A Merry *Simple* Christmas

My pregnancy with Arlo had a bunch of unexpected side effects. There were the usual, should-have-been-expected suspects: heartburn, hemorrhoids, and the amazing superpower of being able to cry three seconds into commercials like this one. But then there also was this other side effect, and its intensity really threw me: the hankering for simple. 

I touched on this briefly in my PAIL vlog: after the uncertainty and strain of trying to make a baby for years, after all of the intense stress rolled up in the IVF burrito and the longing for a real, live baby at the end of it all, and then finally holding that tiny creature whose needs were so pure and basic, I deeply longed to excise the excess from my life–material and emotional. It struck me that he needed so very little from me: food, shelter, warmth, a clean booty, cuddles. (Okay, he needed this stuff a sometimes overwhelming amount of ALL THE TIME,  but, you know, this really is such a minimal, simple list of life demands.) This made me crave, sometimes desperately, the same kind of minimalism and simplicity in my own needs and wants.

Of course, and let’s be frank, quitting my job abruptly and with zero amounts of preparation shortly after returning from maternity leave also catapulted me into a need for reducing and altering the way we lived. We had savings, but, you know, it was savings. Not to be touched unless there was an emergency.  (And it was already somewhat depleted to fund our uninsured IVF cycle.) I was bringing home the bigger paycheck at that time (making $25K more annually than N). To put it palely: subsisting on my husband’s sole income was, um, an adjustment.

Anyway, it was all a wake-up call for intentionality, simplicity, and a discriminating use of my resources (money–yes–but also my time, my energy, and my emotions).

What does this have to do with Christmas? Well, everything. Christmas, for me, changed after Arlo was born.

He was just days old at his first Christmas. We spent that Christmas disbelievingly fixated on the only gift we ever truly wanted, joyfully unwrapping him and re-wrapping him like two eager little kids around the tree. We didn’t open Christmas presents until days afterwards, and they all seemed so dull, unnecessary, and excessive now that he was here. (Not to sound ungrateful.)

Armed with a new appreciation for simplicity and an understanding of how very little kids really need in terms of toys, we adopted a minimal approach to Arlo’s second Christmas: Want/Need/Wear/Read. One gift to fill each category. Sounds limiting to some, I guess, but for us it was a fun challenge to be so discerning and conscientious about what we tucked under the tree for him. It made us seek out the coolest, most worthy goodies.

We did the same this year. And, again, it’s been fun, thoughtful, and easy.

For years, N and I have adopted a family for Christmas instead of shopping for each other. Without fail, though, we’ve always purchased a little something for each other on the sly. This year, we agreed to no secret gifts! pinky swear! for real! and we adopted a 2 year old child (in honor of Arlo’s 2nd birthday) from a local angel tree. Pinky promises were kept; no secret gifts exchanged.

And we extended the simple gifting further this year.  Photo books and handmade reindeer ornaments (using Arlo’s hand and stiff brown felt instead of sandpaper) for the grandparents. Simple owl stuffies (made from old sweaters and fabric remnants) for the littlest ones. A few other handmade goodies (a necklace, a pillow, etc.) for sisters. We donated to Heifer International in the names of some of our other family members. And I made tree-shaped ornaments and homemade candy for the rest of the extended family.

Those tree ornaments–they’re what I want to make the spirit of future Christmases about. Several months ago, Arlo’s great-grandmother invited us over for lunch. She is quite the seamstress, and had a ton of fabric she was about to de-stash. She asked me to go through it first to see if I was interested in any of it before she got rid of it all. Between swaths of corduroy (took that) and a stack of different colored felt (took that, too) was a stretch of quilt in massive disrepair. It was obviously hand-stitched, so I asked her who made the quilt. She explained to me that her mother had made it, and that she had tried to salvage it, but it had fallen apart in her hands in her attempts. I took it home with the rest of the fabric I thought I could find a use for.

I cut out the sturdiest parts of the quilt and sewed them into small tree shapes, backed in some of the red corduroy. We gave all the original seamstress’ grandchildren these ornaments for Christmas. I was so proud of them–for their history, for salvaging some of the quilt pieces and reusing them in a more enduring way, for making a meaningful holiday gift for free.

Is it that Christmas has evolved during our lifetimes into creepy excess? Or has it always been that way, and it’s only now that I am a parent that I see how excessive it can be? I can’t tell you how many times, after Christmas, I’ve packed up at least half of the stuff I was gifted–still in its packaging–and donated it all.  The gifts were not functional, not us, and/or probably something grabbed from the shelf in an effort to tick us off the shopping list. I’m seriously not trying to sound thankless–but I hate the thought of someone wasting their time and money on something for me, when I would be perfectly happy with a nice letter or a batch of cookies or a promise of experiencing something together–coffee, a movie, whatever.

I don’t get simplicity or intentionality right all the time. I probably get it wrong more than I do right, honestly. I think they’re those kinds of goals that you’re constantly pursuing, but can never be fully achieved. Process, not product, you know?

I started writing this post before Christmas, and I’ve had to go back through it and change all the tenses and delete some of the now-irrelevant paragraphs. Seems I couldn’t be intentional enough to publish it before the holiday. Hah. But, still, it’s a worthy post for me–worthy for me to document that I want more in this one little life I have, and by more…I mean less.

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12 thoughts on “A Merry *Simple* Christmas

  1. Wow – I love the want/need/read/wear philosophy! That’s basically what we followed this year (and actually, we only got her 2 things and we told family to follow that simple premise). There are just SO many gifts otherwise – it’s a bit overwhelming!

    I love the idea of adopting another child/family for the holidays. Consider it added to my list. :)

  2. I love this very much. In fact, I pinned the the want/need/wear/read thing. We managed to somehow pull this off this year, even with the ILs. Maybe it was my anti-Santa post? :) Either way, I am very proud of the very few presents we gave and received this year.

    Since becoming a SAHM, being surrounded by all my STUFF constantly has really brought the concept of *need* into sharper focus. As has the financial question, which you mentioned here and in your previous post on SAHMness. It really is quite striking how little you need to live and be happy. STUFF makes me unhappy. STUFF makes me feel guilty and stiffled. Though there are many, many, many reasons to dread moving in the next few months, getting rid of a shit ton of STUFF makes me feel very happy. This has been the year of shedding emotional baggage with a little help from my friends, and I can’t wait to start shedding the physical. A true fresh start for the new year, with our new family.

    • I wrote about this here, but then deleted it (but also wrote about it on 3IAMN back in the day) but the process of moving from VA to MO nearly killed me. Okay, hyberbole. But it was fucking haaaard. We had 10 years of shit packed into cabinets and drawers and corners of our basement–there was SO. MUCH. STUFF. We had a big yard sale, but still ended up donating the bulk of the things we simply no longer needed or never needed to begin with. It was stressful in the process, but afterwards I felt…cleansed. I felt so much lighter being free of that stuff.

      A couple of months ago I had a playdate over here, and one of the moms asked, “So, uh, *how* long have you lived in this house?” And went on to say that it hardly looked lived in and wondered how we managed to not fill it up with shit. I’ve become merciless about that kind of stuff since moving. I just don’t want it in my house again. I don’t want to go through the massive decluttering and de-stashing again. (Of course, now we’re fighting the tsunami of toy madness from family with a vegeance, too.)

  3. Want/need/wear/read. Brilliant!

    My friend and I just discussed this today over lunch. All the gifts we get that we never use… And we feel ungrateful saying, “please don’t” but it is such a waste. If people must give gifts, I’d prefer donations or education fund contributions. Not more stuff! Stuff is just stuff we need to get rid of some day.

    We went overboard on Matthew this year and agreed to coordinate next year. Need/want/read/wear will be remembered!

    • I never feel guilty telling people not to buy gifts, but it almost never fails that our family doesn’t listen. Do they think I’m joking or something? We actually asked folks not to buy Arlo a gift for his birthday this year, and the only people who listened to this request were our friends with kids the same age as Arlo. Like, they get it.

      I loved your post on your plan for Christmas traditions (and totally need to go comment on it right now), and I think those are the kinds of things I *want* to go “overboard” on. Those are the things I want my child to remember about Christmas, too.

  4. It sounds like a lovely christmas. I love the quilt tree ornament idea. How special! I too like your concept for gifts for your son. My son is two and a half months old. We struggled with what to do because he doesn’t really need anything, and yet, it’s his girl rat christmas! We had to do something. We kept it fairly simple, but the grandparents? Well, that’s another story for sure! I think it will take days to get it all put away!

    • Yeah, the first Christmases when they’re sooo little still–what is there really to give? And I imagine you’re still pretty stocked for your son from new baby prep, too! One of the sweetest gifts we got when Arlo was born was a tiny little artificial Christmas tree–N’s parents in VA brought it to the hospital room for decoration. Everyone gave us a “baby’s 1st Christmas” ornaments that year, and we hung them on this tiny tree. And we bring it out every Christmas now.

      We had two other Christmases after our own this year–one at N’s parents in STL and then a second at Arlo’s great-grandmother’s (with the rest of the big, extended family) and nearly all of the gifts we got at both places were packed away as soon as we got home late that night. We plan to just pull all of them out one at a time, gradually.

  5. I feel on you on this one. We also limited our gift-giving this year. I have relatives (cough cough, mother) that spend excessively at Christmas, so Miss E got from us a couple of small meaningful things, a book, a chair, and Mrs Potato Head :) She got a ton of fancy gifts from other people but the one she liked the best was a little purse – I think simple was a hit!

  6. Great post!!! I love the Want/Need/Wear/Read idea! :) We are definitely minimal gift givers here and gift receivers too, probably mainly in thanks to our distance from everyone. DH didn’t get anything from anyone, I got a knitted cape thingie from my mum, and we decided to just get one gift for Alidia (a Playmobile farm) and then her Uncle, Aunt, and Grandparents each got her a gift so it was only 5 gifts in total for her plus stockings of practical things (soap, chocolate, etc) for each of us. We gave a huge bag of goodies to a Haitian family we know so that they could have something for Christmas… probably for the first time ever! I just hate STUFF and can’t stand having stuff around that we don’t need. We don’t have space for it and living here we know so many other families that could really use it.

    I think I will use your Want/Need/Wear/Read idea for Alidia’s birthday on Jan 15th! :)

  7. I read this after Christmas with Christmas #3 past us and our own presents for Daniel still under the tree. I have to admit that it is so hard for me especially not to buy him way too much for Christmas and birthdays. I mean, geez, we still have 4 gifts under the tree for him so we didn’t overwhelm him. Granted they are blocks, play dough and a book, but still.

    He may be our only, and I’m the first to admit we are guilty of spoiling him. I really, really like your gift philosophy, though, especially in years to come. I keep telling myself that he doesn’t need much at all. He got his big gifts last Christmas with his train table and play kitchen, and I definitely try to keep everything we buy him things that will stimulate and educate.

    Ack. I hope I don’t sound defensive. I really do like your philosophy. It is fun being Santa for Daniel, but for the adults, I would honestly prefer no gifts or heart-felt gifts because – and I hate to sound ungrateful – there is nothing worse than a gift that clearly demonstrates it was an “I have to get you something” gift. Each year I make a goodie bag of cookies, candies and shortbread for my family and they all say that is the best thing. I’m so glad they like it and would prefer we cut out gifts for the adults. If I need something, I’ll buy it myself. I’d much rather focus on food, fun and fellowship.

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