Simple and Special

I am totally stealing the concept for this post from Wendy at Give Love Create Happiness. So here I am, giving credit where credit is due. Thanks, Wendy!

Now, on to my post. I’m going to start with a story. On Tuesday, November 30 I decided to take my kids to the mall for their annual photo with Santa. I wore nice clothes, and even some lipstick, because I realized there was a good chance my 2-year-old wouldn’t sit on Santa’s lap without me. I managed to get the children out the door on time, so that we could be there as soon as Santa opened at 11am. It was a weekday morning, I didn’t anticipate a crowd. I was wrong.

Tree and stockings

By the time we got there, the line was already wrapped around Santa’s workshop. Then, to compound things, Santa was late. In front of us, other parents struggled with their own 2-year-olds and people agonized over photo choices. After about 30 minutes in the line-up with my two kids, and eight families still lined up in front of us, it was fast becoming apparent that we wouldn’t be seeing Santa soon. This would have been OK, except that my 5-year-old Hannah attends afternoon kindergarten, and we had less than an hour to go at that point. We still needed to get home, get changed, eat lunch and get packed for school.

I broke the news to the kids that we would have to come back and see Santa another day. They were very upset. Hannah started crying and begging, “Please! We love Santa! We want to see Santa!” I was able to explain to her what the problem was, and she mostly understood, but she was still very disappointed. I understood, because I was pretty disappointed, too. It’s disappointing when your plans fall through.

Hug or headlock? You decide.

In the car, I broke down crying. I started thinking about what a hassle Christmas is. We still had weeks to go, I hadn’t even started shopping, and already it was one huge pain in the rear. I was overwhelmed, especially because all of the holiday hoopla stands in direct opposition to my values. I don’t like participating in mass consumerism. I don’t like the pressure to spend, the hours spent agonizing over gift choices, and the garbage bags stuffed full of gift wrap and and plastic packaging and styrofoam padding. It’s a lot of waste for a lot of presents that nobody even really wants. We’re sapping all of the joy from the holidays, and we’re hurting the planet in the process.

As I sobbed over everything that’s wrong with Christmas, I came to a realization. I am in charge of my own life. I can decide to do things differently. I can simplify, and in the process I can make the holidays more enjoyable for everyone. I’m pretty sure my family prefers to live with a mom who is not on her last nerve for the whole month of December. By scaling back and making things easier on myself, I’m also helping everyone else have more fun, too. When I think back to my own childhood Christmases, it’s the time with my family that stands out, not the picture-perfect-ness of the holiday.

Hannah lends a hand

How am I scaling back? Here are a few ways:

  1. My husband’s family has decided to do a gift exchange for the adults this year. Each one of us buys for one other person, and there’s a price limit. Much less shopping, much less expense, much less agonizing.
  2. I’ve decided that instead of agonizing over hard-to-buy-for people on my list, I’m donating to charity in their name. There are people who can accomplish much more good with $50 than a Starbucks gift card could ever hope for.
  3. I’m scaling back on my holiday crafting. Handmade gifts are lovely. I plan to make some. But I don’t plan to be at my sewing machine at 11:15pm on Christmas Eve, like I was last year.
  4. I’m maintaining the commitment I made a couple of years ago not to buy new gift wrap. I have lots of gift bags that I’ve acquired, and what isn’t covered by that can surely be covered in some way or another without cutting down more trees.
  5. I’m scaling back on gifts for my kids. They will each receive one reasonably-sized gift from their parents and one gift from Santa. They will also get presents in their stockings, and few small items to share. They have more toys than they could ever play with already, there’s no need to go overboard and add a whole lot more to their collection.

The family, on ice

I am working hard to make the holidays this year simple and special. I hope that, in the process, I’ll also reduce my environmental impact and increase my own happiness. Because I deserve to enjoy Christmas, too.

How do you keep the holidays manageable? What have you done to scale back, if anything? And what is the thing you remember most from Christmas as a kid? Please share!

I wrote this post for the December Green Moms Carnival, hosted this month by the fabulous Jenn over at The Green Parent. Head on over there on Monday, December 6 for more ideas on celebrating the holidays without the hoopla.

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  1. Oh, Amber, you are a Christmas elf after my own heart! I’ve also shed tears over this Christmas season–and it’s only December 3rd! The gift-giving (and buying, and wrapping, and shipping internationally) is hard, but even harder for me, this year, has been preparing for the international travel. There’s the housesitter to book, the bags to pack, things to finish up at work before the extended holiday, and then you have to get to the airport on time. Today, I’ll be flying alone (my husband flew ahead) while five months pregnant, with an almost two-year-old who’ll be riding in my lap, and I threw my back out three days ago. It’s too, too much.

    So, next year we’ve decided to stay home. Grandparents can come to us if they wish. I don’t think I would even mind the Christmas shopping, if I just didn’t have to fly.

    Oh, and I totally agree with your gift rule: we’re only giving our son one gift this Christmas, and another at his birthday in January. He’s two after all, and, let’s face it, at this point, getting him “gifts” is really about us. Good luck this Christmas!
    Sarah’s last post … The Single Womans Daybook- Day 3My Profile

  2. Oh, I need to tear a page from your book of simplicity. I truly love everything about Christmas, but I do make it much much harder than it has to be. Good for you for finding the way to make it work for you and your family, instead of letting it steamroll over you!

    But really, I have to ask — is that your mantel in the first picture? At the risk of being the weenie who completely misses the point of your post (that’s why I commented on the content first!) I have two questions — first, I’m afraid to hang anything on our mantel if we’re using the fire place. Am I overreacting? And second, OMG I love the idea of using those S hooks instead of a $25 stocking holder!!!!

    • Yes, that IS my mantel. I should let you know that I light the candles in the fireplace precisely twice a year – once to take a photo when I’ve finished decorating, and once on Christmas Eve. Those stockings aren’t exactly left in front of a roaring fire unattended.

      And the hooks are from LL Bean. They’re kind of a pain because they fall down all the time when the stockings are empty, but they do hold a lot of weight and they’re easy to use. I can’t find them in the store right now, but they’ve had them in their catalogue in past years.

  3. Good for you for scaling back! Big hugs to you too.

    I personally cannot stand waiting in line ups to therefore my kids have never had a Christmas photo with “Santa.” I also do not attend any Christmas parade’s of any kind because let’s face it – it’s stressful! I am doing a cookie exchange with some folks at work – so I’m making 9 dozen cookies and then we all switch and voila – I have 9 dozen different cookies to give away. I’m not hosting Christmas this year – this one really makes me smile. I’m bringing all the appetizers but not cooking a turkey or having anyone over :). We buy gifts for our parents and only our siblings kids. ๐Ÿ™‚ All the best to you this holiday season.

  4. i hear you! yesterday i was feeling the familiar twinge of overwhelmedness creeping over me so i sat back and took stock of why this is happening again. i’m in the middle of craft fair season, and there’s a gallery deadline looming immediately after christmas, so i’ve been working fulltime on my business/exploits and keeping a minimum ticking over on the domestic front. after all our discussion during the summer about me going back to work/starting college/whatever i really did expect more of the slack to be picked up by my other half and the domestic stuff to be less “doing me a favour” and more “teamwork” but no. then i realised, this is what is overwhelming me – just realising that i am doing my own work yet still expected to keep the house ticking over and have christmas up and running all on my own.
    i’m feeling much calmer this morning in the realisation of it all. i cannot do it all therefore it all will not be done.
    pomomama’s last post … the usual all about me postMy Profile

  5. We do the gift exchange with my husband’s siblings too. And I am making a commitment not to buy new gift wrap this year, either. We have MILLIONS of gift bags, and I’m sure I can figure the rest out. I WISH I were crafty so I could make some of my gifts, but that’s not a strength for me, so I’m doing lots of books and photos as gifts this year. For my family members who live far away, I’m making my life easier by ordering from amazon. Although I don’t love the environmental impact of that, it reduced my stress by about a million percent.
    Amanda’s last post … November 2010 RecapMy Profile

  6. My belief is that no one likes me when I’m stressed out and no onw actually wants me to be stressed out.

    We now do a GIft War for the adult in our family with a limit of $15! And cheeky as this sounds, we started giving my niece and nephew CASH. They LOVED IT! We gave them less that we would have spent on a gift and they were beside themselves. Really there is nothing better than being the aunt who gives cash for birthdays and Christmas.

    Christmas is about twinkly lights, baby Jesus, family and friends and food. It’s not about gifts in my books.

    Which brings me to our annual Christmas Open House, which got seriously out of control last year. We were feeling obliged to have it this year and suddenly we both said, “Wait a minute, let’s have it AFTER Christmas!” It will be smaller. People who are here will look forward to it and it will be much less stressful. Problem solved!
    harriet Fancott’s last post … WorriesMy Profile

  7. Thank you Amber. You wrote what I feel in my own heart. I have been feeling humbugish this year mostly because of my desire to not consume or be a consumer. I think you might have read my mind.

    I too haven’t started shopping. We don’t have our decorations up other than the outside lights. Thankfully though, we know Santa and he comes to our house for pictures…I make sure to invite all of our friends. We make it a night with a pot luck supper and then the little ones are surprised when the guy in red shows up for pictures!

    The day will come regardless of how much time I spend stressing out on stuff. I am more excited about making memories with my children than buying them stuff and wrapping it pretty.

  8. Aww, thank you Amber! I’m glad you liked it ๐Ÿ™‚ That makes me very happy. I completely 100% relate to what you said. I decided with gifts for the kids I am going with much less junk and a very few gifts that are quality over quantity. Often our families send us $ to buy something for the kids. They really want something for the kids to open from them but don’t want to waste a bunch of money on shipping. I’m even scaling back with that. For example I bought one nice pretend play gift from my Dad and his wife for the kids to share, and the rest of the money is going in their savings account. Also I am spreading out the days of them opening gifts. I plan on the kids opening the gifts from my husband’s parents on Christmas Eve, and the one from my Dad on the 26th while we Skype with them. I think it will be fun to spread it out a little. More days to celebrate a little at each time, and I’m hoping it will make the gift from each person a little more meaningful for them.
    Wow, sorry this is so long. Obviously I LOVE the topic! ๐Ÿ™‚ In terms of baking I am just picking 2 favorite cookies to make this year, instead of feeling like I should make every single great thing there is to bake out there, even though I love to back. So much pressure falls on Moms this time of year. Doing less and enjoying more is a very important example for us to set for our kids so hopefully one day they won’t feel as overwhelmed as we do and just be happy with the celebration of the season.
    Wendy Irene (Give Love Create Happiness)’s last post … Barn ObsessionMy Profile

  9. Well again you made me tear up-why do you keep doing this to this pregnant lady?? ๐Ÿ™‚

    I too was feeling very overwhelmed with the holidays-I’m pregnant and due Christmas day, we just moved and are still unpacking, there is a serious lack of funds this year, and I’m trying to wrap up a bunch of stuff at work before I leave on mat leave (never mind that I haven’t updated my blog in almost 2 weeks even though I’ve got a dozen posts to write in my head). Oh, and we’ve barely started on shopping nor have I begun addressing Christmas cards-haven’t even bought them!

    But you are so very right-I am in charge of my life and I can choose to remain in overwhelm or just go with the flow and scale back this year. Bambino will be just 20 months old and belly baby, if he arrives before Christmas, will just be a newborn so neither of them are going to notice if there aren’t a massive amount of gifts under the tree, or if the decorations are simpler this year…in the end its about being with family and celebrating that.
    Jenn’s last post … Raising a ReaderMy Profile

  10. I am so with you, Christmas is about having fun, about spending time with your family. I refuse to get stressed at Xmas. REFUSE.
    I don’t stress about the state of the house, I love decorating but don’t care about perfection. I love baking, but I never set a target of how many cookies I need because let’s face it: shops sell bakery items too. I don’t even attempt to make handmade gifts. Which is bad, but I know it would bring out the old perfectionist I buried several years ago.

    This way, we all have fun. Hope you enjoy your holidays.
    Mel’s last post … Day 2 on christmas baking – and the half price gift voucher extravaganza continues West Midlands- Birmingham photographerMy Profile

  11. I totally agree with you — but I have to admit that every year I say I’m going to simplify and I’m still working on it. A few years ago we did go to a gift exchange for the adults, and then decided to do away with gift-buying among the adults altogether (on my side of the family). I buy small things if I see something that’s perfect for someone, but no more exchanging the same fifty or a hundred dollars on gift cards etc. That’s been a huge relief. The other thing I’ve done is shop early for everyone on my list EXCEPT my kids. I realized if I start shopping early for them,, I keep buying right up until Christmas Eve, and then I have such an obscene pile for them I can’t give it all. I also bake many batches of only one or two cookie instead of two or three batches of eleven different kinds — then I have lots to eat, serve to company and give away in pretty tins.
    allison’s last post … Strange TimesMy Profile

  12. p.s. I think it’s cute that you said pain in the rear instead of ass. You are SO good.
    allison’s last post … Strange TimesMy Profile

  13. Great post. I looked for an alternative to a mall Santa last year so I’m just throwing this out there for you: Burnaby Village Museum has Father Christmas pictures – all olde-timey. You do have to buy admission to the Village Museum and the hours aren’t always awesome, but it’s a nice thing to do as a family activity. Lots of pretty lights and stuff. Father Christmas is the Beta Santa. Schedule here:
    Jen’s last post … Reverb10- MomentMy Profile

  14. I feel your pain.

    And I love your list! Oh how I wish my family could do the gift exchange thing. It just can’t work with us, too many divorced-remarried-in-law complications!

    I have MADE a gift for all the grandparents this year to simplify. I still haven’t figured out how to simplify our gifts to our children… it seems we have set a precident in years past…. hard to break that “tradition” of too much.

    A broke my own resolve and bought the neices and nephews each their own gift …. I had originally planned to buy a “family experience” gift instead, but it was just too challenging. Toys are easy. TOO EASY.
    *pol’s last post … A leapMy Profile

  15. It is important to enjoy the holiday rather than going crazy. That’s why I shop online! (Though if I do go to a store, everything is tempting and I forget that I already bought stuff. It’s probably easier to spend more money online, too.) I also like the idea of donating to a charity in someone’s name.
    Jana@AnAttitudeAdjustment’s last post … Madame Bovary EXTENSIONMy Profile

  16. How funny–I just posted the same type of thing on my blog! My parents tend to go overboard on holiday spending and are not big fans of our simplification project, though!
    MamaBear’s last post … Holiday Manifesto II- Scroogery RevisitedMy Profile

  17. Amber, you’re amazing! I love this post! Loveitloveitloveit. You already know how I’m cutting down, I’m not buying anything new for my girls until 12/31/11 which means no more store purchases for this Christmas or next. I’ve also decided to drop our annual trip for a Christmas photo at the very commercial Portrait Innovations in favor of photos from a local, independent, free-lance photographer.

    My favorite childhood memory of Christmas is walking down the stairs on Christmas morning and seeing sooty black boot prints from Santa’s boots across my living room floor…proof that he had been there the night before. The sheer magic of that first moment when I saw that means more to me than any of the toys I received.

    This is a totally random aside, but your adorable little girl on ice skates reminded me of my daughter on ice skates and the way the small brown rental skates look on tiny feet…kind of like little reindeer hooves prancing across the ice.
    Audra’s last post … Christmas CraftingMy Profile

  18. This year we have no money, and since we have no money, my husband and I decided that the only people getting gifts this year are my kids and the kids in my close circle. I wrote everyone a letter and explained the deal, and the thing is, that in the act of reducing the cost of Christmas, I also reduced the shopping time, the stress, my carbon footprint, etc. So, while I am not at all happy that I have no money, on the bright side, it’s made my December a lot more chill.
    Marilyn @ A Lot of Loves’s last post … Not What I Wanted to Be DoingMy Profile

  19. And often I think the unexpected, unplanned moments with family are the ones that make the lasting impressions – not the carefully orchestrated ones with tons of scheduling and stress. Maybe that’s because the little things are evidence of who the loved ones *are*, in their nature, the people who we care about. That personality and time together just comes out without all the effort of trying to make or be or do something because one is “supposed to”. Great post.

  20. I love the family on ice photo (did Hannah take it?) – and hope you have more happy family outings like that this month and fewer stressful days!
    Francesca’s last post … SometimesMy Profile

  21. Ah, yes, simplifying! I’ve always had the best Christmases when I do that, usually after an overblown, stressed one the year before. And then, over time, I find myself with a ridiculous “to do” list again. “How does that happen ?”, I ask myself.

    I think, for me, it’s that pesky enthusiasm trait that causes me to get excited about new recipes or shopping for the grandchildren, or, this year, finally knitting a few simple projects.Throw in the choir concerts that require extra rehearsals, holiday parties, and, this year, travelling on the ferry back and forth in December several times (don’t ask), and it all builds up again.

    My problem is that I do love it all, but I don’t love that feeling of being overwhelmed. A few years ago I instituted, “Notes to Self”, written at the end of the year, reminding myself that there were several things that were ridiculous, like standing in line for that organic turkey for 30 minutes the morning of Dec. 24th, or doing two cookies exchanges.

    This year, we are building a house, and at least took ourselves off the hook by deciding to move “sometime in January”, even though the house may be completed by the 25th. We are living in a teeny, tiny space above the garage, and have decorated it with things from the local craft fair and, yes, a miniature artificial tree from Canadian Tire.That goofy tree just makes me smile.

    I got up up at 4:00 in this morning as I was wide awake, thinking of my “to do” list and stressing myself out. I turned on the computer and there was your post. How timely, Amber. Thank you for the reminder. I may have to do more cheques this year, and, yes, I will continue to do the donations for charity. The grandkids and I love donating a goat or chickens or soccer balls to children in Africa and we always do a local gift to the animal shelter which, interestingly, means more to them than the ubiquitous Food Bank, which they contribute to in their schools.

    Me? I just want Christmas dinner with my family, a chance to sing carols in 4-part harmony, a glass of wine with dear friends and maybe a snowfall a day or two before the Big Day. That’s all I want for Christmas. Oh, yes, and a peaceful, unharried heart.

    I wish that for all of you, too.

  22. I don’t stress about presents for my parents or Darren’s parents. They don’t want anything except to see the Poptart. So they each get a much with a photo of them with their granddaughter (as soon as I get around to ordering them).

    We are staying home this year and family is coming to us. MIL is bringing a turkey and will likely take over my kitchen. My mom is bringing the potatoes so all I have to worry about is veggies – it’s basically a potluck. MIL is also a baking maniac.

    We are short one chair for the table, but I’ll see if I can borrow one from the neighbours. If not, we’ll use another one of the tall chairs we have. The funny part is, everyone fights over who gets to use it.

    For presents between Darren and myself, we tell each other what we want. This year, the Poptart gets an Elmo from us (as soon as I find one, dammit) and a stocking, because she will be Spoiled Rotten by the grandparents. Darren put up a tree and lights yesterday.

    So yeah, for us it’s about food, family and fun.

    And possibly lots of wine.

  23. Spideyjen says:

    My brother likes to travel during the Christmas season. He is currently in Bangalore, India with his wife and will probably be on a houseboat on the waterways of Kerala for Christmas Eve. Very peaceful.

    Consequently our family Christmas (at least on MY parents side) tends to happen after the holiday rush has passed–he’s back mid-January. My brother says people feel less crazy after December is over. I think he may be right.

    Christmas can feel VERY busy. And very expensive. I’m glad my family (both sides) have scaled way back in recent years. Now, it’s all about the food for the grown-ups and we just buy gifts for the children (there are a lot of them so it still feels like we aren’t missing the ritual of present-opening).

  24. We’re just getting started on the matrix of Christmas gifts to buy, sigh. I’m with you on no new gift wrap (which is how I think we met in the first place – over a post about fabric gift bags.) I’ve been using all cloth wrap for decades now. One new gift idea I’m going with is Amazon/Kindle gift certificates along with a suggested book title. That way, I feel like it’s a little more personal – we’ve thought about something the recipient would like, but they’re not stuck with a paper copy if they prefer to buy digitally.
    Lady M’s last post … Q-ster- Star StudentMy Profile

  25. Thanks for writing this Amber. To be honest, I had been planning to take my girls to see Santa this afternoon and your post made me realize that those two seconds they will sit on Santa’s lap aren’t worth the hours we will spend getting ready and waiting in line…not to mention the $$ I would have to shell out for pictures. I think we’ll skip the pics and make cookies together this afternoon instead. Thanks so much for the reality check!
    Jenn’s last post … Celebrating DecompositionMy Profile

  26. I hear you about the handmade gifts. Last year I made at least one gift for everyone on my gift list. I didn’t get everything in time and was a bit of a cranky elf because I missed going to some holiday events (my favorite thing to do during Christmas) because I was chained to the sewing machine making gifts.

    This year, the only gifts I’m making are food gifts. The rest I already purchased.
    Condo Blues’s last post … Make Gift Bows from Magazine Pages and Chip BagsMy Profile

  27. I loved this post-it really hit home. I celebrate Hanukkah-but even so, it is impossible not to get caught up in the Christmas marketing. The one thing I will take away from this post is the commitment not to buy ANY wrapping paper. I have always felt it was a waste and encouraged my kids to make their own from newspaper or a picture they painted. Unfortunately, our school district has a huge wrapping paper fundraiser every year-but from now on I will make a donation rather than ordering any more paper. Happy Holidays!
    Lori Alper aka Groovy Green Livin’s last post … Non-Toxic Nail PolishMy Profile

  28. Inspiring post!! In my greener days, I’ve tended to go overboard on the Xmas crafts. They are fun but sometimes it gets a bit stressful – like last year when I lost feeling in my finger for 4 months from knitting around the clock for days on end. Both of my kids have birthday near Christmas. This year, I’ve decided that I will not also knit them a birthday gift. One handmade gift is enough. If all goes well, something will show up in their Easter basket and if not, oh well. That way, after I’m done with their gifts, I might actually have time to make myself that cute little toadstool ornament I’ve been wanting.

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