The Gift of a Simpler Christmas

Has Christmas become all about getting presents, rather than enjoying time together? See how our family started a joyful new tradition: a simpler Christmas.

A few years ago, after the worst Christmas day ever, feeling frustrated by the kids’ behavior and the sheer amount of stuff, we decided it was time to bring the Spirit of Christmas back. The next year, we opted for fewer gifts, more love, and a simpler Christmas.

We are not a religious family, but we are spiritual, and we love the holiday season, with its cheerful music, sentimental movies, delicious foods, wonderful scents, moments of connection with loved ones, sparkly decorations, lit-up streets, and a general sense of wonder as the year comes to an end. For us, Christmas is a time for weaving generations together and remembering traditions, for closeness and reflection, for counting blessings and pausing the madness of life for a few moments.

But somehow, Christmas day had become a dreaded nightmare for me.

A blend of traditions

On my German in-laws' side: We transform our houses into wonderlands of glitz and pine scents, baking continuously starting early in December. Then we spend a quiet 25th eating, sipping tea, and singing carols, waiting for dusk to begin a long session of unwrapping gifts.

My in-laws were born in pre-World War II Germany. My parents grew up in post-colonial equatorial Guinea. Both sides have passed on many wonderful traditions to us.

On my side: On the evening of Dec. 25, we party like there’s no tomorrow, with way too much seafood, sparkly outfits, and lots of dancing (after going to the midnight mass on Christmas Eve). Presents don’t really play a big role—we may or may not unwrap them on the big day.

On my German in-laws’ side: We transform our houses into wonderlands of glitz and pine scents, baking continuously starting early in December. Then we spend a quiet 25th eating, sipping tea, and singing carols, waiting for dusk to begin a long session of unwrapping gifts.

Gifts, gifts everywhere

That nightmarish Christmas day, we spent three entire hours opening presents, because our ritual involved each person opening each gift, one at a time. By the end, we were left with a mountain of wrapping paper, two crates full of presents, dissatisfied kids, and me steaming.

One crate stayed in the living room, the other went into a closet. During the entire month of January, the kids played with some of the items in the living room crate, but never—not once—asked for the stuff in other crate.

I realized that Christmas had become ONLY about getting stuff. Not even “having” and enjoying the things. Just the getting part.

For me, Christmas should be about family, being together, and gratitude. My husband and I decided to do things differently from then on.

New rule: 1 present per child

Do your kids focus too much on Christmas gifts and not enough on the meaning of the day? Here's how one family turned things around with a simple one-gift-per-child rule.

When we made the announcement that there would be only one gift per child, it was hard on the adults in the family—especially the grandparents—at first. But when Christmas day came, it was such a blessing. We had agreed on a children’s kitchenette from IKEA with the accessories (cups, plates, pans, etc.). So the first year, all the kids shared just one gift.

All of our presents, for both adults and kids, took only 30 minutes to unwrap this time. Then the kids were off to play with their new kitchenette. They played with it most of the day, most of the next, and many, many times over the following four years (until we gave it to a friend).

The values of Christmas were back. We spent rest of day talking, laughing, singing, playing, and of course, eating.

The triumph of a simpler Christmas

Five years later, the simpler Christmas policy still stands. We typically end up with two presents per kid (one from Santa, one from the grandparents) plus usually a common gift from the parents. Relatives are asked either for everyday items (bedsheets, clothes, etc), creative supplies (paint, markers, etc.), or for money for activities. That’s how we limit the amount of “stuff” on Christmas day.

We do make one exception for my father-in-law, who alway brings his own gifts that he finds during his travels. To his credit, they’re always small things that are either decor or accessories (hats, scarves, etc) Plus, each present comes with a unique story of where it came from.

This Christmas, I hope you’ll keep one parting thought in mind:

Kids love presents, but they really do love spending time with you more!

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