Have Yourself A Simple Little Christmas

I didn’t use to enjoy Christmas as much as I do now. In the past I felt compelled to create the perfect holiday experience for everyone. Every year we put up and decorated a big fresh-cut tree, festooned the house inside and out, hosted a big Christmas Eve open house, and bought lots and lots and lots of presents. I baked hundreds of cookies, cooked special meals and ate too much. I overdid it all, and we always spent way too much.

From our son's first Christmas in 1978
A stuffed gingerbread man, made for our son’s first Christmas in 1978

It was exhausting, and I came to dread the arrival of the holiday season each year.

Miniature koto, from our first tour in Japan
A miniature koto, found during our first tour in Japan (I played the koto in college).

I realize now that I let my own past get in the way of being sensible when it came to the holiday. Christmas was one of those things growing up that I always wished was a big deal but never was at our house. Raised during the Great Depression, neither of my parents had celebrated Christmas in a big way and saw no reason to begin. The holiday always seemed to be pure drudgery for them, not only for the presents that had to be bought (and the money spent), but for the decorations and other holiday cheer that had to be endured. Still, I and my siblings eagerly awaited Christmas morning each year. The few gifts we received though were typically uninspired. It was difficult to visit my friends’ beautifully decorated homes, or go back to school after the holidays and see and hear about all the wonderful, thoughtful gifts they had received.

An embroidered angel I made for Christmas 1979
An embroidered angel I made for Christmas 1979. 

I made a vow that when I grew up and had my own family, Christmas would be fabulous. It took me a long, long while to figure out that I was using my own hang-ups and childhood disappointments as a reason to overspend and overdo Christmas, trying to create the perfect Christmas that I had longed for and never gotten. For everything I did, it was still never enough.

Christopher Radko 2000 "Celebrating Adoption" ornament
Christopher Radko 2000 “Celebrating Adoption” ornament

I don’t remember now when the switch flipped inside of me, but these days Christmas is a much simpler event at Casa Aloha than it was in the past. Maybe it’s because I finally got tired of all the hoopla, or noticed, bit by bit, that it really didn’t matter to everyone else if the entire Santa collection got put out or not, or if there was garland down the staircase or around the door, or lights around the house. It wasn’t the end of the world if I didn’t bake ten different types of cookies or if I didn’t put out the Fitz & Floyd Santa cookie jar. It didn’t matter how many presents were under the tree. What was more important was that we were together, and that the gifts that were given and received were thoughtful and something the receiver truly wanted.

One of WenYu's many rabbit ornaments (she was born in a rabbit year)
One of YaYu’s rabbit ornaments (she was born in a rabbit year)

Christmas is a simple affair around here these days. Everyone pitches in so that no one (especially me) feels overloaded. We maintain a few simple traditions that are meaningful to us, starting with decorating our tree with ornaments that have been collected for 40 years. These ornaments mark the places we were stationed in the navy, our son’s early life, the girls’ Chinese heritage, our travels, and other milestones and occasions. The little wooden advent tree we’ve used for nearly 30 years goes up on December 1, along with a simple, handmade nativity and a few wooden Santas I gleaned from my once massive collection. That’s the extent of our decorating these days.

WenYu is our tiger girl
WenYu is our tiger girl

On Christmas morning, stockings are opened early, before Brett and I get up. Brett serves coffee or hot chocolate with marshmallows in the Christmas mugs we’ve had for I-don’t-know-how-many years when we do get up, followed by bagels, cream cheese, smoked salmon, and fresh fruit (the Christmas breakfast our son asked for when he was seven years old, and that we’ve served ever since). Then presents are opened. The youngest person present serves as the “elf,” and chooses the gift each person will open for their turn, in order from oldest to youngest. Gifts are opened one at a time, so that we can all admire each one. Not as many presents are under the tree these days, but each one is selected with care and love.

A horse our neighbor made for our son from old shoji paper - he was born in a horse year.
A horse made from shoji paper by our Japanese neighbor for our son – he was born in a horse year.

Although our Christmas celebration these days is not the grand affair of years past, it’s immensely more enjoyable. The season no longer exhausts me, and the magic of the holiday remains. We put something aside every month to pay for Christmas, and no longer go into debt. We are able to give more to others outside our family as well, both in time and money.

Meiling was born in the Year of the Pig
One of Meiling’s many pig ornaments. Yes, she was born in the Year of the Pig.

I couldn’t have gotten a better gift.

15 thoughts on “Have Yourself A Simple Little Christmas

  1. My favorite Christmas was when we flew the whole family – Jim, myself, our four kids, and two extra kids, to Kauai two years ago. Of course, we got married on Christmas Eve, but the time together, on a wonderful island, was so much better than anything you could buy in a store. That made me realize that with four kids, now ages 15 – 25, the gift of experience is the way to go. Last year it was a group pass to one of those Get Air places where you jump around all over. This year is go-carting. The kids would all love to go back to Kauai every year, but that is not an option again until they can help pay for it! Until then, it is our anniversary, my birthday, Super Bowl, and visit Brett and Laura vacation!


    1. I agree – experiences are best! We traveled a few times over Christmas (twice to Disney World) and were able to keep it as a surprise for the kids. They still talk about those trips and we never heard a peep that there weren’t gifts under the tree! I wish we could have afforded to do it more often.


  2. Thanks for sharing. I spend the whole season “Shoulding all over myself”. I ‘should’ be baking/decorating/etc….this was a good read for me and will help me calm down and enjoy what is important.


    1. I kind of let go of things little by little. We stopped the open house first and the world didn’t end and our friends didn’t disown us. Then I stopped baking so much, and decorating so much, and no one minded or was grumpy. Meiling did say today that she loved it when I did all that stuff, but that she totally understands why I let it go.


  3. This is one of my all-time favorite posts of yours, and I’ve been following a long time. I think you’ve accurately captured the true meaning of the holidays – besides Christ, Christmas should also be focused on family and experiences and not ‘stuff.’ I’ve scaled down my decorating a lot in recent years to now I just put out my favorites – the tree with our favorite ornaments, the nativity scene that belonged to my grandmother, a few other Christmassy pieces that were acquired from relatives, and several handcrafted ceramic Santas that were made by a local artist. Everything I put out is meaningful to me. It’s quality over quantity these days.

    By the way, do you have a Facebook page for this blog?


    1. Thanks, Denise! I thought about it all when Meiling and I finished decorating the tree. Simple is better, and as you say, quality over quantity.

      No Facebook page yet, but I’m thinking about it!


  4. Christmas was the time a year we got tons. I would have rathered getting stuff through the year. You know the green shirt March so I could wear green like everyone else on the no uniform day. Or the sport team t shirt if they made the championships. And it didn’t make sense. My extended family likes to completely outfit a child for birthday and Xmas so the parents don’t have to. But you can’t wear summer clothes in the Midwest up until the end of December. They don’t need five more pairs of pants suddenly for January. Christmas was always too much stuff. Too many people gifting too much. I like the way my husband’s side does it. They spend more time thinking and send a reasonable amount due to shipping costs and we have to do the same for them. Maybe your folks just couldn’t think of gifts easily? Getting too much means having to let go of the stuff to make room for the new stuff. That part isn’t fun for kids.


    1. I think you captured very well what happens when you get a ton of stuff at Christmas. It’s overwhelming, and there’s nothing left for later in the year. And, it’s just plain overwhelming for little kids, all that stuff. These days we give fewer, but better, gifts. For us too, the three girls all have birthdays within a month after Christmas so we need to save something for those celebrations.

      My parents just weren’t into gift giving. They were cheap, and just went through the motions at Christmas. We often didn’t get gifts on our birthdays either.


  5. I love the holidays (minus the tension I feel with work, as I constantly feel guilty about being on call, working too much & missing time with the family). Forgetting that part for a moment, my sister & I made a pact, probably about 8 years ago, when we both had kids, to simplify Christmas. Our mom is amazing, but she loves to make things into a big deal. As adults, we were obligated (or, felt obligated – we’re pleasers :)) to help our mom. Unfortunately, it turned Christmas into so much work & stress. I couldn’t handle it with small kids. We’ve slowly changed things. No more adult gifts. No more Christmas baking (my mom had been baking for 25 years, and ended up just dreading it – probably 40 hours spent on baking cookies for everyone. It had become a tradition & people ‘expected’ them.). Limited the amount spent for each kid.

    And this year, we’ve moved to a Pajama Pizza party on Christmas Eve, complete with charades. I’m *super* excited. On Christmas Day, we’re skipping the fancy meal, and doing our traditional holiday microbrew tasting, and having appetizers.

    We’ve actually added a festive celebration on the coast, closer to New Years. It’s so nice that we actually enjoy being together. I feel super lucky.


    1. I think you’ve nailed the two most important things: 1) recognizing that instead of enjoying the holiday it’s instead become stressful and tiring; and 2) making changes slowly. If I had tried to change or give up everything all at once I would have had a mutiny on my hands! But each year I found myself cutting back on one or two things, and no one seemed to be bothered that we didn’t do this or didn’t do that. The expectations were mine, not everyone else’s.

      The pizza party sounds like a whole lot of fun. And, I’m super envious of your holiday out at the coast. I really do miss that part of Oregon. Did M (our favorite Oregon beach town!) make it through the storms? I saw a picture today of Rockaway, and the entire place was badly flooded.


      1. So far, things look okay. We’ll be there in just over a week to check it out. I saw Rockaway pics as well and it looks awful! We’re a bit further off of the beach, luckily (?). Should be a very stormy holiday!

        Hope you have an amazing & relaxing time with your family.


  6. Love all your ornaments. Really unique.
    As usual, everyone is coming to my place for Christmas. I have had trouble convincing my 80 year old mother that she is not capable of cooking or baking for the whole family (usually 25 to 40). Everyone brings a dish but mama is always afraid there will not be enough food. This year she is buying from Publix but I still have to heat everything which will take hours. Thank goodness for crockpots. I am also responsible for the desserts. There is no time to enjoy the holiday. I hope that someday I will be able to simplify and have time to talk with everyone.
    I’m happy for you that your entire family will be getting together. I hope all of you have a great time and a Merry Christmas.


    1. OK, your family Christmas is HUGE!! In some ways it sounds like a lot of fun, but I can also see the immense amount of work it will take to pull it off.

      It’s hard to let go of traditions. But, I think what people/families enjoy the most is just being together at Christmas. It’s nice that everyone brings something to share – that helps out some. I hope you can take some time and enjoy the day with your family!


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