many, many christmases ago, i received a cassette tape from my nana called “it’s christmas time, again.” it featured four stories (two to a side); the first story starred talking squirrels discussing the meaning of christmas, the second one is about the origins of the hymn “o little town of bethlehem.” i don’t know the two stories on side b as well as the ones on side a, because, to listen to them, i would have to get out of bed and flip the tape and usually i was asleep by the time the squirrels were done discussing jesus’ birthday. i don’t know how old i was when i received this tape, but — cassettes were the popular audio medium and talking squirrels seemed plausible, so probably pretty young.
i still have the tape — in my tiniest ikea storage box of “sentimental items” — though i don’t have any type of cassette player. not like that matters — i know all the squirrel dialogue by heart. the main thrust of the squirrel story is this: grandson squirrel is in his first winter in the forest and comes across a house with a christmas tree inside (“a tree inside the human’s tree”) and wants to know… “those lights and those shiny things… gramps, what is all this?” gramps explains that the people are celebrating a birthday and that, even though the person whose birthday it is is not there, that “they give gifts to each other to help keep the christmas spirit alive.”
despite listening to this tape oh, one thousand times, christmas has always been too much about the gifts for me and not enough about the christmas spirit. when i was younger, naturally, it was about how many gifts, calling my best friend as soon as all the presents were unwrapped to compare gifts and finding homes in my bedroom for all my new things (always the curator, making sure my old things were set aside for donation). in the past decade, as i’ve become an adult in my own space and embraced minimalism as a lifestyle, christmas has still been about the gifts — that is, about not getting gifts and, when we inevitably got gifts anyways, the stress of it all in a small home.
over the years, i have tried all the tactics that fellow minimalists recommend — communicating with friends and family well in advance, asking for experiences over things, asking for consumables over things, asking for one big thing that many people can contribute to, gifting like you would like to be gifted, writing a blog about living in a small space — i mean, you can’t get more to-the-point than that. last year, after spending all of november and december playing the minsgame and purging our home of over 650 excess things, we still received over 100 new things for christmas and our december birthdays. in my minsgame wrap-up post, i cited stockings as the biggest offender and swore off stockings for 2017, should our west coast move not pan out. first world problems, but it really was so frustrating to spend boxing day combing through new things and sorting them into garbage/donate/keep piles or holding up something you already owned and liked and knowing that, in order to keep something new and have your space still function, you would have to get rid of it. our space really was that small and, at the time, it felt like no one respected our wishes for no gifts. i got stomach cramps on christmas day and it wasn’t from too much turkey.
well, here we are on the west coast and i don’t know if it’s the 4,000 km between us and the gift-givers or if it’s the extra 377 square feet of living space or if it’s just age/perspective, but i feel much more at peace with christmas this year — gifts or no gifts. meditating on the message of the squirrel story — that people give gifts to help keep the christmas spirit alive — i feel good about a couple of gifts this year, should they happen to be under the tree, but i also won’t miss a beat if they’re not. gifts aren’t really what we do to help keep the christmas spirit alive (i’m looking forward to the light displays at the butchart gardens and watching a charlie brown christmas with frankie for the first time way more than i’m looking forward to opening presents), but i’ve accepted that gifts are the epitome of the christmas spirit for others and that to be a big grinch about gifts ruins christmas for them, just as much as getting a bunch of gifts ruins christmas for me.
i feel like i have spent nearly ten years struggling to arrive at this place, where the first christmas carols on the radio or the first gift guides arriving in the mail don’t coincide with the beginnings of something that feels faintly like heartburn. if you’re new to minimalism or in a mental space where christmas gifts stress you out, i’d encourage you to do all the things that are recommended widely — communicate with your family, value experiences over things, stress quality over quantity — and then get over it if you get a bunch of gifts anyways. focus on what keeps the meaning of christmas alive for you — chances are it’s not gifts — and let others do as they will. if all else fails, you can always move to an opposite coast; that’ll help manage the number of stocking stuffers, at least.