Christmas ’17 Lesson: The Best Gifts Aren’t Found Under A Tree!

We had a weird Christmas schedule this year. It wasn’t your normal December of Christmas parties followed by lots of family time and then mounds of presents on Christmas day. It never is really like that in our family anyway since I am a pastor and our Christmas is dominated with church activities and multiple Christmas services on December 23rd and 24th. But this year was weird-er than normal and I’m glad because the weirdness drove home the true meaning of “Gifts”.


By weird-er, I’m not talking about our Christian viewpoint that Jesus Christ is the true gift, available to all, in the season. While I believe that with all my heart, that’s not weird to me but true. I’m referring to having such a chaotic schedule during Christmas that we never even got to open gifts nor do the normal Christmas morning stuff.  That’s because this year, we decided a while back to do some family travel. Earlier in the year, after saving and planning for about six months for a trip, we decided to pull off all the Christmas services and then on Christmas morning, get on a plane and go to Costa Rica for 10 days! (Being good FI enthusiasts, we paid cash!) Why Christmas morning you might ask? There were four  main reasons: 1) We all could get that time off from work or school, 2) I needed to physically and spiritually renew, 3) We heard Christmas day travel is easier, 4) We wanted to shift the idea of gifts from “stuff” to “experiences”.


Christmas Day Travel To Costa Rica

So we did just that. We held six Christmas services over a couple days and collapsed into bed on Christmas Eve. Then Christmas morning, we headed to the airport. No time for opening presents. In fact, we all agreed earlier that the big present for all of us this year was the Costa Rica trip. So for the most part we just had stockings to go through upon return.


Costa Rica was amazing! The tropical beauty is very “Hawaii-like”, and Hawaii is our happy place. Beautiful beaches, majestic mountains, incredible creatures everywhere. It was truly beautiful. But the best part were the people. They are warm, joyful, hard-working and kind. Everywhere we went, we experienced great beauty and warm people.

We were in Costa Rica for about 10 days, most of them without WIFI, email or any connection to the outside world. We stayed, for the most part, in a home with this incredible view of the ocean but with no WIFI and no easy way to get in or out to ANY civilization (It takes an hour on a bumpy dirt road to get to a 50 person town). Check out the view:


The only neighbors we had were three iguanas that lived on our roof. I was told they have lived there for close to 20 years. Here’s daddy iguana in his morning sunning ritual on the peak of the roof…he just sits there…for hours…I’m either puzzled by his behavior or jealous that he has hours every day to do that!


I could talk about Costa Rica and this wild trip all day long. It was that great. We will remember this vacation forever. But something else happened on this trip that tickles my Financial Independence-focused heart: We not only got away from mounds of presents and a focus on “stuff”, we got completely unplugged from telephones, email, the internet, TV and even music. We went days without being able to get a signal on the phone nor be able to re-charge the depleted batteries. AND WE LOVED IT!!!  We focused on the natural beauty all around us and spent family time together swimming, walking the beach, collecting shells, hiking waterfalls and eating simple food (no oven, hot water or utensils). We simplified. It was awesome. And guess what? When we returned from vacation we were changed by the experience. Nobody cared that we did not have a traditional Christmas with lots of presents. The experiences we shared, both good and bad, were far more rewarding and memorable.

My favorite moment was when our family was parasailing on the beautiful Manuel Antonio beach. My 14 year old daughter leans over to me after her parasail with her mother,  full of adrenaline and joy and says: “This is really cool, maybe the coolest thing I have ever done. So this is why we save money all year long so we can do things like this. It is so worth it!” Here they are taking off on their incredible sail:


The Best Christmas Gifts

As my daughter alluded while parasailing: Experiences will be remembered forever whereas most presents come and go with little to no impact on our lives. Not only will we remember the big moments of our trip, like parasailing, zip-lining and our view of the ocean from our vacation home. But we will remember, and laugh about, hundreds of small, sometimes trying moments, that come with experiencing life in a remote foreign country, like:


  • being held up by a herd of goats that were just sitting in the middle of the road and not willing to move
  • ordering three drinks and one plate of nachos in Spanish and getting three nachos and one drink delivered, oops!
  • seeing a turtle return to the ocean after laying its eggs
  • learning that the rules of driving in Costa Rica are more like guidelines: Something to consider but by no means automatically adopted, like speed limits and no passing zones

It’s all about experiences…and peace of mind. The peace that came with being totally unplugged from our technology was amazing. At first the disconnection was unnerving. It took about three days to get over the fact that we could not connect with anything or anybody. Then, it seemed like time slowed down, like colors seemed richer and joy reigned. We all loved it.


It did not take long for all of us to slow down a bit and enjoy simple things, like walking the beach searching for shells. We also seemed to sleep better and feel better.

Another incredible effect of living simply in rural Costa Rica, removed from distractions and paved roads was that our daily activities were really active, mostly outside and really healthy.


We ate simple meals and ate well because we had make our own food for the most part. We exercised regularly and got a lot of fresh air because we were constantly hiking, on the beach or swimming. And guess what? We felt great! There’s no better gift than good health.

With little electronic distractions we found we were much more able to be in the moment during the vacation. There were no large blocks of time lost in a phone screen or transfixed on a TV screen.


And since the three of us were largely always together, we experienced things together. One time, while traveling on a dirt road, going about 3 miles an hour because the road was hardly passable, we came to an abrupt stop because the road just ended, without warning, into a deep ravine. Thank God we weren’t going fast because we may not have stopped in time before plunging into a creek bed. At first we were all startled, lamenting on what could have happened had we not stopped in time. But the mood quickly swung to one of “that’s just how it is in Costa Rica”, and we kind of laughed about it. After about 20 of these types of experiences we termed the phrase: “Just another Costa Rican adventure”.


Another great gift from being disconnected from the world in paradise: Our attitudes improved and each of us was really positive. We were content. I think the combination of the beauty of the land and sea, the niceness of the people and the “it’s an adventure” attitude made each of us happier, healthier and wanting for nothing. We were completely fulfilled.


I think the key lesson from our Costa Rica Christmas excursion was two fold: 1) The best gifts were more about experiences, together as a family, than about gifts under the tree. Yes, we did eventually come home, open our gifts in the stockings and enjoy some presents. I always appreciate getting new underwear and socks. But the presents we opened were secondary to the experiences we had. 2) When we had less (no WIFI, email or internet), we had more (contentment, fulfillment and peace). Those are the best gifts and they aren’t found wrapped under the tree. Which makes my FI heart happy because we are constantly bombarded with messages of materialism that essentially say, more is better, right? No, in fact, less is many times, better. Less consumption, less distraction, less materialism:

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who

                              craves more, that is poor. ” ― Seneca.

Hopefully, our family will now live more in the moment and more focused on experiences rather than stuff. I think this quote image says it all:


The best Christmas presents aren’t wrapped and placed under a tree!

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