‘’Tis a Gift to Be Simple ...’

During this pandemic, consider Christmas presents that are simple, thoughtful and personal.

From mugs to saint-related presents, photo frames and socks, gift-giving may be unique this year, but it does not have to lack meaning.
From mugs to saint-related presents, photo frames and socks, gift-giving may be unique this year, but it does not have to lack meaning. (photo: Courtesy of companies; Southwell Photo; Annie Theby)

Shea Olson and her family usually try to simplify their Christmas gift-giving, but this year, as COVID-19 has put some holiday traditions on hold, she and her husband have been able to focus more on spending time with their four young children than on spending money for material gifts.

“With the complexity and hardness of this year, it just feels like it should be more simple in that way, too,” said Olson, who works at home as a BeautyCounter.com mentor in St. Paul, Minnesota. “It doesn’t need to be so complicated.” 

Selecting gifts this year is complicated, however, by the fact that pandemic restrictions may prevent Catholics from seeing family and friends in person. Traditional gifts may give way to items that facilitate contact from a distance, handcrafted gifts that provide a personal touch, or prayer or faith-related gifts. As some Catholics in difficult financial circumstances seek affordable gifts, the experience of the Holy Family and others who gave gifts during challenging Christmases offer consolation.

Many Catholics probably will do much of their Christmas shopping online this year and may not be gathering with some of their loved ones, making items like gift certificates practical, said Marian Father Donald Calloway, vocations director for the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. Father Calloway is based in Steubenville, Ohio. 


Presents vs. Presence

Giving gift certificates to favorite restaurants also is a way to support restaurants that may be struggling at this time.

Father Calloway said he has also noticed people focusing on relationships more than gifts.  

“In light of the fear that’s out there and the mortality, people, I think, are reaching out, calling somebody they haven’t talked to for a long time in the family or writing something, for example, by hand.”

Gifts that foster relationships include copies of old photos that trigger memories, he said. And for older loved ones, audio books and e-books are good gift ideas. 

Olson suggested giving grandparents videos of their grandchildren, cards made by their family and a gift of time, even if not in person. 

A digital photo frame, such as from Aluratek, enables family members to share photos easily.  

If Catholics have been laid off, furloughed or have other employment struggles this year because of the pandemic, they face cutting back this Christmas, Father Calloway said. 

“I think we’re definitely going to see that, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, because we can then get to the heart of the message, which is Jesus and family and each other,” he said, encouraging Catholics to turn to St. Joseph.

 “He’s the patron of workers and so, with all that anxiety and fear right now in the world, with people losing jobs, not knowing if their business is going to reopen or how they’re going to pay bills, I think St. Joseph right now is offering people a lot of comfort in these difficult times,” said Father Calloway, author of Consecration to St. Joseph: The Wonders of Our Spiritual Father.


Practical Patronage

To support smaller retailers who may have been hit hard this year, Olson shops at their stores when she can. 

“A lot of times shopping small is a little more expensive, but it’s definitely in the forefront of my mind, and this year even more so,” said Olson, adding that she has also bought gifts at thrift stores and online second-hand book stores.  

Many shoppers this year are interested in personalized and handcrafted care packages and greeting cards, perhaps for loved ones and friends they might not see in person, according to CNBC.com. The e-commerce site Etsy.com, through which many vendors sell handmade items, has seen a 156% increase over last year in searches for personalized or custom items, the article reported. The Register has featured such gifts in recent gift guides. 

More Catholics also are making gifts this year because the cancellation of other holiday activities, such as Christmas concerts, provides time to make them, Olson said.

“Now I have the time to potentially make gifts and be thoughtful in what I’m doing, versus ‘I need a gift for this person.’”

Olson said her children now also have time in the evening to help her make Christmas cards. 

For handmade gift ideas, visit websites such as CountryLiving.com.

The pandemic has given Olson other gift ideas. During the spring lockdown and amid social distancing this year, her children learned to play chess and card games. Chess and game sets make good gifts, she said. 



Spiritual gifts such as spiritual bouquets, Rosaries or novenas are also appreciated, Father Calloway said.

“The sad reality is some people might not be able to get to church, so bringing that reality to them — that God is still with us and here’s a reminder of that — that aspect, I think, is probably going to be very important to share.” 

Other faith-related gifts for Catholics can include:

  • Saint of the Month: a monthly subscription box containing four-five gifts and materials centered around the theme of a particular saint.
  • Sock Religious: colorful socks depicting a variety of saints and Catholic devotions.
  • Greenhouse Collective: unique mugs, prints and clothing with quotes by Flannery O’Connor, G.K. Chesterton and Mother Teresa. 

In other eras, American Catholics also dealt with adversity during the holidays. 

During the Civil War, resources were moved to the war front, limiting gift-giving and celebrating, according to History.com. “Instead of giving and receiving store-bought gifts, they made more humble gifts like popcorn balls or crude homemade toys.”


History’s Lessons

Although World War I ended in November 1918, many soldiers died near the end of the war and families were still receiving telegrams announcing their deaths during the Christmas shopping season, wrote Jack Neely in the Knoxville History Project

“No one knew for sure who was coming back, whom it was safe to shop for, and what they might need, and whether an umbrella, a football, or an artificial leg.” 

Because of the war or fear of the Spanish Flu, many people reset their expectations of the holiday and stayed at home with family that year, Neely wrote. 

A rural New York weekly farm newspaper encouraged readers during Christmas 1918: 

“In every farmhouse in the land we must keep the spirit of Christmas — remembering the Christ Child, Santa Claus, Christmas tree, stockings, bells and toys. If we can’t feel like giving Christmas its due this year, we surely never will again in our lives. … Let the children make simple gifts for everyone and teach them to give these anonymously, thinking only of the joy of giving and nothing of the art of receiving.”


Keep It Simple

What Olson has read about past Christmases has encouraged her to give her children fewer, simpler items that they need.  

“I think this time, too, has really taught me, I think, more significantly … that we just don’t need a lot.” 

She has also been inspired this year with the loss of holiday distractions to see the Nativity’s simplicity. 

“This Christmas we are all forced, whether we want to or not, to focus on that simplicity,” she said. “Regardless of whether we try to do that every other Christmas, there are still things … we’re expected to be a part of. This Christmas isn’t necessarily like that.”

During the challenges of this Christmas season, Father Calloway also recommended turning to the Holy Family, “who also went through a very difficult time when they were exiled to Egypt and could not have been having an easy time at it — I mean foreign culture, foreign language, foreign everything.”

He urges Catholics in 2020: “Turn to the Holy Family.”