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How do you 'spend' Christmas?

COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. (AFNS) -- It was October. My wife and I knew Christmas was near, because the holiday decorations had hit the shelves of local retailers and, as reality set in, we both understood that the few remaining weeks before the big day would be checkered with trips to the mall, late nights sifting through sales in local newspaper, and perhaps a "concrete camping trip" in search of cheap electronics.

Let's face it. The holidays can be exhausting.

For many, holiday shopping brings a sinking feeling. The traffic, the lines, the noise are all symptoms of a spiritual illness called "discontent."

For me, all that changed when I recognized that my dread of Christmas shopping came from a series of misplaced priorities. I realized that I would never understand the joy of Christmas by buying new things, without learning to give of myself. Something had to radically change.

Consider this. Americans will spend around $600 billion on Christmas this year. That's slightly more than the $588-billion U.S. automotive market. Let that sink in for a minute. $600 billion is a lot of presents. But will all this new stuff make us happier?

How many of us get to the other side of Dec. 25, with barely enough money left in the checking account to buy milk? I don't think being broke or up to our eyeballs in debt makes us happier. I believe there is a better way for us to "spend" our Christmas that will leave us recharged and renewed. Let me explain.

My wife and I began spending Christmas in a different way when we married nine years ago. Each year, we prayerfully choose at least one family or organization we feel is in great need. As we do this, we make sure we have an intimate knowledge of or connection with the need. This requirement helps us to be involved in the lives of others, to recognize their needs, and to appreciate the challenges they are facing.

For example, we may decide to give to a family we know has experienced a job loss. One year we gave to a foundation that funds medical research for a disease that is common in our family. There are many ways one can choose to give, but this is the way my family has chosen to operate.

After we have made our selection, we spend the same dollar amount for Christmas on this family or charity as we spend on our own family. Let me say this again. We spend the exact dollar amount on others as we do on ourselves.

This may sound a little strange, but what I am suggesting is we put a higher priority on generosity. It seems to me that generosity is the opposable thumb of the human spirit and enables us to grasp the true joy of Christmas. Its value transcends religious and philosophical belief systems, and practicing generosity is a way for us to experience life in a way that is uniquely human. Furthermore, I find it difficult to be discontent when being generous.

What if Christmas changed from a time of unprecedented spending to a time of unprecedented giving? Christmas is an excellent opportunity to engage in exceptional acts of generosity. Not only does this strengthen our spirit, but it helps us enjoy the holidays. May you spend this Christmas giving yourself rather than just buying more stuff.

I hope you all have a very merry Christmas.