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Embracing the Holidays...Without all the Stuff

I love Christmas. I always have. When I was a child, we would listen to the radio tracking Santa’s path and I would attempt to fall asleep filled with sugary excitement, the insides of my eyelids awash with multi-colored lights. The sooner I could fall asleep, the sooner I would wake up to the day I looked forward to all year—Christmas morning.

For me, this child-like wonder carried over into adulthood. The year I was pregnant with my first child, I insisted that we welcome our new addition with a full-fledged Winter Wonderland. I wanted twinkling lights, an abundance of candy canes, a tree that could blind you, the whole nine. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this also meant a tree brimming with presents. And for awhile, it seemed that Christmas was complete. But after a couple of years, I began to feel suffocated by all the stuff.

As I look back on all the dreamy events of my childhood armed with an adult perception of the world, I recognize that my memories don’t quite match up with reality. As a child, Christmas was a wondrous event. As an adult, I realize that those days were very different for my parents. Instead of seeing those twinkling lights and happy faces on Christmas morning, I see the holiday through the eyes of my parents—often filled with long days of carting around kids and presents, managing drunk relatives, and punctuated by enough family drama to fill a sleazy daytime talk show.

In my attempts to be the provider of a magical Christmas, I soon realized that my memories will forever be illuminated by my feelings of Christmas, instead of the sequence of events that actually took place. The first step we took was to reserve Christmas day for ourselves. We don't travel and we don't stress. We stay home, watch Christmas Vacation, and don't get out of our pajamas. The only cousin Eddie I deal with is on the screen of my TV.

The next step: Making Christmas an enchanting experience without just throwing stuff at my kids. This was a slightly taller order.

As each adult Christmas rolled around, I found myself cleaning out to make room for more stuff, which of course meant I was buying disposable things and throwing them away before Valentine's Day was even a consideration. As someone who tries very hard to be eco-friendly and a good example for my kids, this wasn't sitting well with me. As it turned out, I didn't have to look very far.

In our household, my husband is the genius gift giver. Seriously, he puts the masses to shame. As a result, most of my gift-giving prowess has been learned from years of watching the master at work (and still I can barely even compete). For my 24th birthday, I received 24 gifts, one each day leading up to the anniversary of my birth. The grand finale culminated in a trip to a wine trail that we still frequent to this day. Rather than browsing the online sales and grabbing something mildly suitable in just enough time that it arrives for Christmas, he spends a significant amount of time considering what matters to each individual and identifying a gift unique to that person. If he could package his skills in app form, we'd be set.

My husband is not only a gift-giving guru, but he doesn’t fill our house with excess garbage. He is not only cognizant of how much I will love a gift, but he aims to make it useful and memorable, characteristics often lacking in Christmas gifts. How many times have you gotten a gift and thought, ….”what am I going to do with this?” Often, we buy things just to buy things because we feel that the holiday demands it.

Under my husband’s wise tutelage, we make gift giving fun and we try our best to ditch the extra stuff. To add an element of fun, we like to apply themes and rules. (One year we set the spending limit at $100 and required that all gifts be relevant to the recipient's favorite hobby. We like to get creative.)

Over the years, we have refined our approach. Here are a few ways we embrace Christmas without acquiring more stuff:

  • Go for a new experience. Last year, my daughter got to go see a live Paw Patrol performance instead of getting something new. This year, we have chosen to spend Christmas in New York (somewhat of a dream for us), rather than buying more presents. Memories last longer than poorly constructed toys or another shirt that I'll add to my already overflowing drawers.

  • Opt for a membership to a local area attraction or a gift card to a great local coffee shop or winery. Each year, we encourage relatives to buy a yearly membership to a museum or attraction, rather than investing in more toys. Each time we find ourselves with nothing to do, we put it to use. It’s one of those great gifts that keeps on giving and it gets us out of the house. I prefer Calvin Fletcher's in downtown Indy for coffee. The Indianapolis Children's Museum is usually our choice for kid-friendly activities.

  • If you are buying stuff, make it a memorable gift. Come on, getting gifts is fun. No one is denying that. But most of my favorites are the ones that are particularly thoughtful, useful, or memorable. If you are going to buy a gift, make it something that will make a lasting impression. One year, my husband bought me a book subscription. This involved him completing a questionnaire which listed books I loved (he paid attention). Each month, I received a new book which had been handpicked for me based on my preferences. This was out-of-this-world perfect for me. For anyone wondering, my subscription was from Brilliant Books and it was truly amazing.

  • Go for handmade and I don’t mean ordering from Etsy. Make something with your own hands for your partner or children. Some of my most memorable gifts were ones that were made specifically for me. One year, my husband made a contraption from wood which was designed to hold all of my many nail polish bottles. For added flair, my stepdaughter painted it. Another year, he dug a giant hole in the backyard and installed a custom-made hammock so that I would have a place in the sunshine to read and relax.

  • Support a local cause. We all have causes that our near and dear to our hearts. To really show you know and love someone close to you, help them support a cause. Adopting an animal functions as a gift, a cause, and you can also use it to teach values like responsibility. Maybe you have an avid gardener on your hands and you can help contribute to a community garden. An enthusiastic chef might enjoy cooking for the less fortunate.

  • Encourage creativity and artistry. We have done this in a few different ways. One year, I had a local artist draw a picture of my step-daughter. It still adorns the walls in our home. Another year, our kids made spoons and spatulas for all of our relatives by applying a rubberized red and green handle on each one and adding their names and the year. To top it off, they included brownie or cookie mix with each one. Creativity and utility, in one gift.

  • Choose gifts that support spending time together. Really, the whole point of the holidays is to spend time together. Buying a gift that promotes time with each other is like two birds with one stone. Do you like beer or wine? Buy a class where you learn how to make your favorite beverage. Want to get in shape? Take a couples yoga class. Learn to finger paint, sculpt pottery, or climb mountains…whatever blows your hair back.

Ultimately, I may not save a ton of money. But, I have less stuff and more memories. That's a win in my book.

Ashley works in the mystical world of digital marketing. A true lover of the written word, she whiles away her time writing, editing, reading, and helping small businesses with their marketing needs. Believing herself to be a seeker of discomfort, she is always on the lookout for her next adventure. Check her out at

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