Christmas was not a happy, festive time at our home when I was growing up, and I don’t have warm, fuzzy memories about it. Although we were far from poor, my parents always made the holiday another seem like another financial burden and nuisance for them to bear. While my dad didn’t deliberately choose a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, we often seemed to get the nearest thing to it, with our tree shedding most of its needles before it ever came through the door. Christmas lists were eagerly drawn up by my siblings and myself every year but I don’t remember ever receiving even one thing I asked and hoped for. Parsimony and cheapness ruled the day unless it was for hockey gear for my brothers; then no expense was spared. The worst Christmas gift I can recall (and there are many to choose from) was the November and December volumes from a Time-Life series of books my parents subscribed to for the family – they were my “gift” under the tree that year, but went up on the family bookshelf later in the day.
The gifts we children gave were unimaginative as well, but there wasn’t much you could buy for five others with a dollar or two. We never received an allowance, so our Christmas shopping funds were from pennies we had saved throughout the year, and maybe a few dollars our dad gave us. I remember giving Dad a bar of Dial soap for several years (and him acting thrilled) and giving my mom a bottle of dime-store “Evening In Paris” perfume one year (and her not being thrilled, but then who could be?). I dreaded going back to school after the holidays because it was painful to hear about or see all the wonderful and thoughtful gifts my friends and classmates had received.
As you might imagine, I packed up a lot of baggage along the way about Christmas and how it should be celebrated. When Brett and I got married, I was determined that Christmas was going to be the happiest, most exciting time of the year for our little family, with a big tree, the whole house decorated, lots of baking and parties, and presents, presents, presents! Money was no object – even if we didn’t have it – and I tried to fulfill every wish on everyone’s list as well as knock everyone’s socks off with something totally unexpected and wonderful. As you might imagine, we often incurred a lot of debt every year at Christmas.
The year we started to pay off our debt was when I finally got serious about putting together a real budget for Christmas, one that we continue to adhere to. It was amazing how freeing that one simple step was. No agonizing over how we were going to pay for “the perfect Christmas,” no anxiety about the bills coming after. The girls still received one big, special gift that Brett and I chose carefully, another smaller gift from us, and a few things in each of their stockings, but that that was all. We helped the girls earn funds for their Christmas shopping throughout the year, and they had fun thinking of useful or asked-for gifts that would fit within their budgets. We stopped exchanging gifts outside of our immediate family other than homemade treats. We also downsized and kept decorations to a minimum, and went with a smaller tree for years versus our usual (and expensive) 8-foot noble fir, although before moving to Hawaii we purchased a 7.5 foot artificial tree that could display all our ornaments.
No matter where we’ve gathered these past ten years, and how we’ve celebrated, we’re all just as excited about our family Christmas as ever. Being together is what’s important, even though this year some of our celebration will be done via Zoom. Downsizing to a smaller, more simple Christmas has not stifled anything; in fact, we’ve found that our holiday can be a lot more fun as well as more creative when we’re more thoughtful about our gift-giving and other aspects of the holiday.
This year, because of our small apartment, we’ve downsized to a small but pretty twig tree, and I’ve gone through our massive ornament collection and divided them up among our four children. Brett and I have kept a few ornaments for ourselves along with favorites from my once-huge wooden Santa collection. It’s more than enough now, and the things we’ve kept come loaded with memories. All the other ornaments will go to our children next year, to let them begin building a connection between our past Christmas celebrations and memories and their own traditions for the future.
Christmas is smaller and lighter these days at our home, but more meaningful than ever. All that old baggage I carried for so many years has been tossed out for good, and I’m so much happier and satisfied with the quieter, smaller holiday we celebrate now, no matter where we are. It took me a while to get here, but I’m grateful to have arrived.