11/22/2013 03:22 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

6 Ways You Can Have a Meaningful Holiday, No Matter When Walmart Opens

Sarah Cunningham

The Holiday Rush Goes Against Our Best Instincts

Retailers may begin staging artificial Christmas trees 17 seconds after the Back-to-School sale signs come down. It may seem true that they set up holiday displays earlier and earlier every year. But it is also true that we -- the savvy, trying-not-to-be-consumeristic holiday participants -- are falling in line earlier, too.

What strikes me as most illogical about this predictable holiday hoopla, though, is this: There seems to be a general consensus that Christmas commercialism is over the top, even irreverent. The commercialism tramples meaningful faith and family traditions of old with pre-December box office comedies featuring various comedian-types starring as elves. (OK, my apologies to Will Ferrell. My husband laughed uproariously at the sight of the elved-out you and yes, I get that movies can qualify as great family time. Trust me, I'm not about to invalidate Charlie Brown or Garfield's Christmas or any of the old claymation specials.)

But even though most of us seem to want to push back on the retail rush, to say in our most parental of voices that the department stores -- like our children -- need to have patience, we still seem to fall in line before their yawning doors at all hours of the night, waiting for a deal.

Exhibit A

Sometimes, I'm afraid we say with our mouths, "Gee, it's just awful what they've done to Christmas," then say with our wallets, "We'll follow you retailers wherever you take us."

That's why even though we're gagging while "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" is playing before the North has even seen a good frost, we're still continuing to spend... if not spend more. Total spending on Black Friday weekend last year, for example, was $59.1 billion, up from $52.4 billion on Black Friday 2011. And foot traffic at physical stores was up 2.7 percent during Thanksgiving Day weekend too.

But We Don't Have To (And Probably Shouldn't) Let the Retail Industry Be Our Pace-Setters

Just last week, The Wall Street Journal announced that Walmart plans to launch sales events starting at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. (For those of us keeping track, that's two hours earlier than things cranked up last year.)

In short, Black Friday is now Black Thursday and Black Thursday used to be known as Thanksgiving.

But, of course, somewhere in the pit of us, we realize all of us do technically have a choice -- and not just one choice today, but a series of choices strung out across the holiday season. We can stare into the peppermint swirls of the candy cane in helpless hypnosis and surrender to a cash-driven, recklessly busy season. Or, we can insist on meaningful celebration regardless of what cultural Christmas typhoons come crashing down around us.

I don't know about you, but I'm still hoping my husband and I will have a little more pull than the local shopping mall when it comes to how our children remember the holidays.

Along these lines, here are six ways we're trying to set the pace in our house.

1. We're trying to manage our own stress.
There are those days when Christmas is legitimately overwhelming. We have to decorate our house, make lists, shop for gifts, wrap presents, prepare food, participate in school holiday activities, take in special religious services and squeeze in appearances at all the various holiday gatherings. That's a lot of extra management and spending.

But knowing parents define the tone of the house as it enters and endures the holiday season, and that the emotion we project will spill onto our kids, we're trying to think purposefully about how we'll emotionally manage the season before it starts. What is our main objective as a family? If it's to create warm and meaningful experiences where we focus on our faith and our values, the good news is we don't have to do everything on that list. We may opt to keep our decorations simple, pare down our gift list and cut back on social obligations. We may decide to cut down the list of side dishes to cut out the kitchen stresses.

The point is, it takes some thought to be intentional. If we don't have a plan for making it meaningful, we'll accidentally get caught up in the rush as we go.

2. We're trying to talk about the epidemic of want.
We are not meager gift-givers in our house. We like to purchase and make gifts that we can enjoy as a family over the holiday and in the days to come. But we want that gift-giving to be immersed in perspective. So, we're trying to talk about how it can be an addiction -- even a disease -- to want, want, want all the time. To crave after the next and the next and the next thing, as if some amount of possessions will somehow provide us with contentment. We'll talk about how we won't get absolutely everything we ask for, how life requires making choices and setting priorities, and how we are grateful for being able to give presents at all in our relative abundance.

3. We're trying to give the gift of time.
Not everyone gets extra time off around the holidays, but for those who do, this is a great chance to engage in additional meaningful quality time with family... rather than, say, hurriedly rushing to 16 parties and/or standing in line for 11 hours to rush the door to get a new game system at $25 off. We're trying to fill that time with things we can do, not just things we can get. That might look different for different families, but for us it means sledding? Check. Snowman-building? Check. Hot chocolate by the fireplace? Check. Dancing with toddlers to Christmas music? Oh-so-happily-checked.

We're focusing more on presence than the presents.

4. We're trying to direct holiday energy toward giving back.
We're trying to weave the art of giving into not just one day of charity, but into a lifestyle of Christmas behavior. For us that meant selecting toys prior to Christmas that can be donated elsewhere, rather than just purchasing yet another shelf or toy box to house more excess. It could also mean baking cookies for neighbors; purchasing gifts for a child in need; sending goodies to kids in one of 130 other countries; buying presents from the Compassion catalog; donating food, goods, or money to the Salvation Army; volunteering at a shelter; caroling at a nursing home; or sending unneeded gift certificates to Gift Card Giver.

And while we do these things, we'll try to talk about the importance of learning from those we help and building year-long relationships based in service rather than just assuming "we" are the heroes to swoop in and help the "needy" once a year. We, too, are needy -- for perspective, for learning, for graciousness and so on -- and we too receive a lot through these actions.

5. We're trying to capture memories from the year.
We're trying to spend time around the holidays being purposefully reflective of what the year has brought us. What were our favorite moments? What were our hardest? What goals do we have? What changes do we want to make? What mistakes do we not want to repeat?

This kind of memory-building can be a great time for processing and prioritizing as a family or for preserving memories by making a family Christmas video, putting together a scrapbook, writing mini-memoirs about fun events and so on.

6. We're trying to establish faith and family-centered traditions.
For us, that means celebrating Christmas as if it is a birthday party for Jesus. We have birthday cake. We read the Christmas story. We count our blessings in the dark living room while Christmas tree lights dance on the wall. We play beautiful, timeless Christmas songs like "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World."

Last year, we even captured a tradition from my childhood family in The Donkey In the Living Room children's book that guides families through opening one manger-scene figure each night and reading the Christmas story from that character's perspective. You can get the e-book here for under $4.00, but if that is too commercially or possession-adding for you, we bless you to steal the tradition and craft your own stories to go along with it too.

Whatever you do, the theme of course is make the holiday meaningful, make it together, and make it yours... not the retail industry's.