It’s right around this time of year that people start asking me, “So…have you started your Christmas shopping yet?” This is usually an invitation to exchange war stories of crowded malls and massive gift lists, so imagine the reaction when I smile and say, “Actually, I only buy for one person.”
That’s right — I only shop for my 13-year-old son. And as he’s gotten older and his tastes have gotten more expensive, I buy even less. I don’t exchange gifts with my adult children at all. Gone are the days of huge piles of presents under the tree, and that’s okay, because all the stress is gone too.
This shift away from the buying frenzy has been a gradual one, and a long time coming. It started years ago, when I first read the book Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson and Jean C. Staeheli. At the time I was a stressed out mom to three little kids, and became even more stressed out during the holidays. It wasn’t just that we went broke every Christmas buying a bunch of presents we couldn’t afford, but that as the mom, I was single-handedly responsible for making it all happen. As Robinson and Staeheli write in their book, women are the “Christmas magicians” — expected to not only pull off the perfect holiday, but to make it all look effortless and enjoy it besides.
Well, I didn’t enjoy it, at least not all of it. I enjoyed certain moments each season, but without exception they were the simple little rituals our family had adopted over the years. When I asked the members of my family what their favorite parts of the holiday were, they listed the same things: having cinnamon pull-aparts on Christmas morning, driving around looking at Christmas lights, decorating the tree, making cookies, finding an orange in the toe of their stocking, watching Christmas movies. All simple, inexpensive rituals focused on fun and togetherness.
Of course, kids also love presents. But I found over the years that the fewer they received, the more they appreciated them. Even so, most of their toys were broken or forgotten within a few weeks of Christmas anyway. Some were never played with at all. I would cringe to see hundreds of dollars of toys tossed aside, year after year.
Back then, we also bought presents for extended family as well…my parents, stepparents, grandparents, brother and sister on my side, and a whole passel of nieces and nephews on the other. And of course as the Christmas Magician, it was my job — not my husband’s — to shop for everyone. By the time Christmas actually rolled around I was resentful and exhausted and couldn’t wait for the whole thing to be over. (There’s a reason my favorite day of the whole year is December 26th!)
Something needed to change, and Unplug the Christmas Machine was my first introduction to the idea that there was another, simpler way, without all the commercial hoopla, and that it was more joyful and meaningful for the whole family.
But like I said, it didn’t happen overnight. In both of my marriages, it was difficult to get my husbands on board. I tried –and failed — to institute a three-present limit for our kids. But very gradually, we cut back on buying for extended family. As it turned out, everyone was ultimately relieved. We were all on tight budgets, none of us really enjoyed wandering around the mall like zombies, and let’s face it: more often than not, our recipients weren’t that thrilled with the item anyway! It’s even crazier to tell each other specifically what we want, and then fight the holiday crowds to get it. How about this saner idea: I’ll buy my own book, you buy your own gloves, and we’ll call it even. If it’s the thought that counts, let’s just send loving thoughts and leave it at that.
Once it was down to just me and my kids, it was easy to opt out of the insanity. We all agreed we hate the commercialism, we hate feeling obligated to shop, and we hate spending money we don’t have, so why continue to do it? It’s our Christmas; we can celebrate it however we want. Some traditions we’ve held onto, and others we’ve let go. Our holiday has evolved as our family has, and I’m sure as the years go by, and in-laws and grandchildren are added into the mix, it will evolve even more, and it’s all okay. It’s all optional.
If you and your family don’t want to give up exchanging gifts completely, you could always shift to a pollyanna or a white elephant exchange. Or exchange only handmade gifts, or experiences, or coupons for special activities and services. You could take a family vacation in lieu of gifts — one of my favorite Christmases ever was when my mom rented a big cabin for all of us in the Tennessee mountains. If you want, you could even leave things fluid and decide as a family year to year. The idea is to take a look at how you celebrate now, and see if it’s still working, if it still brings joy, or if you’re doing some things out of habit or obligation. If thinking about your holiday to-do list fills you with dread, it’s time to make some changes.
I hereby give you permission.