When I was a kid, my family had many Christmas traditions. One I always remember had to do with decorating the Christmas tree. (Yes, even in the tropics people bring conifers into their homes this time of year.) My mom kept some of the decorations in a box from a favorite present from a previous Christmas: a G.I. Joe “Sea Wolf” submarine. The appearance of the submarine box in our living room signaled the start of the happiest time of year for us: It meant parties with our cousins, great food, and of course, presents on Christmas morning.

As a parent, I struggle with how to teach my children to appreciate the things they have and the gifts they receive at this time of year. They have expectations that are unavoidable in our culture, and I’m conflicted about it. On the one hand, I’m appalled by the materialism and waste, especially when so many people are in need and our ecosystems are at risk. (Seriously, shipping evergreens to the rainforest?) But I’m also happy that we’ve set time aside as a culture to acknowledge each other, celebrate together, and renew ourselves.

Gift-giving and receiving are important parts of this celebration. But they’re not the most important part. At best, the gifts are just expressions of our love for each other. I have a fonder memory of that old box than of any particular present I got as a child — not because of the thing itself, but for what it represented. The things that endure cannot be gift-wrapped.