Doing Christmas Differently These Days

Our little twig tree is small and simple, but still loaded with memories

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.

Getting ready to sort through over 100 ornaments and divide them up for our children.

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.

11 thoughts on “Doing Christmas Differently These Days

  1. Christmas is about family and getting together with those that you love (harder to do this year). Many of us have lost track of the real meaning of Christmas and we focus too much on the gifts. Glad that you and your family have scaled back and are still able to enjoy!
    Merry Christmas

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    1. I continue to feel sad when I remember the Christmases of my childhood, and that it took me so long to figure out what was truly important about the holiday: family and friends, and not the number or cost of the gifts, but the thought and love behind them. I enjoy the Christmas season now and all that it brings, and look forward to our family gathering again next year.

      Merry Christmas to you and yours!

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  2. I believe half the people I know had unhappy holidays growing up. All the hype makes it seem like the happiest time of all. Joe had to go to Mass before any gifts and he also got nothing from his list. We neither celebrated Chanukah or Xmas.. so there’s that. Glad you changed the story for yourself.

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    1. I’m glad to have been able to change my story as well. Christmas became exhausting for me back when I tried to “do it all” but these days I enjoy the simplicity of it, and although we give fewer gifts these days I enjoy that process more as well. I always wonder what my parents’ Christmases must have been like that they disliked the holiday so much.

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  3. We were quite poor when I was a child. I still have a photo of me at age 11 excitedly holding up a box of spaghetti that I received as my Christmas present. We also wrapped gifts with the comic section of the newspaper as we could not afford wrapping paper. This was back in 1976. I am grateful for my humble upbringing as I believe that molded me into the hard working, frugal person I am today.

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    1. There is no shame in being poor. Brett grew up very poor, but has warm memories of his childhood Christmases and the few gifts he received. My family was not poor (nor wealthy either), but what was missing in my family’s Christmas celebrations (such as they were) was any thought as to what might bring joy and happiness, or the thought that giving could be a joyful as receiving. It wasn’t just that the gifts from my parents were cheap; it was that they were thoughtless, and I think that is what colors my memories. A box of spaghetti, if my parents knew I loved spaghetti, would have had more thought applied than what I typically was given. There was nothing frugal about how my parents “celebrated” nor any lesson about frugality to be learned.

      I use newspaper these days to wrap gifts, and also paper bags from the grocery store. Tied with a bit of bright ribbon they look great. I used to spend on wrapping paper but no more.

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  4. I am glad you can let your baggage go and just enjoy the season.
    Most of my friends had dads who were well off, but had done some tough war things. There was always that. Everyone had five or more kids. Lots of Jewish neighbors. Not a lot of comparing.
    Christmas was filled with lots of stuff- but nothing that stands out at all. Most of the things were for “the group” of girls or the boys. Most of my toys and clothes were my older sister’s- handed down. We never were encouraged to give each other presents until we were older. My mom never learned how to cook- so we went to Grandaddy’s for dinner. We never made cookies or…..
    What my dad did do was an awesome Christmas Eve Mass attendance- ALL of the bells and trumpets and glitter and creche. I never felt pushed or rushed. It was his gift to the five of us.
    I don’t remember being unhappy with my circumstances.
    My husband’s family had nothing growing up. Christmas was only celebrated when he got home from Vietnam—they finally had the money with the two oldest in the military. He doesn’t even remember a Christmas dinner.
    Starting our married life in Germany with the Christmas markets…. awww. I went wild over Christmas. It was the time to get everything off of layaway- clothes, shoes, toys. I only remember being in debt over it once- and that was it. I was lucky that Germany did not take credit cards 🙂
    I’ve learned to tone it down- but am still a bit too much. I don’t want to overshadow parents in their gifts.
    Now, Christmas is more of a season then a day for us now. I love it. A few lights, a tree, my nativity sets and just “talking story” with everyone! I have no idea what it will be like when we move away from our grands next year….

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    1. Even though our family was not wealthy, I grew up in a wealthy community (we lived there for the good schools), and seeing the gifts my friends had received when we went back to school was always painful. I always wonder what my parents’ holidays must have been like to make them dislike Christmas so much, but they really hated the whole season and it showed. Brett grew up very poor, but has warm memories of his childhood Christmases.

      The military, and especially being stationed overseas and layaway at the exchange, made spending at Christmas easy. Thank goodness we did not have Christmas markets! I would have gone nuts back in the day. By the way, did you see the story a week or so ago about the officer who went in and paid off ALL the layaways at the base exchange? What a gift that was for families stationed there.

      I love Christmas time now, and like you, the whole season versus just one day. This year has been difficult because of us not being together, and the holiday sort of crept up on me, but I’m excited to be here and with Brett and YaYu. Brett and I have only missed one Christmas together in over 40 years – he was deployed for Desert Storm over the holiday – but we had gotten a windfall that fall and with Brett’s encouragement our son and I went to Hong Kong for Christmas and had a great time and made some wonderful memories. We celebrated Christmas with Brett when he came home the following year, tree and all.

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  5. I was sad as I read about your childhood Christmases. Our family was fairly poor when I was growing up, (although I didn’t know it then) but we lived on a farm and had plenty of food. We never had extravagant gifts, but they were given with love, and we had good food with our grandparents in attendance and spent the day enjoying one another’s company. But my parents stressed the true meaning of Christmas, along with the enjoyment of friends and family which has colored Christmases I have had as an adult. This year will certainly be different, but we still can celebrate in a meaningful way and with joy in our hearts.

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  6. I didn’t get a chance to reply earlier because I was busy with Christmas. I know quite a few people who don’t have great childhood memories of holidays. A friend of mine told me this story. Her parents were divorced and her mom was an alcoholic (she lived with her mom). When my friend was 10, her mom stole one of those foot measuring things from a shoe store, wrapped it in newspaper, and gave it to my friend for Christmas. I can’t imagine how disappointing that would be for a kid. My friend had a rough childhood and still has issues, but she managed to get a master’s in environmental engineering and works for the county where she lives. She’s been divorced twice and never had kids because she says she has too many issues of her own from her childhood, but I’m always amazed she’s been able to accomplish what she has. Stories like hers make me even more grateful for the parents I had and it’s great that you were able to rise above how your parents “celebrated” Christmas and put that behind you and enjoy the season.

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    1. My parents weren’t monsters, and they loved us, but they were very undemonstrative both in word and deed. I like to say they were “detached.” Both were raised by undemonstrative parents as well, so I just don’t think they knew any better, and they were uncomfortable with showing affection or giving praise, or doing any of those things. They also definitely had favorites among us kids – they weren’t very good at hiding those feelings. They were children of the depression, and although neither was exactly poor growing up, those times a huge effect on them, to the point they went beyond being frugal to being downright cheap, which is what happened at Christmas. I was an observant kid growing up though and saw real affection and generosity being modeled in my friends’ families that made a strong impression on me. I always loved seeing and hearing about happy, generous families – it made me realize the potential was there and I could do things differently when I raised my own children. Anyway, my siblings and I all turned out OK and we’ve all raised some great kids,. There were bumps along the way for all of that we had to figure out on our own, but we’ve all transcended our parents’ examples.

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