Our Unexpectedly Wonderful Minimal Christmas
What truly makes the holidays special? Jo March in the classic Little Women says that "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," but is that really true? Maybe Jo felt that way because she and her sisters were giving up so much else that might have made their Christmas merry: their father was away serving in the Army during the Civil War, and they barely had money for everyday needs such as food, heat, and clothing, let alone anything special for a holiday.
One December I had pneumonia, and even as I began to recover, I was much too depleted to do my normal Christmas preparations. I'd clean the bathroom or make the beds and need to rest so I could cough and breathe (the pneumonia had aggravated my asthma). My husband worked full time, and our children were only 5 and 7 years old, too young to offer much help.
How did we celebrate that year? First of all, I made sure the radio was tuned to a station that played only Christmas music during December, and I put our holiday CDs in an easy-to-reach spot so we could play them often. I wasn't going to be able to sing any of my usual performances, but I still wanted plenty of music.
My husband put up outside lights the first weekend in December, as usual, to the delight of our kids.
I wanted some decorations inside the house, so we arranged the nativity scene on the sideboard, and got down one of the boxes of Christmas tree ornaments. When Jon and the kids came home with a bushy, fragrant tree, I relaxed my usual fussiness about "how to decorate." They turned up the music and had a fun time putting lights and ornaments to their satisfaction, finding that one box was plenty. The result was very cheerful, and the whole activity was less stressful than usual, since my perfectionism was on hiatus.
Jon had already taken on a lot of extra work with vacuuming, laundry, grocery shopping, and fixing very basic meals every day, so I decided we would not be making many special holiday foods. I made a pot of vegetarian chili for Christmas Eve, and Nestlé Toll House refrigerator dough chocolate chip cookies topped with candied cherries. They were really good; I'm not sure why I always fussed so much with special recipes! Christmas morning Jon made French toast and orange juice. We went to my parents' home for dinner, and my mother insisted that I bring nothing. Contributions from other family members made for a delicious meal.
My health and stamina were definitely not up to going shopping among the crowds, but I had bought the kids a bucket of Lego and some books before I got ill. I wrapped them with a roll of Christmas paper Jon bought at the drugstore. The stockings contained drugstore items too: candy canes, Hershey's chocolate Kisses, bottles of bubble solution, tiny Hot Wheels racecars, a tin of dominoes. Jon also bought each of them a big new box of crayons and a pad of paper. Believe it or not, the kids were thrilled with their presents, and we spent hours as a family playing dominoes and Crazy Eights, reading books, building with Lego, and coloring pictures.
Since I couldn't do the rather extravagant shopping I normally did, we decided on gift cards for our extended family members. A kiosk in the grocery store supplied cards from various national restaurant, bookstore, and movie theater chains. A box of holiday thank you cards provided a way to present them. As it turned out, our handwritten notes and the gift cards were happily received by everyone.
The Christmas I was sick forced all of us to focus on the essentials. So we had lots of festive music, a tree and lights and the nativity scene, and plenty of time just to be together. Few gifts, few treat foods, no special concerts, parties, or performances. No fussing over the tree, the wrapping, the table setting, or the "just right gift." No sitting in traffic or fighting crowds at the mall. Very little exposure to advertising, and none to "special holiday sales." No weight gain! No credit card bills!!
It really was a wonderful holiday.
That Christmas inspired our new traditions:
- I own far fewer decorations. The nativity set, my mother's vintage choirboy angels, candles, golden-white twinkle lights, and some fresh greens are all we use, and it's plenty.
- I rehearse and perform with only one group per season.
- Family games, watching a holiday movie, reading aloud, or walking through Christmas-lighted neighborhoods take up most of our evenings, with perhaps one special event such as a play or a concert.
- Jon and I have a couple of friends we meet for coffee or wine during the holidays, just to catch up and wish each other a merry Christmas.
- We always have chili for dinner Christmas Eve.
- If I feel like making holiday goodies I do, but I limit it to one or two things, rather than all of the specialties I used to feel obligated to produce.
- Our extended families no longer exchange gifts, and we give our adult children gift cards for the spa, bookstore, movie theater, hobby shop, etc.
- I buy one gift for each of my grandsons, and we give their family a one-year membership to the zoo, train museum, or whatever their parents say they will like best (they can visit as often as they want, because membership comes with free entry).
- Some of the money I used to spend on fancier food, new décor, dressy clothes, entertainment, and gifts for everyone is now donated to charity.
It's not crazy-making, it's not debt-creating, it doesn't add to guilt or stress. It's just a joyful celebration of the season.
Your best Christmas may look quite different, because we all value different things. But limits may help you discover your essentials, bringing you and your family more joy and peace.
P.S. For more inspiration for a simpler holiday, check out my book, Minimalism for the Holidays.
P.P.S. For fantastic commercial-free holiday music 24 hours a day through Christmas Day, stream the Holiday Classical station.
Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash