Our problem with Christmas

Last night my husband, Clay, and I were going over our Christmas list spreadsheet with the budget, and the gifts, and the shopping lists and he looked at me with all seriousness and said, “I kind of hate Christmas. Every year it loses more and more of its luster.” He paused and concluded his thought by saying, “I wish everyone would just agree to not buy gifts this year.” 

Although dramatic, my husband is not being a grinch or a scrooge. He just wants the peaceful holiday filled with love and family and friends that’s he’s been promised; without having to jump through hoops to get there. The shopping, the spending, the pressure to find everyone’s perfect gift–– all of it adds to an already expensive and chaotic season. By the time we’re finally settled into the car driving to our family gatherings, we’re already worn down.

But this is the version of Christmas that most of America subscribes to. We can say “Christmas isn’t about the gifts,” until we’re all blue in the face but at the end of the day our actions are what we believe, not our words. And most of us don’t have the evidence to support these “Reason of the Season” declarations, let alone take time to discuss alternatives to the gift buying madness.  

After all, how many of our family gatherings have an overflow area for our presents because we can’t fit them all under the tree anymore? I have a big family too. But that excuse will only take me so far. There’s no denying it, for most of us, the gifts have become the Christmas centerpiece, while spending quality time together kind of seems like an afterthought.

Minimalism lied to me,
Christmas hasn’t gotten any easier

I really thought 2019 would be the year I finally figure out how to harness the power of minimalism so I can side-step the Christmas stress, but no. My shoulders are tensing up and my calendar is overwhelmed because the preparations for this Christmas have the same effect as all the others: a guaranteed headache. 

Even though the minimalist movement boasts the illusion of a simplified life, it is not an instant transformation, especially in regards to Christmas. My dirty little secret is that so far, for us, being minimalists in ‘maximalist’ families actually makes Christmas harder. 

For one, our less is more mentality means that we’re a tad pickier about what we want. And in the age of options and product reviews, we, the people, often want very specific things. Which sometimes requires research, which requires time, and careful consideration. And everyone wants to know what’s on our list. So instead of having a quiet evening at home after a stressful day at work, we’re making up our Christmas list, and being anti-minimal by asking ourselves, “what do we want?”

On the other hand, we’re also too religious about our own minimalistic values to buy any old thing for anyone else and call it good. The gifts we give need to align with our principles and therefore require tremendous thought and consideration. (After all we’re spending our hard earned money, so we might as well make it good.) Which again, requires time because although it seems we’re all making lists, it also seems like no one has one. So yet another night, and another night, and another racking our brains against the wall hoping that one good idea will fall out.

This is hell for us, the minimalists, who have publicly declared again and again that ‘things’ do not own us and yet here we are spending way too much time making a detailed Christmas list of ‘things’ to receive, and researching other perfect ‘things’ to give as gifts. Things, things, things.

The life cycle of a Christmas gift;
as told by a cynic

It goes something like this:

  1. meditating on the person and guessing at what they need (nothing) or want (hard to say). This step takes a long time. And can be excruciating.
  2. shopping, finally. (But is there a deal? or promo code? it is cheaper somewhere else?)
  3. buying. hooray! (Are they actually going to like this/use this/appreciate this?)
  4. wrapping (ran out of tape, not enough tissue paper, yet another errand to run to store)
  5. giving/receiving (can’t tell if their faking excitement or not (which is the polite thing to do))
  6. returning (waiting in the return lines, printing return labels, trips to the post office)

So Clay and I have to ask, are we the only ones who feel this way? I’m really asking, yee minimalists and non-minimalists alike, because I’d like to know if maybe my husband and I are the only adults who do this.

It’s not that we don’t see the goodness of gifts, but Christmas is tricky. If we’re really honest with ourselves, how many of us feel like we’re giving because we have to? When you have $10 left in the budget to spend for Kid B and you scour the store for a random $10 item rather than just let it be.

Part of the angst, for us, comes from the sheer quantity of people to buy for. With eleven nieces and nephews, two sets of parents, white elephant gifts, and various relatives, it’s a lot. Having to come up with original ideas, and that perfect gift for all those people really takes a toll on our brains. At that point it’s not intentional giving, it’s obligatory. It’s forced thoughtfulness. So it’s no wonder we find ourselves saying things like, “Christmas has lost it’s luster.”

Something has got to give. And I don’t exactly know what that something is.

The most obvious option would be to not exchange Christmas gifts at all. But most of us can’t seem to get there, or convince our families and children to do so too. So what else?

One possible solution

I, for one, would love a Cinderella moment where animated birds tie my bows and comb my hair and help me effortlessly chirp through the holiday season.

So that’s what I did, kind of. Only my version is a little less Disney princess and a little more Real Life. Rather than just accepting the cycle of: shop, wrap, stress, collapse, and repeat again in 11 months, I decided to make a game plan to help me simplify the Christmas mayhem as much as possible.

First, I sat down to write a standing letter: from myself to myself, to read year after year. Because here’s the thing: after the wrapping paper has been torn off and the kids are walking around with gift wrap bows on their heads, I have the same recurring ‘aha’ moment each year–– the gifts don’t matter as much as I think. Then I make a mental note and vow to remember. But every year around Thanksgiving I’m bewitched by a Groundhog’s Day effect, and I’m convinced, once again, that the gifts do matter. It isn’t until the wrapping paper is hauled off that I remember, again, that they don’t.

Then, I listed all the other causes of Christmas amnesia. Like: if you find the right store it’ll be like walking into their Christmas list, or how to keep track of all the spending, and I even made lists of all the outstanding gifts we’ve given/received so that I never feel like I’m starting from scratch with no ideas for anyone anymore. 

Without further ado then, you can find all of that here.

Originally written for me, by me, but has been edited because I thought I might as well share it with you too. Merry Christmas.