Have Yourself a Simple Little Christmas

(Updated from an earlier post)

I didn’t always enjoy Christmas as much as I do now. In the past I felt compelled to create a perfect holiday experience for everyone. Every year we put up and decorated a big fresh-cut tree, and I 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.

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 change. Christmas 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, my siblings and I eagerly awaited Christmas morning each year although the few gifts we received 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.

I made a vow that when I grew up and had my own family, Christmas would be fabulous. It took me many years before I figured out I was using my own childhood disappointments as a reason to overspend and overdo Christmas, that I was trying to create the perfect Christmas that I had longed for and never experienced. However, for everything I did to make Christmas bigger and better, it still never seemed to be enough.

I don’t remember exactly when the switch flipped, but for the past few years Christmas has been a much, much simpler event at our home than it was in the past. I finally had enough 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 if there were lights around the house. It wasn’t the end of the world if I didn’t bake ten different types of cookies or didn’t put out the Santa cookie jar. It didn’t matter how many presents were under the tree. What I realized was it was more important that we were together, and the gifts 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 very simple affair around our home these days. Everyone pitches in some way so that no one (especially me) feels overloaded. We maintain a few simple traditions that are meaningful to us. Until recently we still decorated a big tree with ornaments that had been collected for over 40 years. The ornaments marked places we were stationed in the navy, our son’s early life, the girls’ Chinese heritage, our travels, and other milestones and occasions. These days a little twig tree holds just eight ornaments: one representing the Chinese zodiac animal of each family member (Brett and WenYu share the tiger); a sumo wrestler representing Japan; a felt chicken for Kaua’i, and a blown glass ball in colors of the ocean to mark our island life and travels across the seas. The rest of the ornaments have been divided between the children to be used on their own Christmas trees.

WenYu is our tiger girl
WenYu is our tiger girl

On Christmas morning, when the kids were small, stockings were opened early, long before Brett and I got up but these days we either don’t do stockings or everyone gets someone else’s to fill. When we’re all awake and up, Brett still serves coffee or hot chocolate with marshmallows in the Christmas mugs we’ve had for over 30 years, followed by bagels with cream cheese (or scones), 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. As we eat presents are opened. One of the children serves as the “elf,” and chooses the gift each person will open for their turn, always in order beginning with the oldest person present to youngest. Gifts are opened one at a time, so that we can all admire each one. We still do a family Secret Santa exchange, and no present can cost more than $35. Not as many presents are under the tree these days as there were in the past, 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, born in a horse year.

Although our Christmas celebration these days is not the grand affair of years past, it’s immensely more enjoyable, especially for me. The season no longer wears me out, but the magic and meaning of the holiday remains. We save every month throughout the year to cover our Christmas expenses and purchase gifts, and we no longer go into debt. We are able to give more to others outside our family as well, both in time and money. It’s been the best gift for all of us.

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.

15 thoughts on “Have Yourself a Simple Little Christmas

  1. I love the simplification of Christmas. Like you, I used to try and do everything and make everyone happy. To the point of being completely stressed out for the holiday. And add to that, I was a church organist for years, so that just added to my insane stress. As my kids got older and moved out, I realized (paraphrasing the Grinch) that Christmas came whether I was ready or not. Year by year, I reached a point where I just said, that’s all that will happen this year. From that, I’ve become less and less stressed and more focused on the joy of the season, the simple pleasures and realizing it’s only a day. And I enjoy it much more. This is our first year in AGES without any kids at home with us on the actual day, and it will be quiet and simple. And probably filled with FaceTime and phone calls. And that suits us fine.


    1. I think the hardest lesson for me to learn (at the time) was that I was possibly creating expectations in my children, that the holiday would be bigger and better every year. But guess what? It turned out they honestly didn’t care about all the stuff I was doing – they loved Christmas however it came and there were no complaints when we simplified things. I’m looking forward to being together with the girls this year more than anything else because we don’t know when we’ll celebrate together again (we’ll hopefully be in Japan for Christmas next year).


  2. I too have greatly simplified and will be donating decorations not wanted by the family. Just texted my nephew about no gift exchange and instead putting that money to going out for drinks or a meal…..more “ stuff” not needed and would rather spend time with my family.
    A question about your newish eating plan….you post about your evening meal but could you let us know how you eat other meals/ snacks for rest of the day? Looking for what works for others as I have hit the wall after 2.5 years….have lost #200 + pounds and having slow time/ hard time with this last #30…….looking on how to change things up a bit…….thanks !
    Enjoy your holidays and family!


    1. I separated and sent all the many tree ornaments to the kids last year – they were thrilled to get them, and our daughter-in-law sent pictures of the grandkids hanging their dad’s ornament on their tree this year. The circle remains unbroken! The girls were all happy to get their ornaments as well, but of course will be here this year so will have to wait until next year to decorate their own trees. I’m with you – I would rather spend time with the family versus having and getting out a lot of “stuff.”

      Big congratulations on your efforts! I have a very good idea of how much and how hard you have worked to lose that weight! The last few pounds are always the worst and most stubborn too. Breakfast for me is either a bowl of Cheerios (1 cup) with a 1/2 cup of blueberries and a 1/2 cup of oat milk OR two pancakes, made with oat milk and applesauce instead of eggs. I have one TBSP of syrup or jam with those. That’s it! Lunch is almost always leftovers, but I keep the calories under 300 and have some vegetables or fruit. No leftovers are available today so I’m having six crackers, 2 ounces of feta cheese, and an apple.


  3. We always went overboard buying presents for everyone until we realized everyone had everything they needed or wanted, and they had no room for more stuff. We decided each week of us would buy and wrap one gift and set a cost limit. On Christmas morning we all draw a number and #1 gets first choice, #2 can take #1’s gift or choose from the other wrapped gifts. The person that drew the highest # gets their choice of all the gifts. We laugh our heads off during this crazy game, it’s inexpensive and fun. It also relieves the shopping stress.
    Happy Holidays to you and your family!


    1. We used to play this game at our annual Christmas open house (when we were in navy we’d have over 50 people participating) – it was wild! These days we have a per person budget, and buy no more than three gifts per person. We also do a Secret Santa exchange within the family – $35 limit (I drew one of the girls this year). It’s all pretty easy these days, and no stress.

      BTW, a fun game that I have been dying to try is to take several gift cards, and weave them into a ball made with a roll of Saran Wrap (or other brand). Each person gets a set amount of time (15 seconds?) to try and unwrap the ball, and gets to keep any of the gift cards they are able to unwrap (the biggest card is in the middle). A whole roll of plastic wrap apparently makes a pretty large ball, and I’m sure you’ve tried to take apart plastic wrap that’s stuck together so know now difficult (and frustrating) it can be! Anyway, it sounds like a fun Christmas activity!


      1. My mom has played this game with her husband’s family, and they wear oven mitts to unwrap it, which apparently makes it quite hilarious.


      2. Brett thinks this sounds like a horrid game but I am dying to try it with the girls. I am definitely going to do it if we’re in Japan for Christmas next year. Oven mitts would be the finishing touch, but I’m also thinking latex gloves might add a bit of difficulty as well.


  4. It takes time to figure it out, doesn’t it? My parents did the whole nine yards. Expensive,glittery, fast and unsatisfying. Maybe they were compensating. Both of them lost a parent near Christmas when they were young. Did they think it brought joy? I don’t know. One year we returned to the US for my extended family’s Christmas. I spent our entire budget on everyone
    but my own children. Never did that again. Small is good.

    My kids knew Midnight Mass, a light meal, and early morning presents from Saint Nick with carols were always in order- where ever we were. I budgeted Money for presents through out the year. I am the only one who likes surprises and fears debt.
    The kids gathered their own set of ornaments for the tree- which they both received as wedding presents 10 and 15 years ago. Our tiny tree is decorated with the few ornaments from the first year we were married and a some ornaments that I inherited from my grandmother. It is good. I am a huge fan of solar Christmas lights!
    Now grandkids get presents and the adults laugh over white elephant present games. The oldest grand will join the adults this year. Budget is now spent on a few toys and money for lessons or memberships.My son is getting a bunch of nuclear power books that he cannot justify getting himself. He knows to ask teacher mom for those things.
    This year we will return East, attend Midnight Mass, laugh over funny gifts and enjoy singing Happy Birthday to Jesus. Wonderful time for sure.
    Who knows what next year will bring.


    1. It sure took me a while! I am so much happier these days, and look forward to the holidays because the stress level has been lowered to zero. My first clue that things could be different was in 2000, when we took Meiling and WenYu to Disney World for Christmas. We bought their gifts there, no tree to decorate, etc. and it was wonderful. Things started getting smaller after that, a little bit each year, and then when we got to debt repayment we took it down to where we are now.

      We always give our kids three gifts (not our son any more; we send money to the grandkids). The amount of $$$ we spend on each one is the same, so there’s parity. Brett and I don’t always exchange gifts, only if there’s something like our travels coming up and we need things.

      Next year remains a mystery. Brett and I think right now things stand at 60-40: 60% chance we’ll travel overseas, 40% chance we go to Plan B. We are following Rick Steves’ lead – if he starts cancelling tours then we will too. We have to make a call though by the end of March.


      1. A good study out of Israel about vaxxed people. The doctor had a terrible COVID case in Nov 2019 and has been testing blood of his practice’s 32,000 patients since.
        During the winter increase your Vit D to around 5,000 units a day. The doctor said that the increase is especially important when you are inside most of the time. He gave the example of his own swimming an hour a day not being enough Vit D for the overload of virus during the “inside” months. He further stated that you should do this for least a few weeks before you are in an exposure situation. Vit D is not a “same day” fix and does little for people after they are exposed. Of course, still mask and distance and get vaxxed.

        I know your daughter is worried. She may, already, be doing this. If not get Vit D now (Walmart is cheap) and get her to that 5,000 before she has to go to the airport might ease her mind a bit. Vit D is fat soluble, but does no harm at that level. He also talked about zinc and Vit K, but those can do harm after a long time.
        We are flying in ten days. I have been taking 1,000 Vit D, but upping it today for both of us. I, too, never want to be as ill as I was in Jan 2020.


      2. We already take a LOT of Vitamin D, mainly because it’s good for our bones, and slows down osteoporosis. We get a good dose in our daily vitamin and also take an additional supplement. You’d think with all the sunshine here we wouldn’t need any additional, but no – it’s still not enough. But between the sun, vitamins, and supplements we are getting the 5,000 units.

        We just heard from the girls last night that they were tested Monday before their departure tomorrow morning (Wednesday). They are only required to present their vaccination card, but will also present their test results.


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