I Blame Pinterest

Well, not really, but…

When did the holiday season – and especially Christmas – get so over-the-top stressful? My childhood memories of pre-Christmas preparations include buying and trimming a tree, placing decorations around the living room, and stringing lights in front of our house. Granted, most of these tasks fell to my parents, but I don’t recall a heightened sense of stress related to any of these activities.

The tree wasn’t decorated in an overall theme, nor were the trimmings color-coordinated. The ornaments were a mixture of well-loved heirlooms handed down through the generations, holiday crafts that my brothers and I made at school, and decorations that my mother bought over the years at after-Christmas sales.

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Our living room shelves and the credenza beneath it had various Santas, reindeer, and snowman decorations placed among the books and next to the TV. As Christmas cards arrived in the mail, they filled up any remaining spaces.

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The outdoor lights – the large, tear-drop shaped, multi-colored bulbs that everyone had – were strung in a straight(ish) line from the far corner of our garage, across the front of our house, then down to a couple of the bushes below.

It was pretty much the same thing every year… and we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Fast forward to the age of social media.

Friends on Facebook post pictures of perfectly decorated homes (inside and out) and lavishly prepared meals, Houzz offers a myriad of ways to accessorize our rooms for the holidays – in prices ranging from a lot to are you kidding me?, and Pinterest is bursting with photos of just the item, product, display, project, recipe, etc. that we need to purchase or create to assure our holiday is perfect.

Now, don’t misunderstand: I am not immune to the eye candy that is everywhere this season. I love to see what others have done to decorate or which appetizers, cocktails, or meals they have planned for their holiday celebrations. But, even as I admire their decorating talents (to say nothing about the off-season storage space they must have) or their creativity in the kitchen, I prefer the low-key way my husband and I choose to celebrate the holidays.

I realize that decorating every nook and cranny with just the right seasonal accessory or wowing family and guests by baking and serving a Chocolate Espresso Bûche de Noël fills some with joy. We’re just happier to eschew the tree (there really isn’t room for one anyway) and put out fewer, but well-loved, decorations. And, while we enjoy attending holiday parties given by friends who love to entertain lavishly, our get-togethers tend to be small and pretty casual.

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If I find myself grumbling about being stressed out or feeling like I don’t have enough time to do the things I “need” to do, I stop and consider how much unnecessary burden I’ve willingly put on my own shoulders. Am I doing what pleases me, or am I trying to emulate someone else’s version of the holiday? What works for one person, or one family, may not be a good fit for another.

And that’s OK.  This season isn’t about an exquisitely decorated home or perfectly prepared food, it’s about the people in our homes and those who share our food.

That’s where the memories are made.

Giving more by buying less

This Black Friday I was nowhere near a mall. I didn’t want to spend my time circling the parking lot looking for a spot to shoe-horn my car into. I had no interest in door-buster sales, Black Friday deals, or even the lowest prices of the year. I especially didn’t want to stand in long lines for dressing rooms or queue up to wait for the next available cash register.

I also won’t be sitting in front of my computer on Cyber Monday looking for online deals. There is nothing that could entice me to give up hours in my day searching the interwebs, entering my credit card information, and clicking on the PURCHASE NOW button.

Although the newspapers are stuffed with holiday shopping ads, my email inbox is full of the come hither siren calls of money-saving deals, and the shows on television have become mostly holiday consumption delivery vehicles, I choose not to participate.

Like many people in our stage of life, my husband and I are less focused in the in-come and more in the out-go. We are culling our closets, emptying drawers and cabinets, and donating, selling, and discarding our excess, unused stuff. Many of the items I at one time thought I must have are now just uncomfortable reminders of how easy it is to get wrapped up in our consumer-driven society.

With the rise of digital shopping and because brick-and-mortar retailers are offering deep discounts for an extended period of time, some say that Black Friday is slowly morphing into “Black November.” And, since retailers have trained shoppers to wait until the last minute for even deeper discounts, in reality, Black Friday may now be becoming “Black Mid-November through Christmas Eve.” Yay! More time to shop!

This year, I’ve been heartened to read stories about an increase in spending on gifts of experiences rather than things. I don’t know if this is a real trend or not, but I hope it is. Of course it wouldn’t bode well for most retailers, but I think it would be a plus if our focus as a society was less on acquiring stuff and more on enjoying our time here on Earth.

This holiday season, when you think about a buying a present for a friend or a family member, consider gifting them an experience. Perhaps they’d appreciate going out for a wonderful meal, taking a hike with you in the back country, seeing a play or attending a concert, going to a lecture, or taking a class on a subject of interest.

Sailing or kayak lessons may be the perfect gift for a friend who enjoys the water.
Sailing or kayak lessons may be the perfect gift for a friend who enjoys the water.

If not an experience, maybe a gift of kindness would be more appropriate. If someone is house-bound, you could offer to run errands or have their house cleaned. If they are care-taking, tell them that you’ll sit with their loved-one while they enjoy a much-needed afternoon off.

Although gifts like this may require a little more thought and planning by the giver, they will be much appreciated. Thoughtful, well-chosen gifts of experiences or special acts of kindness will never be forgotten back in the recipient’s closet, taking up room in a crowded drawer, or folded in a pile of stuff waiting to be donated to a resale store.

Is Your Tinsel All Tied Up In a Knot?

Yesterday, my husband and I attended a holiday open house hosted by a former co-worker and his wife.  Although they live quite a few miles from our home, it’s an annual event we always look forward to. Now that we are retired, we are especially happy to have the opportunity to catch up with many of the people we used to work with.

Our hosts’ house is always decorated beautifully for the party. We haven’t been to their home at other times of the year so I don’t know what it looks like on other holidays, but it is obvious that Christmas is a BIG deal to them.  My understanding is that they start decorating in late October and are always scrambling up to the last minute to get everything done before their open house.

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They have four full-size Christmas trees and several table-top vignettes scattered throughout their home. The room that normally functions as the husband’s office has the largest Dickens’ Village display I have ever seen. The room is also decorated with 20 – 30 golf-themed Santas and elves. One of the three Christmas trees in the living room has an owl-theme. The other two trees are crammed full of beautiful, sparkly ornaments. In a hallway off the living room is a table full of dachshund-themed ornaments (the couple doesn’t have children but they lavish their love on their fur-babies).

Although all of the trees and the table vignettes are impressive, the most eye-catching decorations are the (possibly hundreds?) Santas and elves that line the tops of cabinets, open areas just below the ceiling, fireplace mantel, and bookshelves. Even though it appears that not one more figure could possibly find a spot, every year one or two new ones are added.

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As beautiful as the whole effect is (and it really is done quite well), I can’t help but think about the time it takes them to set everything up, keep it all dusted throughout the holidays, take it down in January, then store everything until next October. Although I know it is a labor of love for them – and I enjoy seeing it every year – I am grateful that hyper-decorating isn’t part of our holiday tradition. I like to display some holiday sparkle, but everything we do can be set up in one day, enjoyed for about a month, then taken down and stored in just a few plastic bins.

Several of the people at the party last night are recently retired and more than once the conversation turned to our individual efforts to pare down and off-load stuff. Not all of us have been equally successful but most share the goal of freeing our lives of unneeded things and instead filling them with experiences, friends, and passions.

We each have to find the path that works best for us. Our hosts find their bliss in decorating every inch of their house and sharing their joy of Christmas with others. I, on the other hand, am happy to enjoy their holiday exuberance at the open house, but then come home to our more understated decorations.

Having a Cool Yule

Wow, here it is December 1, and I haven’t purchased a single Christmas gift. I didn’t leave the Thanksgiving dinner table and head to the mall. I didn’t set my alarm for o-dark-thirty the next morning so I could join the Black Friday throngs standing in line to save a few bucks. And now my Cyber Monday virtual shopping carts are empty.

Many years ago my brothers and I, along with our spouses, decided to stop buying gifts for each other. Every Thanksgiving, we’d each write our name on a slip of paper and put it in a bowl. Then we’d draw a name and that would be the only one of the six of us we bought a gift for. $50 limit. In addition to that gift, my husband and I bought presents for each other, our parents, a niece, a grandniece, and a couple of friends. Pretty simple.

This plan worked well for several years but, after awhile, even the one gift seemed silly. The $50 gift price limit soon became a gift card exchange which didn’t feel very personal… or needed. So, a few years ago, the six of us decided to stop exchanging gifts with each altogether. Now, with my parents’ passing my husband’s and my gift list has dwindled down to just a few people. For the most part, we don’t even exchange gifts with each other. Sometimes we’ll buy each other little things for fun, and we can usually identify an upcoming trip or a household need that becomes our joint “gift” to each other, but usually there’s not much under the Christmas tree… if we even have a Christmas tree.

I'm pretty sure some of these gifts under my family's 1964 Christmas tree are now on eBay.
I’m pretty sure some of these gifts under my family’s 1964 Christmas tree are now on eBay.

These decisions have helped to change the holiday season for the better. I don’t experience the stress I used to because now I no longer am focused on buying PERFECT GIFTS. My husband and I can stroll the mall and enjoy the hustle and bustle and the lovely displays, but not get wrapped up in the craziness.

Do I sound like a bah humbug? I’m really not. I love the holiday lights, decorations, music (as long as it doesn’t start before Thanksgiving) and the parties. I don’t love the crass commercialism and the media-driven expectations. I’m also not against Christmas presents; if I happen to think of the perfect gift for someone, I’ll get it. If not, I don’t spend time running around desperately trying to find something. I’ve never been particularly religious but the whole idea of Christmas gifts seems odd to me anyway. Why is the focus on buying things for each other when the “reason for the season” is supposed to be about peace and joy?

In addition to the stress relief, our move away from buying and receiving presents has been beneficial in other ways. At this stage of our lives we are actively working on getting rid of “stuff.” Thanks to thrift stores, eBay, consignment shops, and the landfill, I finally feel like we’re making progress. No gifts means no more stuff. Besides, instead of a friend or loved one spending their time searching for THE PERFECT GIFT for me, I’d much prefer they give me the gift of time spent together, enjoying each other’s company.