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By Sarah Wall

In today’s culture, it’s surprisingly easy for Americans to settle into a comfortable mindset of materialism, subconsciously accepting the attainment of material wealth as a means to happiness. How big our houses are, what kind of cars we drive, or the clothing brands we wear are treated as evidence of happiness, even if we don’t realize that’s where we’ve placed our priorities. When was the last time you daydreamed about the house or neighborhood you wish you lived in? Or when you were last jealous of a friend who got the promotion, the engagement ring, or the dream car – and you didn’t?

We should, of course, encourage ourselves and each other to have goals, dreams, and ambitions; they put us on the right track towards success. But our mistake isn’t wanting these things. Our mistake is believing that attaining them – a new house, a new neighborhood, a new job, or anything else – will be the source of happiness, even something we can’t be happy without.

This subconscious, insidious belief creeps into Christmastime too, and it quickly becomes a thief of holiday joy. Material gifts are treated like they’re the exclusive source of Christmas happiness. With so much pressure riding on the gifts we buy, we scour the shelves or search Amazon ad nauseam, refusing to settle for anything less than the perfect gift. Sometimes, this pressure results in serious feelings of inadequacy: “She got me the best birthday present,” we might think frantically. “How can I measure up to that?” Other times, it’s a look at our finances that serious stress. “I can’t afford to buy him anything nice this year,” we may feel in desperation.

When these joy-stealing thoughts creep in, that’s when we should take a lesson from a character in an old, favorite Christmas song: The Little Drummer Boy.

In the song, the little drummer boy is beckoned – probably by some very excited shepherds – to come and see a very special newborn baby, born in a stable in Bethlehem. Everyone is bringing their best gifts to honor the baby, but the little boy is embarrassed: he doesn’t have two pennies to rub together, much less the gold, frankincense, or myrrh that the kings from distant lands can afford to offer! But the boy does have one thing: his drum. He can’t offer much, but he offers what he can, asking Mary if he can play a song on his drum for the baby Jesus.

The little boy plays his best on his drum for Jesus, and he’s rewarded with a smile from the newborn King of the world.

The lesson in The Little Drummer Boy is simple and timeless. As he learned, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh from one person are just as precious as music played from the heart of someone else. It’s not the gift itself that’s important. It’s the act of carefully choosing a gift to give – one that will mean something to the person who receives it so that it becomes an expression of love and care. It’s a reminder to the people we care about that we intentionally chose something we knew would light up their eyes with joy.

Christmastime can be a stressful time of year because of how much it costs to get everyone the “perfect gift” – but it doesn’t have to be that way. If your best friend thrives on 1:1 quality time with you, don’t worry about buying her a new $100 purse. Take her out to dinner instead, or even cook it for her yourself. If you want a more formal “gift” for her to unwrap, write up a “date invitation” and slip it into a heartfelt Christmas card.

Think about this with everyone on your Christmas list: What really makes your mom, dad, sister, or husband smile? What would they find thoughtful? Usually, thoughtful gifts aren’t the most expensive – but they are the most likely to bring out a smile. If Christmas joy is what you’re craving most this year, take a lesson from the little drummer boy, and focus on the little things that show your love and attentiveness to the people on your list. Nothing spreads the Christmas spirit quite like that.

Sarah Wall is a contributing writer for Smart Women Smart Money Magazine. For questions or comments email [email protected].