For under-the-tree items, ask yourself who might appreciate fair-trade jewelry or a purse. For the person on your list who already has everything, consider giving a cow, chick, or water filter in their name through an aid organization. What about music or a book that will bless them? If you create works in wood, the kitchen, or the arts, determine whom you could delight with a homemade gift. Who might like a hot chocolate kit? When will you make it? Buy an extra gift card or two to keep on hand for the teacher you might suddenly remember or party host you don’t even know about yet. If you use Amazon Prime, set aside a time to order all at once for one big delivery when possible, in hopes of better stewarding the earth. Sound like too much capitalism? Consider celebrating a no-gift Christmas.
7. Figure out how you’ll communicate. Think about what message (if any) you want to send out. Will you write a Christmas letter and/or send a card? Will you deliver greetings via snail mail or will you email a PDF? Want to send a photo postcard or a more traditional greeting? Schedule family portraits if you’re going the photocard route. And pencil in an afternoon for writing the letter and/or designing cards. If needed, order holiday stamps (you don’t have to actually make a trip to the post office) and make or order address labels. Also, now’s a great time to get addresses of new friends or update addresses for those who’ve moved so you won’t have to scramble for them on Dec 22. Do you sponsor a child? Pick up a bookmark, postcards, some stickers or other flat items, and mail them off in early November.
8. Prepare the car. Stock your vehicle(s) with protein bars and water bottles to give the homeless. And create MP3 playlists full of your favorite Christmas tunes or Christmas stories.
9. Chop, bake, freeze. Make or order cookie dough from your neighbor kid’s fund-raiser and freeze it now. When the office sign-up list circulates, choose cookies or a snack you can make from something you’ve frozen. Make the family cheeseball recipe and freeze it now. And have a homemade dinner stashed away to take to the person in need. Double the recipe for next week’s chili, and freeze half. You’ll thank yourself later.
10. Remember decorating. Need to scale back? Or to turn it into a communal event and ramp it up? Can you make it a fun family event rather than a task dumped on one person? Decide when the boxes come out of storage, determine what will go up this year and what needs to go to charity. (People scour thrift stores for decorations.)
An afternoon of planning and ordering now can prevent hours lost and chaos later. So schedule a date with your calendar—perhaps while having a pedicure. Take the insanity out of the season so you can bless others. Christ the Savior is born! Let us celebrate his birth in intentional ways that bring joy (and not more insanity) to the world.
Photo credit: Roberto Nickson