As the average Christmas gift budget in the United States closes in on $1,000,1 let us turn our thoughts to the developing world, where that amount could feed 25 starving children for an entire year.2 Madison Avenue co-opts everything sooner or later, turning popular ideas into big bank. This is how the holiday formed around a Baby born in an animal stall became $mas.
Every year Christians preach on the need to take the $ out of $mas and put Christ back in Christmas. But here’s the tough part: Who wants to be the one to say, “In protest of conspicuous consumerism, I will not be giving you a gift this year”? This would make us look and feel a bit like ol’ Ebenezer Scrooge, wouldn’t it? In an attempt to avoid spending too much, it might look as though we have Scrooge’s problem—spending too little on others!
Maybe Christmas could be recaptured in a different way. Yes, it’s true the miserly old man failed at generosity, but on a deeper level, he failed at gratitude. Maybe the way back to the true Christmas spirit is not through budget slashes but through gratitude increases. With this thought in mind, let’s explore what a truly grateful holiday would look like by first examining the amazing phenomenon that is gratitude. What would happen to Christmas if we adopted a gratitude mindset?
effects of gratitude
Gratitude helps people thrive psychologically. Joel Wong and Joshua Brown from Indiana University ran an experiment with just under 300 subjects—students seeking help for serious anxiety and depression. They split the students into three groups. The first received counseling. In addition to counseling, the second group wrote out their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. The third group, which also received counseling, wrote one letter of gratitude each week for three weeks.
All three groups received counseling, but only one group expressed gratitude. The researchers checked after 4 weeks and again at 12 weeks, and both times the gratitude group reported “significantly better mental health” than the other two groups.3 In science and research, significantly is a very weighty word. That third group sustained improvement months after writing a mere three letters of gratitude. It boggles the mind.
It’s not just mental health that gratitude impacts. Grateful people tend to be physically healthier. “Nothing tends more to promote health of body and of soul than does a spirit of gratitude and praise.”4 Grateful people tend to care for their bodies more faithfully.5 They also sleep better. Researchers who studied 400 adults found that the more grateful people were at bedtime, the faster they dozed off and the longer they slept.6
Grateful people also tend to have more robust relational health. Simply saying thank you can foster a new relationship, says one study. “Saying thank you provides a valuable signal that you are someone with whom a high-quality relationship could be formed.”7 Psychologist Martin Seligman showed how the happiness scores of people who wrote a letter of gratitude to someone they had never properly thanked soared, outstripping any other intervention and lasting a full month.8
Athletes have been shown to have higher self-worth when they also have a grateful relationship with their coach. Grateful Vietnam War vets experienced lower levels of posttraumatic stress disorder. And one study showed that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.9
Not only does gratitude help people feel better, but it helps them be better! Five studies found that “gratitude motivates people to express sensitivity and concern for others and stimulates prosocial behavior.”10 Gratitude snuffs out our baser instincts, making room for goodwill to flourish.
summary of the benefits of gratitude
1. Gratitude makes friends.
2. Gratitude makes us healthier.
3. Gratitude helps us sleep better.
4. Gratitude makes us nicer.
5. Gratitude helps our self-worth.
6. Gratitude helps us recover from trauma.
covetousness and its evil twin
Now that we’ve looked at the benefits of gratitude, let’s explore what keeps us from it. To arrive at a place of thankfulness, we may need to remove some barriers along the way.
Christmas consumerism thrives on covetousness. The Black Friday Death Count website reports that from 2006 to 2021, 54 Black Friday incidents in America left 17 dead and 125 injured. These include one man who limped home with a shattered hip after being shoved into a shelf of discount presents and a police officer stabbed in the neck for trying to stop a shoplifter. Could it be that the frenzy of a Black Friday sale comes from a darker motive than wanting the perfect gift?
Covetousness stems not from actual need or legitimate longing but from a desire to have what other people have, simply because they have it! This competitive acquisition mindset serves as the mother lode of all sin: “The tenth commandment strikes at the very root of all sins, prohibiting the selfish desire, from which springs the sinful act.”11
Let’s consider the flip side of covetousness, something called perceived value syndrome. In this condition, people will want something until they have it, and then suddenly, the perceived value of it sharply drops. If covetousness is wanting what we don’t have, perceived value syndrome is not wanting what we do have. This inversion of covetousness exposes ingratitude at its core. While drooling over other people’s gifts, we gloss over our own with a “meh.” Like flowering plants and flying insects, covetousness and ingratitude come as a selfish, symbiotic package.
how to make the shift
In substance abuse treatment circles, we talk about “the gift of desperation”—the point where we become disgusted enough with our addiction to pursue recovery. I have news for you: we’re all addicted to covetousness. The apostle Paul intimated that the prohibition on covetousness was the commandment he struggled the most to keep. All of the commandments involve observable external behaviors with the exception of the tenth. It is the only commandment that addresses a heart issue—obedience to which cannot be manufactured, forced, or faked. This realization unsettled Paul, who cried, “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24, KJV12).
Fortunately, Paul answered himself: “I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (verse 25, NKJV). Ironically enough, the Christmas holiday gives us the perfect context in which to reorient ourselves toward this same thankfulness. The birth of Jesus was His first earthly step toward the Cross—His incarnation, the first point of humility. Imagine being flanked with holy, adoring angels, drinking in the resplendent light of God’s glory and the eternal, sweet communion of heaven and then journeying to this planet teeming with selfishness to be born with flies buzzing around one’s head! That sacrifice melts away ingratitude, giving place to praise.
Realistically, we must build gratitude into our daily practice. Here are a few suggestions:
Why not keep a gratitude journal beginning Thanksgiving Day? Simply write down three things each day for which you are grateful, and resolve in your heart to share each of them with at least one other person. According to the research reported earlier, this practice can have profound and long-lasting effects on your mood and morale.
Why not also recycle some of Christmas traditions? Why not use beautiful evergreen trees to create a place of love and sacrifice? “Let . . . churches present to God Christmas trees . . . ; and then let them hang thereon the fruits of beneficence and gratitude—offerings coming from willing hearts and hands, fruits that God will accept as an expression of our faith and our great love to him for the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ.”13
What about gift giving and receiving? What about replacing extravagance and display with deep thoughtfulness? Why not give small gifts to the rich and large gifts to the poor? What about starting a fund with friends or office mates for those who might not receive much else? Even a small gift can speak volumes.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to resurrect the time-honored tradition of Christmas caroling? Nursing homes, apartment complexes, and hospitals may be good fits. Neighborhoods might also be a good place for caroling to raise awareness and money for a favorite local charity—thus making friends with the residents and the charity staff.
Time with family can be made meaningful through a gratitude circle. Focus on each member one by one, and go around the circle, each person thanking that person for something. Gratitude makes room for the Holy Spirit to dissolve ancient injuries and resentments.
We would do well to pull the gratitude thread on into the new year. Cultivating the habit of gratitude can single-handedly cure us of self-pity, entitlement, jealousy, envy, greed, competitiveness, covetousness, and, of course, ingratitude. But this will put us at war with our inner Scrooge. We can count on needing to correct our naturally ungrateful bias again and again—a bias that will cause us to fall off the praise wagon, so to speak. This should not discourage us. Behaviors practiced over and over again eventually become part of us. There’s no need to conclude, “Well, I tried that, and I failed!” Simply start over. “That which at first seems difficult, by constant repetition grows easy, until right thoughts and actions become habitual.”14
There is no need to squelch generous impulses this Christmas. But let all giving and receiving be laced with gratitude to the One who, “though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9, NKJV).
Jennifer Jill Schwirzer loves God and people and lives to bring them together through the written, spoken, and sung Word.
Portions of this article have been adapted from Jennifer Jill Schwirzer, 13 Weeks to Joy (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press®, 2019), 121–130.
1. “Roughly How Much Money Do You Think You Personally Will Spend on Christmas Gifts This Year? (In U.S. Dollars),” Statista, 2022, https://www.statista.com/statistics/246963/christmas-spending-in-the-us-during-november/.
2. “Feed a Starving Child for an Entire Year,” WorldHelp, accessed August 25, 2022, https://worldhelp.net/hunger.
3. Joshua Brown and Joel Wong, “How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain,” Greater Good, June 6, 2017, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain.
4. Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press®, 1942), 251.
5. Patrick L. Hill, Mathias Allemand, and Brent W. Roberts, “Examining the Pathways Between Gratitude and Self-Rated Physical Health Across Adulthood,” Personality and Individual Differences 54, no. 1 (January 2013): 92–96.
6. Alex M. Wood, Stephen Joseph, Joanna Lloyd, and Samuel Atkins, “Gratitude Influences Sleep Through the Mechanism of Pre-Sleep Cognitions,” Journal of Psychosomatic Research 66, no. 1 (January 2009): 43–48.
7. Lisa A. Williams and Monica Y. Bartlett, “Warm Thanks: Gratitude Expression Facilitates Social Affiliation in New Relationships via Perceived Warmth,” Emotion 15, no. 1 (February 2015): 1–5, https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000017.
8. Michael Craig Miller, “In Praise of Gratitude,” Harvard Health (blog), November 21, 2012, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/in-praise-of-gratitude-201211215561.
9. Amy Morin “7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude,” Psychology Today, April 3, 2015, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-mentally-strong-people-dont-do/201504/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-gratitude.
10. C. Nathan DeWall, Nathaniel M. Lambert, Richard S. Pond Jr., Todd B. Kashdan, and Frank D. Fincham, “A Grateful Heart Is a Nonviolent Heart: Cross-Sectional, Experience Sampling, Longitudinal, and Experimental Evidence,” abstract, Social Psychological and Personality Science, September 6, 2011, https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550611416675.
11. Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press®, 1958), 309.
12. Bible texts marked KJV are from the King James Version.
13. Ellen G. White, “Christmas Is Coming,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, December 9, 1884, 770.
14. White, Ministry of Healing, 491.