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Teresa (49), Michael (42), and their young son are currently living in Cuenca, Ecuador. They’re financially independent, retired early, learning Spanish, and generally enjoying the life of their choosing. They are ordinary people living a seemingly extraordinary life....

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Christmas: Minimize the Muck, Maximize the Magic

Somewhere in a photo box is a series of pictures I took as a kid documenting my Christmas haul for the year. I’d strategically pile everything up together in front of the fireplace and take a picture. That was usually sometime after I got off the phone with each of my best friends so we could share the list of our respective loots.

I used to measure the success of a Christmas by how far past the bottom of the tree the Christmas gifts spread. It wasn’t even too much about quantity – big gifts were great because they forced things to spread even further. My grandparents would show up on Christmas morning and I would quietly hope that as my grandfather walked through the door with bags full of presents he would need to go out to the car to get still more.

I loved buying and wrapping gifts for family and friends. I’d usually wait until I had something for everyone on my list before I’d tackle the task of wrapping. Then, I’d set to work while watching a predictably corny Christmas movie and get a silent thrill the bigger my pile of wrapped gifts to give grew.

Man, I totally loved the giving and receiving of Christmas.

I also got pretty sucked into the sentimentality of the rest of it too: Christmas cookies, The Carpenters playing on the CD player (as I typed those words sitting in a cafe, I noticed Karen serenading us with some Silent Night at that very moment… of course she was!!), putting up decorations, loitering around the adults when my dad hosted his office’s annual holiday party, lighting the luminaria that our neighborhood collectively lined the streets with every Christmas Eve. Sigh. I’m a big dork for all of it.

I’m so grateful I had the type of childhood that allowed me to make those memories. Now, here I am, with a three year old who is finally at an age when he’s starting to remember. Before this year, he has always been so little that I never put a great deal of thought into establishing standards and traditions for what he’ll grow up remembering his Christmases to be. We’ve been sticking to some holiday basics during our adult years, but this is the first year I have felt it’s time to start setting the Christmas traditions that will define the holiday season that I hope our children will grow to love.

As Michael and I are having these conversations, the plan is to keep our customs aligned with our values and goals. “Mindfulness” is what comes to mind. : ) We want the magic, not all the muck.

Minimize the Muck

It’s perhaps a bit ironic, but the holiday season seems to be the most joyful, stressful, magical, excessive, crazy, cozy time of the year. Years ago, my approach to Christmas was something of a hands-thrown-up attitude. I didn’t want to spend so much money, but it just seemed like the way it had to be. But does it?

Presents!

unwrapping at 5 months

Leo figuring out the present unwrapping thing at 5 months old.

While I obviously loooooved all of the gifts I used to get as a child, I just don’t want my kids to end up with so much STUFF. I want them to have some stuff, just not sooo much. I have three reasons for this:

  1. Too many toys leads to too much clutter, mess, and chaos. I think a kid’s bedroom or playroom can be a lot like a kitchen junk drawer. Try to put too many things in there, and it’ll always be tough to close, hard to find things, and a black pit of miscellaneous ugh.
  2. The more toys a child has, the less they value each one individually. Currently, we keep enough toys to fill a small toy chest in our family room. The kids typically pull out one or two of their favorites on any given day. When that toy chest gets really full and surrounded by extra toys that have slowly made their way in from the garage, they’re more likely to dump it ALL out on the ground and not really play with any of it!
  3. We don’t want to give our children unreasonably high expectations. Our kids are already more privileged and live a lifestyle with more material comfort than the majority of children in the world. Enough is enough.

Here are some ways we’re working on this goal:

  • Communicate with family members about what kids are wanting/needing ahead of time. Parents just know their kids the best, and gift giving is obviously no exception. This is especially helpful when family lives far away and doesn’t always know what the kids already have and enjoy. That way we can avoid duplicates and focus on items we know will help the kids develop their skills and keep them entertained on a regular basis.
  • One gift per couple. If the kids receive just one gift from their three aunts/uncles, and both sets of grandparents, that’s already 5 cool new things each! Add on what Michael and I get them and that’s 6 gifts each—that’s a heck of a haul! One worthy of a celebratory picture by the fireplace if we never set the expectation that they should receive dozens and dozens of gifts.
  • Choose toys to give away to make room for the new ones. Leo is probably just finally old enough to really get this. He will be getting a bunch of cool new stuff when we go to YaYa and Gramps’ house for Christmas, and it’s time to let some things go. I haven’t yet figured out how to make this more mindful than just donating to our local Goodwill. In the spirit of the season, I’d like for us to choose things that are still in good shape and take them where we know they’ll be used to brighten a child’s Christmas Day.
  • Stockings or no stockings? So far, we have not filled stockings for the kids. Although I always loved seeing mine stuffed to the brim each year, I don’t think a sock filled with lots of little knick knacks will find it’s way onto our list of annual must-dos. What I can picture doing is using the stocking as a way to give the kids things they’d already be needing/using – socks, underwear, snacks, batteries? I don’t know… I think we’ll cross this particular bridge next year.
  • Why not just skip the gifts? I know there are families that have decided to opt out of the giving of material objects altogether in favor of experiences and/or simply saving money for other uses. That’s not a route I’m interested in pursuing at this point. Our kids are young, and the joy of opening presents means so much to them. We don’t buy our kids toys throughout the year, so Christmas and their birthdays are the only two special times they receive things they will learn from and enjoy.

Group Gift Exchange

This is not how we do things with the kids, but one way we’ve simplified things is to do a “yankee swap” gift exchange with extended family members. We set a theme (it was “the outdoors” with Michael’s Colorado family this year), a price range (usually $20-$30 or less), and then have fun opening/swapping gifts among the group. It was such a load off my shoulders, and much kinder to our budget, when we stopped buying gifts for every individual family member. We still exchange gifts individually with Michael’s parents, brothers and their wives, but we’ve been doing yankee swap gift exchanges with my family and Michael’s Colorado family for the last several years and it seems to be enjoyed by everyone involved. For now, I like that we get to do it both ways.

Marcella enjoying ribbon from one of the gifts unwrapped for the yankee swap at our recent family Christmas gathering.

Marcella admiring some ribbon from one of the gifts unwrapped for the yankee swap at our recent family Christmas gathering.

Potluck Gatherings

There have been a handful of times when we invited over a large group of family or friends for a holiday gathering and provided all of the food. Uh, that is so expensive! And so much work! I love a good potluck. It makes things so much easier, it allows for accommodating different food preferences, and spreads out the financial/preparation burden of feeding a large group of people.

Handmade Gifts

Throughout my childhood, my brother and I each made some sort of Christmas gift for our grandparents, aunts, and uncles every year. This kept our parents from having to buy something for us to give everyone (although I’m sure they funded the materials we used) but still allowed us to participate in the giving. I feel like it could have been annoying as a child, but I remember actually liking it. It’s just what we did. Some of the gifts I remember making: homemade chocolate chip cookies placed in boxes that I painted, potpourri sachets, cute Christmas ornaments, or giant bins of popcorn that I had popped and seasoned myself. This year the kids and I went with my moms club to a local ceramic studio where they cut out ornaments from clay that they’ll paint and give to Michael’s parents and brothers.

Okra Santa! I enjoyed making these, but I can't take credit for the idea. I saw them online somewhere.

Okra Santa! I enjoyed making these, but I can’t take credit for the idea. I saw them online somewhere.

As an adult, I tried to keep up with this tradition as a way to give to friends and co-workers who wouldn’t otherwise be on my official shopping list. I’ve turned dried okra into super cute Santa ornaments, filled boxes with fancy truffle chocolates, and made jars of hot cocoa mix. That tradition stopped as soon as we had Leo, though!

Minimize the Christmas Decorations

I sort of get lured in by the fancy wreaths, lights, and cutesy reindeer figurines that they start putting out around Halloween (Halloween!? Terrible!!). But, I never buy any of it. We have a small collection of items we either inherited or received as gifts over the years and it’s enough to make the house feel festive each December. I love the lights that our neighbors put on their houses, but we don’t have any ourselves (except the lovely glow of the Christmas tree in the bay window). We have a crazy old fake tree we drag out of the garage each year. I know a real tree is absolutely essential for many people, but I grew up with a fake one, so it’s no biggie for me. The damn thing still drops plenty of needles.

Maximize the Magic

Santa or no Santa?

I think one of the reasons I often ended up with so many gifts under the tree was that a bunch also came from Santa. (So odd, but his handwriting was just like my mom’s). My parents definitely kept up the ruse until my grandmother told me quite matter-of-factly that there was definitely no Santa. I was about 7 at the time and was certainly on to that truth already, but didn’t really want anyone to tell me what I already assumed. I told my mom and she explained that Santa was simply “the spirit of Christmas”. As a group of my 2nd grade peers engaged in an intellectual is-Santa-real-debate, I calmly stated what my mother had told me. I was promptly mocked by the class bully. I’m pretty sure that was when the whole Santa thing officially ended for me. Jerk.

So I’ve been polling my friends. Santa or no Santa? Does he bring gifts? How deep into the story do we go? The conclusion we’ve come to (ok, my conclusion that Michael has agreed to agree to), is to let Santa be the “spirit of Christmas”. He’s going to be in the books we read, the songs we hear, and the movies we watch. He’s going to be all around town with kids on his lap (ugh, that actually sounds so wrong), and he’s even going to bring one combined gift for the kids. That’s what my friend does for her three boys. One gift that they can all enjoy together. I like that. When they ask where this bearded white guy with the big belly really comes from, I’ll be armed with a super sappy response like, “our hearts.” And the North Pole. With Rudolph.

Other Traditions

It’s fun to think through some of the things that help Christmas permeate the entire month of December making it all feel so special. There are so many options – seeing The Nutcracker, riding on The Polar Express train (there are a couple options near us in CO), paying for pictures on Santa’s lap, shopping, shopping, and shopping!

With our minimalist approach to the whole thing, I think we’ll stick to the following:

  • Christmas music. From what I’ve written, is it not obvious that I’m a total dork about this? It’s on in the house just about anytime we’re in the kitchen/living area (which is most of the time). In the car, I searched for and programmed in the local station that plays all Christmas all the time. And, of course, the stores keep a steady supply of holiday tunes for me too. Poor Michael. The man is incredibly tolerant.
  • House decorating. Michael drags out the tree and the one bin of decorations we have. This year was the first time I decorated with the kids. I put everything out on the table and they helped me decide where it would go. Except I’m sort of a control-freak so it was mostly me letting them think they were deciding where it would go. My favorite part is putting ornaments on the tree because each one holds a memory. All backdropped with Christmas music, of course.
  • Cookie baking. When I was a kid, it was chocolate chip cookies made with the red and green M&Ms. That must have been my mom’s favorite because it’s what we always did. Leo made cut-out Christmas cookies with his YaYa for the first time last year, and he still talks about it. I can’t wait to get pictures of the kids covered in flour and frosting on their cheeks.
Leo’s first Christmas cookie baking experience with his YaYa.

Leo’s first Christmas cookie baking experience with his YaYa.

  • Gift-making. I already mentioned the Christmas ornaments the kids made and will be painting as gifts. This will be the first year of providing our kids the gift of giving.
  • Christmas movies. For the past 8 – 9 years, we have gathered with Michael’s parents, brothers, and their wives to eat pizza, popcorn, drink cocoa, and watch a Christmas movie on Christmas Eve. We’ve never really had TV in Leo’s world up until this year. This past week I’ve been playing Christmas songs off of YouTube on our Apple TV and of course it pulls up other recommended videos. Through that route, we’ve already watched the classics Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. Being snuggled with my boy on the couch, with him completely absorbed because TV is an all new “whoa” for him, is so cozy!

And then there’s something I really want to put a lot of heart and thought into.

I want Christmas to be a time when our family does something that reminds us of our tiny place in the great, big world. Something that reminds us to be humble. And deeply grateful.

The truth is, we don’t have this entirely figured out. Yet. Michael and I agreed that it would be really meaningful for our kids if each year we decided as a family something we could do that would benefit others. The kids are too young to really come up with their own ideas so this year it’ll be up to us to decide. But as the kids get older, I’d like it to be something they brainstorm and we vote on as a family.

Because the kids are so little, I intend to keep it simple and concrete enough for at least my three year old to understand. Somewhat inspired by this incredibly touching article by Ms. Montana Money Adventures, I think I’ll let the kids pick out a gift for a little boy and a little girl from one of those giving trees strategically placed in local stores. We’ll make sure they know it’s not for them. It’s something special that they get to choose. For someone else.

As I said before, the goal is for us to approach the holiday season in a mindful way. This is what has been on our minds a lot as we lay the foundation of our family’s holiday traditions. Somehow, we want to make our way through the coming years with Christmas being a time when our kids experience all of the joy, magic and coziness. Without all the stress, excess, and craziness.

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8 Comments

  1. Steph M

    These are some really fantastic ideas for ways to keep Christmas simple, but to still remember how special this time of year is! I’m aiming to keep it simple as well, with more time spent with family and less emphasis on gift giving. The kids will certainly grow to understand! Thanks for the ideas!

    Reply
    • Ellen

      We’re just a couple days away, and I’d say we’ve been mostly successful so far. By the looks of the pile of gifts under Michael’s parents’ tree, I think we might need to be a little more proactive about the “one couple, one gift” idea. : ) I’m sure your kids will grow to understand and even appreciate any changes you make towards a more simple/connected/mindful holiday season. Merry Christmas!!

      Reply
  2. Mrs Doodlepop

    Love this! Thanks for sharing and giving me ideas! The holidays really are about enjoying time with family and friends (and Christmas cookies 😊). I love how mindful you and Michael are being and the way you include your children in your thought process. Always love reading your articles!

    Reply
    • Ellen

      Thank you! I really think I sort of enjoy the process of making the cookies more than even eating them. (Nah, I like eating them too, but man, the belly aches!). Kids, cookies, Christmas music in the background… so classic!

      Reply
  3. Jaime @ Keep Thrifty

    I love this tradition – “For the past 8 – 9 years, we have gathered with Michael’s parents, brothers, and their wives to eat pizza, popcorn, drink cocoa, and watch a Christmas movie on Christmas Eve.”

    We started doing something similar with our girls. On Christmas night we pull our sleeping bags out to the living room and pop in kid friendly Christmas movies!

    Reply
    • Ellen

      Ooh, sleeping bags sound super cozy. : ) Even though we’ve mostly avoided tv up until this point, I’m pretty excited that our eldest is at an age where he can really snuggle up and watch a movie with us.

      Reply
  4. Jillian

    It does take mindfulness to make holiday traditions meaningful and full of good memories but also aligned to our family values. And simply not make them crazy, overwhelming or exhausting for the parents! We host a big gingerbread house making party. And it’s crazy fun. But December is always so jam-packed for our friends that this time of year we are going to try to do it in January. =)

    Reply
    • Ellen

      Yes! I love the gingerbread house making idea. I have a friend who also does that each year with her family. She has 10 grandkids and home bakes a house for each child AND their parents. It blows my mind. Last year my moms group decorated houses made with graham crackers… that’s more my speed. 🙂 And, yes, in all of this thinking about new traditions, I want to stay realistic about keeping things simple and not too crazy busy. Right now we’re packing up the house to move out of it for the next 3.5 months, so the only truly Christmasy thing I can currently manage is the music. Hope your sweet family has a lovely holiday!

      Reply

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