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a very minimalist christmas to you

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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.

for more on minimalism, small spaces and the holidays please visit fourth & west and tiny ass camper.

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13 thoughts on “a very minimalist christmas to you

  1. That sounds cute about the four stories! I wonder if you can find them online now? I am interested in hearing them and am going to look for them. I had this one tape I liked as a child called Blister about a lamb who got lost.

    Beautiful post. I feel so much more at peace now than I ever had before this time of year. I had a lot of stress a few years back when I got rid of all the decorations I had and how people responded to it in anger and misunderstanding. Now people get it a lot more and I feel so much more calmness to have a stress free winter.

      1. ah you did the minsgame. cool! If I were to do that game. . .I don’t think I’d be able to (nothing left to get rid of and I have already been selling what is left of my record collection) >.<
        I'll be searching around in a second for it….

        1. i really didn’t think i’d have much for minsgame either, but we ended up getting rid of over 600 things! this was last winter, before we moved. amazing in an 800 sq ft home that already felt well-edited. really makes you realize how much excess the average home holds.

  2. I really related to this! I also found Christmas stressful – I do like my stuff and my sentimental things – but I don’t like clutter. I’ve backed down a bit now myself now when people still want to give things (trying to be gracious rather than stressed). Quite frankly – I just no longer feel guilt donating something given to me nor do I resentfully feel I have to keep it. I always remember my husband’s sweet grandmother’s Christmas gifts… always something very small and useful (hand-knit pot scrubbers, homemade chili jelly with a small butter knife and a tub of cream cheese)… ironically these little somethings I’ve held on to – they were full of the spirit and love.

  3. I’m the new minimalist with heart burn over Christmas gifts! I’ve always hated receiving gifts, but I do recognize that some people love to give. This year will be a struggle to keep the gifts to a minimum and still enjoy the holiday. Thanks for your post!

  4. I’m glad I’m not the only one that has tried all the recommendations for scaling gifts back only to have family keep giving like they always do. I felt really discouraged for a couple of years because I kept having the same conversations and people would respond saying they understood and agreed and then Christmas comes and BAM-same amount of gifts given if not more! But I think I’m getting to the place you are…I’ll get over it and realize they enjoy giving and that’s fine. But I don’t want to hear any backlash when people ask where the ____ is they got me or the children if it didn’t make the cut. They were warned.

    1. indeed! i never sugarcoat it if i’ve donated, returned or given something away by saying “frankie lost it at the park” or “it’s in the wash.” hearing that gifts bought with hard-earned money went right back out the door they came in sends a pretty clear message.

  5. I was going to suggest moving 4000km away from family as a way to reduce gifts, but figured it probably wasn’t practical for most people 😛

    I definitely agree that the best course of action (after making requests for less!) is to just graciously accept gifts and figure out what to do with them later. Since we moved, the biggest portion of gifts is within our own nuclear family and I hold 100% of the power there!

    1. where is your extended family, if you don’t mind me asking? we’re not travelling for christmas this year, so i also anticipate most of the gifts being between the three of us. frankie is getting one large item (a teepee), a book and then her stocking with a new christmas ornament, crayons and some bubbles.

      we might get a few packages, but shipping costs and time being what they are, i think canada post is going to take care of cutting our gift load down quite a bit.

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