A Mostly Minimalist Christmas

My family knows that I have embraced minimalism. They witness the gradual uncluttering of my home office, the extra time spent in the basement, and the extra trash bags set out each week. But I avoid any sort of proselytizing.

I never came out and said I wanted a minimalist Christmas, beyond saying there was really only one thing I would like as a gift (the John Lennon box set).

That feeling wasn’t anything new or necessarily tied to my current pursuit of minimalism. I’ve felt for as long as I can remember that Christmas was far too commercialized.

It’s a point of view I can probably ascribe to repeated viewings over the years of the Charlie Brown Christmas special. And to an “aha” moment I had almost 20 years ago.

We were giving Christmas presents to my two-year-old niece. On Christmas Day, we presented her with a doll and baby carriage. And she was thrilled. She was all smiles and hugging the doll as if it were the only thing that mattered in the whole world. If that had been the only thing she’d gotten that Christmas, she would have been perfectly content.

But it was just the beginning. Gift after gift was laid at her feet. Tearing through the wrapping paper of each successive present, I could see the joy in her face give way to a kind of numbness. Where the doll and carriage had been special, now nothing was, just a growing pile of things and very little time to feel anything special about any of them.

The image haunts me still.

But lo and behold, we had a mostly minimalist Christmas this time. And it was just as merry as any other.

My wife and I exchanged just a few things (including the Lennon set).  The kids got some things that they really wanted, but none of the silly “filler” items that used to be part of the deal.  Well, OK, they did get sea monkeys. But there were no outlandish, big-ticket items.

Perhaps nicest of all, the kids seemed to treasure the visits with family and friends as much as, if not more than, the presents.

Now, it may just be a sign of the economic times (I did get laid off this year, though we’re still financially sound). And there have been some marital fractures in our extended family recently, which did draw us all a little bit closer.

No matter. We all saw a Christmas that was more about what we had and less about what we got. And it was great.


7 thoughts on “A Mostly Minimalist Christmas

  1. I, too, have felt for pretty much as long as I can remember that Christmas is usually overblown. Too much *stuff!* And while I also don’t “preach” about my desire for less, when people invariably ask me what I want for Christmas (or any gift, really – birthday, anniversary, etc.) my response is always the same: that the money they would have spent on me be donated to someone (or some organization) that really needs it. This is what I got for Christmas this year:


    And I couldn’t be happier. Truly.

  2. I appreciate your post very much. Christmas seems to be getting out of control for our family–birthdays too. My 4 year old son’s dad (we are separated) really loves the bigness of christmas and birthdays. Also, there are so many generous grandparents. My son’s birthday is in November and he gets so many gifts–then all of a sudden it is Christmas and there is more and more! So my son plays with all of his new toys once or twice, but soon after christmas, it seems like he forgets how to play–he wants new toys or to be entertained. Much of this material over indulgence is out of my control–it also seems that the thoughtful simplicity that we have done in the past is overshadowed and i am must admit i feel the need to compete or atleast keep up. sigh. How do i teach my son the gift of less when all his new stuff is in the way?

    1. Hi Tela — That’s a hard one, especially if all the adults are not onboard. I understand the need to keep up. I think your son’s age (and our consumerist culture in general) probably mutes any attempts right now to convey what’s really important about the holidays. I think you should continue to try, because sometime in his young life it could click. He’ll see your example — and probably be critical. My kids were, but just recently they’ve shown signs of understanding. Just give him the gift of your time. That’s what he’ll remember most. — Bill

  3. Great post! You’re right — leading by example really does work best. A few years ago I gave out gift certificates for spa days to my family, and now that’s all people ever want from me! (And funny, I have no trouble anymore getting them to give me experiences instead of stuff). I don’t have kids yet but I’m looking forward to reading what you have to say on the topic.

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