Christmas in August! Talking with Family about the Commercial Carousel7 min read

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Christmas Tree in the Snow ca. 2001

For all my readers who don’t celebrate Christmas because of their particular religious practice, please replace “Christmas” with whatever celebration you want to simplify and all will be well. On to our story…

It is a Christmas that will always stand out in my memory. After eight trips up and down our townhouse steps on Christmas Eve, I was sitting on the couch six months pregnant with our fourth child. Across the living room I saw the cute little Christmas tree sweetly decorated with strings of popcorn, cranberries and cut-paper decorations. The children had put small candy canes along the lower rows of branches. As my eyes traveled down the beautiful but simply clad tree, they came to rest on the carnage that used to be a carpeted floor.

My plodding up and down the stairs had been productive. Packages by the hundreds seemed to rest there on the living room floor. Like a boulder field below a mountain, packages were strewn so far from the tree you couldn’t have reached it to put an ornament on it! As I stared at this mass of gifts that came to us compliments of well-intentioned family, friends and co-workers, I wanted to cry. I knew that many of these gifts were for the children and I also knew that the toys and packages took time, effort and money to reach us. However, I also recognized a sad fact, that after the third gift was unwrapped my kids would lose interest. They were still young; I had a 6-year-old, a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old. I knew that Christmas for them was all about the excitement and joy of seeing new toys and packages, but that they could not sustain that enthusiasm when they had received too much.

The pile under the tree represented way, way too much! Please don’t think I am being ungrateful here. I’m not. I was touched by the thought that each one of those presents represented. I was thrilled that so many people loved us that they had sent these gifts to brighten our Christmas morning. However, it was too much. By having too much, my children would not use most of the toys. By having too much, my little townhouse would become packed full with objects that would require attention, storage and clean-up. By having too much, my children would rip off paper of packages and move on to the next gift without even giving consideration to the one just opened. This is not how I wanted to celebrate the sacred time of Christmas. I wanted simplicity, not excess.

I have heard over and over from friends, colleagues and clients how much they dislike the glut of Christmas and all the financial stress it brings. “How do you stop it?” they plaintively cry. I don’t blame them for the sentiment. The holiday itself is wonderful, but buying stuff has managed to get out of control. Here are the steps that Brad and I had with family and friends to change our traditions to a simpler system.

1-Start the Christmas conversation now. With summer here people are more willing to chat about the commercialism of Christmas because the stores aren’t full of messages that say you MUST buy product X to be a good relative or you’re a cheap jerk! Now is the time to discuss options to Christmas giving.

2-Draw names for gifts. Many families already do this, drawing one name to receive a major gift at Christmas and then buying little “stocking stuffers” for other members of the family. This works especially well when you set an upper limit to the gifts. We did this one year and had a $20 limit (by the way that’s $20 total for the main gift and stuffers!) It was a blast to see the creativity everyone brought to the celebration.

3-Explain and show Grandma and Grandpa other ways that they can demonstrate their love throughout the year rather than saving it all for Christmas. I pick on them because in our family they are the major spenders in the gift-giving arena. I had to explain to my wonderful parents that I appreciated what they were doing for their grandchildren, but what the kids REALLY loved was mail. We discussed that they send short notes to the kids and articles from magazines during and after the holiday season. This idea hit the jackpot. Grandpa now sends his grandsons a new quarter for their collection as each new edition is minted along with a short handwritten note. My sons love it.

4-Buy gifts after Christmas Day. I have a couple that told me this works great in their family. Each person posts on the web site what they want for Christmas. The family members “sign up” to get the gift they want to buy and the actual purchase is done AFTER Christmas when the sales hit and the pressure it off. Then in January the family celebrates Christmas! They told me of the thousands of dollars that the family has saved not only in gift giving, but also in air fare!!!!

5-Ask for or give gifts that are perishable or require no storage space. My favorite gifts to give and receive are books, magazine subscriptions, and food. I read books and then give them to the library. I read the magazines and then give them to friends who I know will enjoy them, or recycle them. And I love cooking in the kitchen. Remember that re-gifting is a fine art form that is frugal, not cheap. You can do it as long as you don’t give the gift back to the very person who gave it to you. If you’re not going to use the gift, by all means, give it to a person who will.

The bottom line is this, dear friend. The act of giving gifts is to let folks know we thought of them. What the actual gift is doesn’t matter as much as the thought that went behind it. This has always been my view; unfortunately, I didn’t have family that always agrees.

It took three years and many, many telephone conversations, but, finally, we have détente! (Celebrate with me here!) When Christmas arrives, we are no longer deluged with packages. Our tree actually can cover all the packages with its limbs and the kids get one “big” gift and several little ones. How did Brad and I bring about a non-commercial Christmas? We started using money. That’s right. Grandma, Grandpa, Aunts, Uncles, and Cousins — all of us now ship money (not cash) through the mail and ask the folks on the other side to buy what they want. It took years of working on this and trying LOTS of other options before there was mutual consensus on this simple and obvious solution. Now, we all save on shipping, time at the mall and gift wrapping. And we always get what we want!

Some people have told me that money doesn’t say as much as a “real” gift. Then I look at my four kids playing with the “exact” toys they wanted from Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt and Uncle. I see the excitement and joy of Christmas still in their eyes after the last gift is unwrapped and I see them totally thrilled with the treasures. Brad and I exchange our gifts after Christmas because we go shopping for each other during the sales on December 26th.

You will have to come up with your own system for handling Christmas this year. I suggest you initiate negotiations now for scaling down on the gift giving. Be creative in options that you list as potential traditions for the new Christmas coming along. Given enough time, you too, can celebrate the true joys of the season without the financial stress of the commercialism.

Here are some web sites that have articles and stories on returning to simple holiday seasons.

Simple Living
New Dream

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

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