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Unexpected gift: Less stuff equals more joy

Families who cut back on holiday spending find other valuable benefits.

By Teresa Mears Dec 21, 2009 4:15PM

When Jen Singer looks at the presents under her Christmas tree, she keeps thinking she has forgotten something:


"How can it be that my Christmas shopping took me exactly one trip to Target and a few clicks of my mouse?" she writes. "What -- or who -- am I forgetting?"


A downsized Christmas is different, she says, at Momma Said. Her husband is buying her two tires for the mini-van for Christmas (and getting her the other two for her birthday). The gift exchanges with relatives have been pared to a minimum.

We’ve cut back on Christmas this year, and frankly, it feels good. I have less anxiety and more money than any holiday season since the kids were born during the dot-com boom. And I don’t think they’ll mind much either. When I asked my fifth-grader what he looks forward to the most about Christmas, he cited the ham breakfast we have at my parents’ house Christmas morning.
There was no mention of presents at all, which makes me wonder why the heck I spent all those Decembers upping the wow factor, when it appears what the kids wanted was good chow.

Ah, the search for the elusive Christmas “wow factor.”


We’ve all read and written lots the last few years about the financial benefits (and necessity, in many cases) of cutting holiday spending, about how to make your holiday money go further, sticking to a budget, making homemade gifts, engaging in appropriate regifting and otherwise spending less money.


There are, of course, significant financial benefits to spending less on the holidays. But Jen’s post is a reminder that perhaps our efforts to achieve a Christmas “wow factor” were always overrated. Maybe the emotional payoff of a leaner Christmas is greater even than the financial benefit.

Eleanor at Insomniac Mummy has some regrets that she and her family have cut back on gift-giving this year. But she also sees some benefits.

I've been consumed with guilt that I cannot give the children as much as I would've liked and that this year the rest of our family and friends won't be receiving gifts from us. Especially since others have been so overwhelmingly generous to us in the past weeks.

In a way this situation has been a blessing in disguise. We have had no choice but to focus less on the material aspects of Christmas and more on our family. It has helped rekindle some of the magic of Christmas that perhaps in recent years has been sadly lacking.

Brian Plows at Brian Plows’ Blog believes he and his sister benefited from growing up in a household where they didn’t receive expensive Christmas gifts.

Behind our gift giving is a society and a culture based on consumerism and guilt. Sure, I wouldn’t mind if someone gave me a new HD flat panel and home entertainment system (please e-mail me if you’d like to do so and I’ll mention your name in a blog post, thank you). But expecting costly, colorfully wrapped gifts in large boxes under the Christmas tree in our current recession is a fantasy, a memory of our childhood and mentally unhealthy. It epitomizes our age of guilt.

Beverly Bartlett, in her Stingy Santa series at Louisville Mojo, tells the story of the Mitchells in Indiana, a family with seven children. After a disastrous Christmas in which each child bought each of the other children a nice gift -- yet the frenzy of unwrapping didn’t bring much joy -- Jeanna Mitchell changed the rules.


The next year, each child would get only three presents: one from Santa, one from their parents and one from a sibling. The children would draw names, and each would buy for one brother or sister.


“I felt so guilty that first year,” Jeanna Mitchell said. But then Christmas morning came and “they totally did not care. They were happy. They played with the things…. They were just excited about what they got.”

“They enjoy it,” Mitchell said. “It's so strange to me that our kids are happier with less presents.”


Sure, we could all have made lovely homemade gifts for the friends and relatives we couldn’t afford to buy for, but somehow 53 years have passed and I still haven’t learned how to knit. A year of shopping carefully might have yielded a few more thoughtful gifts, but somehow I didn’t get to it. Maybe next year I’ll remember to plant seeds in time to grow herbs for my friends. I’m still willing to make up a few batches of Christmas cookies, my only real domestic talent, but everyone is on a diet.


But maybe the value of homemade gifts is overrated, too.


Louise Sloan, writing in the Ladies Lounge at Ladies Home Journal, found that by putting aside her inner Martha Stewart and daring to serve frozen pizza and canned soup to her family, she was able to give them an even greater gift -- more of her time.

I was feeling pretty bad the other night, as I was microwaving up yet another Amy's frozen entrée. I love to cook! And what about the stockings I was going to hand-sew, then decorate with my son? What about making gingerbread ornaments for the tree? Or homemade, Christmas tree-shaped pizza? I struggle not to feel like I’m failing.
And yet, frozen, store-bought pizza gave me the time to spend with my son, decorating the Christmas tree, calmly, with Christmas music and, yes, hot cocoa. Canned soup for lunch gave us time to make those oatmeal cookies together, which is probably more his speed than decorated gingerbread men, anyhow. The other night we had leftover pasta … and we roasted chestnuts and sang holiday songs. And instead of me sewing those stockings on a rainy Sunday while he played alone, we had a rousing game of Nerf baseball. So we have drugstore stockings this year. It’s what’s in 'em that counts.

More than a decade ago, author Bill McKibben came up with “The $100 Holiday,” a movement to restrict Christmas spending to $100 per family, not to save money but to create a more meaningful holiday. Clearly he was on to something. Perhaps we have been led kicking and screaming by the recession to a less commercial Christmas, but many people have discovered unexpected joy in less.

As Dr. Seuss’ Grinch discovered, “Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.

"Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!”


How have you fared? Have you found unexpected joy in creating Christmas with less money? Or has it been all drudgery? What will you do differently next year?


Related reading:

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