You Can Buy Happiness This Christmas

 

Somewhere around December 29th last year you said, I’m not doing this again. Do you remember?

It was after exchanging a lot of gift cards with relatives, a lot of last minute fluffy throw blankets with the gift receipt stapled to the tag because you knew they would be returned for store credit. Or maybe you said it in the week leading up to Christmas when you scoured the mall for a $40 gift for someone that has all that they need and very little that they want. Perhaps it was the first week of January when the spending hangover really kicked in as you looked at bank accounts and credit card statements or you stuffed your own collection of unneeded and unwanted gifts into a box destined for re-gifting or eventually donation.

“The Christmas we now celebrate grew up at a time when Americans were mostly poor … mostly working with their hands and backs.. if we now feel burdened and unsatisfied by the piles of gifts and overconsuming, it is not because Christmas has changed all that much, it’s because we have.”

– Bill McKibben Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case For A More Joyful Christmas

Fifteen years ago my family decided we were done with traditional gift giving at Christmas. As my five siblings and I entered adulthood we spent a few years buying each other gifts for Christmas. It became stressful and not very enjoyable. So we decided to do something different. We’d been fortunate to receive help years earlier as a single parent low-income family so it felt natural to now return that help. We sponsored a family in need through a local organization and put the money we would have spent on each other towards that. New winter jackets and warm clothes for kids, some toys and  several things for the mom and lots and lots of groceries to fill the fridge and pantry. The first year we did this kind of giving we all remarked how much more enjoyable the holidays were. No frantic mall shopping the week before Christmas. No stress over if someone liked their gift. And, of course, giving to people in our community that needed help felt great.

Yes you can buy happiness: use your money to help those in need.

Almost every year since we have found an organization that connects us to a family in our community and we find out what they need, what they want and shop for them. A few years because of logistics and distance (many of us live or have lived in far flung places) some of us just donated money to a good cause but we have made it a tradition that we give to those in need at this time of year instead of traditional gift giving.

If you felt overwhelmed last year, if you felt that the focus on gifts and buying and shopping took away from your enjoyment of the holiday season, if the ritual of exchanging gifts has become a burden rather than a joy, I urge you to start a new tradition. You likely already have a group in mind, a circle of family or friends that would appreciate a break from gift giving and a chance to instead pool your resources to help those in your community. And if you have some folks that love to shop well, they will love shopping even more when they know it’s for someone that really needs new shoes, or a family that will sleep better at night knowing the cupboards are full. And if you have people that don’t enjoy shopping – I’m one of those – let me tell you, shopping for a family that truly needs things is quite enjoyable.

Some ideas for how to broach this change in gift giving:

  • be open to no the first time you bring it up. Sometimes you need to plant the seed a year ahead of time.
  • be ready to assume the organizer role. Someone will need to quarterback the project with who will buy what, who will deliver gifts to the organization, etc.
  • start small. Perhaps for year one you move to a Secret Santa style gift exchange with one person you buy a gift for and one person you make a donation in their name.
  • if your gift exchange is your chance to meet up make sure the meet up part still happens.

If you have the means to buy frivolous gifts or gifts for people that already have everything they need and most of the stuff they want, maybe it’s time to do something different. Maybe it’s time to celebrate your friendship, your good fortunes of health and happiness, by giving together.

Anyone have a unique way that you have changed your gift giving traditions to be less focused on stuff? I would love to volunteer together as a family someday once we’re out of the baby/young toddler stage.

What does the Easter Bunny bring to your house?

lessateaster

My kids got chocolate turkeys from their Grandma at Thanksgiving last year. They were happy about the gift but not off the walls excited. Their minds were not blown by the bird shaped chocolate but mine was.

For a few weeks after I kept coming back to this sweet and innocuous gift. It rattled around in my head.

There were no chocolate turkeys in my childhood. A gift at Thanksgiving would have been unheard of. In fact, after a certain age, a young age, the Easter bunny arrived a day or two after Easter with discount candy which by my early teens I bought myself if I had the money. We simply couldn’t afford these luxuries and there were no grandmas or aunts and uncles around to spoil me with them.

While I never got these types of extras I was surrounded by children who did. I remember kids returning from the Easter long weekend with tales of new ski suits from the Easter bunny or clothing and books. They got enough chocolate to last a few months. It was evident from a young age that the Easter bunny that was coming to my house was a different than the one that was coming to their house.

Chocolate turkeys make me see how different my childhood was from my own children. They are the rich kids I envied. They have warm winter jackets, Grandmas that spoil them and they will likely never go to school without a lunch unless they forgot to take one.

Some parents like me, that grew up without a lot, want to spoil their children in all the ways they dreamed of getting spoiled themselves. I get that. But I find myself holding back, wanting them to have less than their peers, not just because of our minimalist-ish lifestyle, but because I don’t want them to take things for granted.

I’ve caught myself a few times saying to my oldest, you know when I was your age there was no money for swim lessons/new shoes/going to the movies/whatever small pleasure we’re currently enjoying. He is starting to grasp that things cost money, some people, many people, don’t just get hot dinner/birthday gifts/a ride on the Aquabus to see a kids theatre show with pre-show fish and chips with their aunt. I’ll be working on it for years to come but I want, I need, them to see how fortunate they are.

So we keep Easter baskets small. Yes, I see that there is a trend or tradition for gifts at this time of year. New clothing is a big one. Easter baskets stuffed not only with treats but toys and action figures and books and things to welcome spring and better weather. But I’m setting the bar very low for our family. I want to keep that threshold of excitement, of anticipation, of appreciate of the smallest of gifts, at around the a few chocolate eggs level.

And instead of the stuff I’m going to spoil them with time. We’re going away for the weekend and I’m looking forward to some rainy beach time and all five of us attempting to sleep in one motel room. I hope and dream that this will be one of those lovely memories for us as a family because I will straight up confess that taking our 16 month old just about anywhere is exhausting right now.

So kids, for Easter 2016 you got a modest amount of chocolate, no toys or clothing and your parents braved the ferries and motels and beaches and all the sand you are bound to bring home in the cuffs of your jeans and rain boots because that is the gift we really want to give you: time. Time to be kids, time with us and time with each. Time not to be rushed – because many mornings we are! – and time to wander and explore somewhere new. You can ask for that How to Draw Trains and Trucks book for your birthday or save for it yourself.

How do you celebrate Easter in your home? Do you notice a trend towards large gifts for Easter?

Why I’m Doing More This Holiday Season

holidayskids

Last year we had a very quiet holiday season. New baby + illness = I’m impressed we actually got a tree up. Last December is a bit of a blur to me now. I have some photos of the older two putting out carrots for Rudolph and cookies for Santa and I remember they slept in on Christmas morning, but I couldn’t tell you much more. I know they didn’t get out to a lot of the town holiday events because of inclement weather and the new baby.

This year is different: we’re in a big city, we’re near family and our baby is sleeping through the night (for now!). I am so jazzed for this Christmas, for how excited my older boys are by just about everything and that we are near our family, that we’re doing as much as we can. Yes, I’m not simplifying the holidays this year and I’m doing more than we have before.

I read Laura Vanderkam’s post 5 Reasons I’m Not Simplifying Christmas This Year and many of my do more reasons are the same as hers. *Laura’s blog and books are a must read for productivity lovers/seekers, particularly those with kids and those working a long hours job.

When you keep things pretty simple and low-key for most of the year, you can go big on the holidays without burn out. My kids have a light schedule of classes and activities and my husband and I are home most weekday evenings during the year. If there’s a once a year chance for some weekday evening fun that the kids will love, we’re going. We had a full day out the other weekend with mini-train rides, meeting Santa and getting pictures taken and watching a big Christmas parade. The kids loved it. We loved it. At the end of November we went to a street festival and watched ice carvers make holiday themed sculpture and checked out locally made crafts and goods.  Most of what we’ve been to has been within a five block radius of our home – yeah city living!

This year I’m also just letting gifts ‘happen’ instead of asking/begging Grandmas to give them a bit less. They know by now that we can’t keep large items in our small home and that we really love experience gifts. They also know we don’t keep everything. If a gift isn’t being played with or used, we’ll donate it. So my kids will get the fun of opening a gift and the person giving the gift will get to enjoy that experience. Five years into trying to ‘live a rich life with less stuff’ I don’t have to explain any of this to well meaning, love language = gifts, family members: they all know it by now.

We’ve already changed the how and how much of our gift giving. Almost fifteen years ago my siblings and I stopped buying Christmas gifts for each other and instead bought gifts for families in need. It’s now a Christmas highlight for all of us. I don’t exchange gifts with friends – we put the brakes on that years ago. Instead we try and meet up during the holidays for a meal and a good in-person catch up. My kids get gifts but I would say they receive a very modest amount compared to their peers. Sure, I could see us doing a no-gift Christmas someday but likely it would be when they are quite a bit older. I’m pretty happy with our already simplified and feel-good gift giving traditions so I don’t feel the need to simplify it even more.

I’m a domestic slacker for most of the year. Most of our meals are simple and made with a few ingredients. But I actually really like complicated and extravagant cooking and baking: I used to own a creme brulee torch! I just don’t like them enough now, with three kids and limited time, to make a complicated dish regularly. So, I might just spend an afternoon or evening with a bunch of one off ingredients making something delicious, exotic and complicated. *Heavy emphasis on the might. It’s fun to cook something not on our regular menu and the holidays is a great time to splurge a bit. Because we keep it simple most of the year and I’ve got the energy to make a tourtiere from scratch, bake cookies with the kids and their cousins or take a stab at my husband’s favorite Christmas dessert, Buch Noel.

This age won’t last forever. Our almost three year-old is knocking it out of the park with adorable phrases right now. I need to record some of them because this time is fleeting. Christmas magic and believing doesn’t last forever either. So I’m soaking it up while we have it. It is so fun. I keep saying that lately: these parts of parenting are so much fun. The Halloween costumes, the thrill that they are making gingerbread houses at school, the anticipation, the wonder. This parenting gig has really hard days to it. I’m trying to enjoy the great and magical ones to their full extent. So that means a bit of decorating, Christmas songs and candles at breakfast and letting the kids stop at every Christmas tree they see as we walk around town.

So far we’ve done a lot of holiday activities by our standards and I don’t feel burned out or stressed. We’ve done the big things like the Polar Express and the Christmas Parade and for the rest of the pre-Christmas time we’ll do some activities at home like baking and then get out to see some Christmas lights. For the holidays we’re having a planned low-key at home Christmas Eve and then back to back days of Christmas with each side of the family. I’m expecting the kids to be cranky and under-slept and overstimulated by the 27th at which point we’ll get back to somewhat normal bed times.

When you keep it simple most of the time you can go big and busy for brief periods of time and really enjoy it.

I know I’m not alone on this one: Evelyn and I had the same discussion when we chatted recently. Her children are also at great ages for the magic of Christmas and, like me, they want to enjoy all of it that they can.

How do you get the most out of the holiday season? Do you try and carve out time for relaxing or do you make it a priority to see and do as much as you can?

10 Great Books to Teach & Inspire Simplicity in Kids

10 great books Another version of this post appeared a few years back and I thought it would be timely to update it and share it again around the holiday season. I always get asked for gift ideas for our kids and great books, and there are many, are at the top of the list.

It feels like this is the first year where our oldest, who’s just turned six, understands that some kids are living in poverty and hunger. We’ve made some donations to the Food Bank and he helped do the shopping and had to think about food that kids would like and that would keep in the cupboards. Interestingly he relates kids and people that don’t have money for food to Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I think we are on our third reading of the book and the description of Charlie and his family living in the cold and, essentially, starving has really sunk in for him. When we talk about people that don’t have money for food, shelter or clothes, it all comes back to Charlie.

Books are a great entry point for heavy discussions with kids. If you want to talk to your kids about owning less and buying less and even the concept of consumerism, think about starting with a book. I’ve compiled a list of ten great books to talk about the downsides of too much stuff below.  I must give a big thank you to all of you that have left comments about your favorite book minimalist-ish kid’s books over the years. Many of these recommendations are from you!

10 Books to Inspire Simplicity & Generosity

The Perfectly Orderly House by Ellen Kindt Mackenzie Recommended by the wonderful Frugal Babe.

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 10.24.23 AM

An old woman builds a house with twenty-six rooms and keeps all her possessions in alphabetical order, but she still can’t find anything. Wonderful detailed illustrations and a story about the perils of wanting, and having, too much stuff.

 

 

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 10.24.39 AM Every day the boy would come to the tree to eat her apples, swing from her branches, or slide down her trunk . . . and the tree was happy. But as the boy grew older, he began to want more from the tree, and the tree gave and gave. Published 50 years ago and still a favorite today.

 

 

The Quiltmaker’s Gift by Jeff Brumbeau

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 10.25.01 AM A quiltmaker helps a selfish king learn that giving is the true secret to happiness. The heartwarming, strongly moral tale supports important values, and the detailed illustrations, featuring dozens of lovingly rendered quilt patterns offer hours of delight. This is a beautiful book we received as a gift from family and I would recommend it for children three and up. Sometimes we read it ‘parent edited’ style and just talk about the pictures and patterns. Big thumbs up.

 

Too Many Toys by David Shannon

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 10.25.41 AM Spencer has too many toys! His father trips over them, his mother falls over them, and the house is overflowing with junk. Now its time to give some of the mountain of goodies away, but Spencer finds it hard. In the end, he fills a box, but decides the one toy he can’t part with is the box!

 

 

The Gift of Nothing by Patrick Mcdonnell

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 10.26.04 AM What can Mooch the cat give Earl the dog when Earl has everything? The answer, of course, is nothing.

 

 

Little Bird by Germano Zullo

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 10.26.21 AM Some days are different.
One could almost believe that one day is just like another.
But some have something a little more.
Nothing much.
Just a small thing.
Tiny.
Most of the time we don’t notice these things.
Because the little things are not made to be noticed.
They are there to be discovered.

Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McLeod

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 10.27.00 AM A book about the reward of positive actions. Not a book about simplifying but a book about finding happiness and reward in serving and helping others.

 

More by I.C. Springman

This Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 10.27.17 AM innovative and spare picture book asks the question: When is MORE more than enough? Can a team of well-intentioned mice save their friend from hoarding too much stuff? With breathtaking illustrations from the award-winning Brian Lies, this book about conservation wraps an important message in a beautiful package

 

Stuff by Margie Palantini

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 10.27.40 AM Edward has a lot of Stuff—too much Stuff. Soon the Stuff takes over his house. But will Edward agree to part with his Stuff before it’s too late?

 

 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 11.18.12 AM I’m throwing this classic chapter book in because it’s had such an impact on my oldest son. While the book centres around chocolate and a fantasy world of sweets, the home life of Charlie, the generosity his parents and grandparents show, and the account of their starvation and life with little, may help you talk to your kids about how to help others that have very little.

 

 

These books would make wonderful gifts for the young people in your life or be a great addition to your library reading list.

Note: I have included affiliate links in this post. Should you purchase something through the link I would receive a small advertising fee. If you would prefer not to use an affiliate link simply visit the bookseller website directly or hit up your local bookstore in person.

Another No-Gift First Birthday

justanotherbirthdaycake My first born and third born on their first birthdays. Note the homemade monkey smash cake for #1 and the simple cupcakes made with assistance of second born for #3’s first birthday. You’re just as loved third baby but mama has less baking time and way less ambition.

This no-gift birthday was harder to pull off than the first.

Why? His brothers. Older and wiser siblings sure do create more challenges for doing no-gifts. In the continued attempt to keep it real when sharing my own story, our oldest claimed that he couldn’t make a birthday gift for his brother and that presents had to be new and from the store.

Oh dear, kid. I won’t tell you how much of your train set, the one you’ve been collecting for three years, is the no longer loved castoffs from kids in London that I bought off eBay.co.uk.

So yeah, we’re still working on why second hand is great. And my kids like toy stores and new stuff. We’re not minimalist super stars but we’re always trying.

Our third born’s first birthday was a very low-key immediate family only affair. With the five of us, it felt like plenty. We made cupcakes, we sang, he ate a cupcake. My oldest forgot about the whole gift thing and I let him keep forgetting. I think some Grandma’s might have gifts for him at a later date but the actual birthday was celebrated simply and it felt like enough.

It won’t always be this way. Actually, it isn’t always this simple with our family. Our oldest was feted many times for his recent birthday. There was a present and celebration on the day. I whipped up a breakfast ‘birthday cake’ that morning that used a banana as a sugar substitute and was cooked in the microwave. Not winning any Pinterest awards with that and I thought it tasted awful. The older two were, however, thrilled to be eating cake with their breakfast and they loved it. And there were two actual parties, one with family and one with his schoolmates. It was a lot. For the schoolmate party we made pizza and cupcakes, the kids mostly ran around and played and we asked that people bring a $2 coin instead of a traditional gift. For family we had lunch and cake.

Aiming for minimalism doesn’t mean not celebrating. In our plans, it doesn’t always mean no gifts either.I’ve been thinking about this a lot after talk with Evelyn over at the Smallish Blog (more on that to come).

We are in a golden age with the kids for certain events. I loved Halloween this year and it’s traditionally been a holiday I don’t look forward to. But this year, three little guys in costume for two days straight, looking adorable and oh so excited, it was a joy. Their wonder and excitement was infectious. I don’t want to miss out on that because I know it’s not here forever.

So, our Christmas this year won’t be a no-gift Christmas. We haven’t quite settled on logistics but it will be full of joy and family and children that are thrilled with activities and fun, and yes, some gifts. Because I’m holding onto this magic for as long as it’s here.

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