Five Ways to Have a (More) Minimalist Christmas Next Year

Christmas is officially over.

I’m taking a few minutes to reflect on the past month. I enjoyed the Christmas season much more than in previous years and minimalism is a huge reason for that.

I started becoming interested in minimalism a few years ago but it wasn’t until about this time last year that I decided I was, indeed, a minimalist. At that time, it was too late to have any real influence on how much we did or how many toys our children received.

But this year I was able to intentionally set boundaries on gifts and schedules. Not only that, but the decluttering I did all year made a huge difference in having time, energy, and mental space to fully enjoy the Christmas season. I realized I had gotten in the holiday spirit much earlier than in previous years and it was stronger and more consistent all the way through this month of anticipation. I also spent all of a couple hours at the mall for holiday shopping, so I got to enjoy the festive decorations and displays without the overwhelm and headache that usually accompany such a trip this time of year.

Maybe next year I’ll write a series of posts on what I’ve learned concerning having a simple, minimalist Christmas. But for now, I’d like to go through what we did and why this has been our best Christmas ever.

Five Ways to Have a (More) Minimalist Christmas:

1. Have a simply-decorated house.

We had very few decorations. It was wonderful. Everything we put up or out was meaningful and brought us joy:

  • A tree we cut down ourselves—a favorite tradition.
  • Lights, garland, a star, and a tree skirt on said tree. Nope, no ornaments. This was mostly due to an aggressive toddler who attacked the tree with a fly-swatter. But I enjoyed our simple and elegant tree and not having to stress about the boys playing with—and breaking—the ornaments.
  • A wreath on the door.
  • Lights lining the living room windows. I love being in there at night with nothing but Christmas lights to illuminate the room.
  • An advent wreath and candles—we’ve wanted to do advent as a family for years but never seemed to have the time and space. We did advent nearly every day this December. Simplifying is finally starting to pay off!
  • Stockings. I finally found a sturdy way to display them on our piano. We have a rectangular industrial basket on top of it and it had hooks that I took off and redistributed across the front to hang the stockings from. It almost looked like a fireplace mantel!
  • The Christmas cards we received I fastened across the top of the basket with mini clothespins. And inside the basket:
  • A Fontanini nativity. These are the most beautiful nativities I’ve ever seen and we started the tradition a couple years ago of adding something to it every Thanksgiving weekend when we go to Bronner’s in Michigan, the biggest Christmas store in the world. Year one we only had Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Year two we splurged on the fanciest stable. We knew this was something we’ll have the rest of our lives and pass down to our children so we wanted it to be the best. This year, due to everyone getting the flu, we didn’t go to Bronner’s and unfortunately I couldn’t find a place locally or online to purchase a new figure.
  • Other than that, just a couple candles that made their way around the house according to my mood.

2. Say no to holiday commitments that aren’t joy-giving.

The hardest situation to navigate was the decision not to go up north to my mom’s extended family Christmas. In past years, the timing of that and other Christmas obligations had us scurrying from one Christmas to the next to the next, with no time left over to have our own family Christmas at home. It left us stressed and exhausted. So early on, we kindly but firmly explained our reasons for not coming this year.

We did have one dud: my new place of work’s Christmas party. It turned out that almost no one from the store I worked at attended and the most outgoing person there was the roommate of an employee. And since we didn’t participate in the white elephant gift game, there really wasn’t much for us to do other than snack and stand around awkwardly. Oh well, lessons learned!

Other than the above, we went to three Christmas parties and they were all wonderful.

For Christmas weekend, we divided our time pretty equally with a day with my family, a day with Wes’s family, and a day with just us at home. It was still exhausting, but in a good way. I cannot fathom how we did it in past years, cramming even more things in. Seriously, four Christmases in two days?! Three in three days was quite enough, thank you!

3. Make gift-giving expectations known early.

Asking for less toys for your kids is not something to do in November. It’s something to do in February—not January, as this could be interpreted as a negative reaction to December generosity from well-meaning family. Plant the seeds, water them, and don’t expect too much from family the first year, or even the second. For some, love is expressed in large piles of wrapped boxes under the tree and they can’t fathom another way of doing things. They might even be afraid your children will love them less if they don’t bombard them with bright, plastic playthings every December! Be sensitive to others’ sensitivities.

Compile wish lists for your children—and yourself—with gift ideas for experiences, consumables, and yes, some stuff. But stuff that will actually add value to your life. Have a variety of price points and include detailed instructions for how to gift specific experiences. It can be difficult for people—myself included!—to figure out how to buy or give or find a way of “wrapping” an experience under the tree. Make it as easy on them as possible!

Make some realistic boundaries for family, such as one toy for each child from the grandparents. Even this may be too much to expect the first year. Just think long term. In a few years, they will come around.

4. Practice being present.

It’s true, the best present is presence. And you don’t have to wait for December 25th to give it. In fact, you shouldn’t!

Unplug more. Don’t always have the tv on or your phone in your pocket. Make “do not disturb” the default on your phone. I started doing this almost accidentally this past month. I found it greatly reduced my stress and I was able to connect more with my family. Now I only turn off the little moon icon on my iPhone if I’m expecting a time-sensitive communication.

Meditate. Just ten minutes a day of sitting still with your thoughts helps tremendously in not being enslaved to your emotions—great for when tense situations arise. And practicing being present as a daily exercise will, with time, help you be more present in your day-to-day activities. I highly recommend the Headspace app. The first ten sessions are free and if you don’t want to pay for a subscription, you can just play those on loop. However, a Headspace subscription was one of the things that has added the most value to my life in 2016.

5. Enjoy the little things.

There’s a small window of opportunity to listen to Christmas music. Start as early as possible. I used to be a Scrooge about Christmas music and got mad when my sister started playing it in early November. Then I realized something—all that other music has 11 months of the year to be heard! Now I consider the first day of fall to be the inauguration of the Christmas music-listening season. Hey, they start putting out Christmas stuff for sale by then. Why should consumerists get all the fun?

Burn Christmas candles as an everyday luxury. I used to save candles indefinitely but now I go through one in a month or less. The enjoyment of stuff is in their use, not their sitting on a cabinet shelf gathering dust! One unexpected benefit of minimalism has been that I now actually use things I didn’t used to. It took getting rid of a whole lot of stuff that didn’t add value or bring joy to discover that some of that other stuff I wasn’t using actually could bring me immense joy.

Build anticipation in your children about the upcoming holiday. Milk that childlike wonder for all it’s worth! Talk about all the wonderful things there are to look forward to. The Christmas light displays, the Christmas movies, the parties, the treats, the gifts… Yep, it’s alright for your children to be excited about presents. After all, they’re kids! But also encourage generosity and involve them in choosing meaningful gifts for friends and relatives. My brother-in-law took my oldest son to put together a shoebox for Operation Christmas Child. He even got to drop it off and we talked about the little boy in another country who was going to be blessed by his generosity. He learned some great lessons through that experience.

Did you attempt a more simple Christmas season? What were the successes and failures? I’d love to hear about others’ experiences as I plan how to make next Christmas even more simple and wonderful!

Choosing Joy

Yesterday our water heater broke.

Wes tried to fix it before he had to go to work, but it looked like it was just dead. After a frigid shower, he left. We were both feeling discouraged. This was just the latest in a string of challenges that life had thrown our way.

It left me pondering everything I’ve been learning about true happiness and joy recently.

As a Christian, I’m told I’m supposed to have joy despite my circumstances, as if it’s as easy as just making a decision to be happy. But it’s not that simple. Or is it?

If we allow every good or bad thing that happens in our lives to send us on a rollercoaster of ecstasy and despair, we are completely governed by our circumstances. Sure, it may feel good to ride the emotional rollercoaster on that exhilarating skyward climb, but every uphill has a downhill. And for me, that ride is way too much to deal with day after day. If only there was a way to tame that rollercoaster beast and turn it into a bunny hill.

The more I’ve read and contemplated these things, the more it has been reinforced to me that the secret to true, lasting happiness and contentedness lies not in what happens to us, but in how we respond to it. We can, indeed, choose joy despite our circumstances, but this requires constant, vigilant effort, and many conscious choices that add up to happiness in our lives on the larger scale.

It’s not easy. And I’ve by no means mastered it. But I’m trying, and by the grace of God, I’m not failing as much as I used to. I’d like to be able to someday say that I succeed more than I fail. But for now, it is enough that slowly I am making progress towards finding contentment in this crazy, finite thing called life.

I believe that God is in control of every detail of our lives—not only that, but he cares about every detail of our lives! This is a monumental revelation. But it doesn’t give us license to just sit back and ask God to shower blessings and happiness down on us. Yes, He delights in giving His children good gifts, but He also is wise enough to know that even though we don’t like it, the hardships in our lives truly are His “blessings in disguise.” They are what teach us strength, and that life is precious, and that the most important things in life are intangible.

So what are we to do with the good and bad in our lives? Rejoice! Yep. It’s that simple. And that hard.

I was a fencer in high school, and my coach had a saying about the weapon I fenced: “Saber is simple, but it’s not easy.” And I think that’s true of all the most worthwhile things in life. We look around for some secret, or some magic formula, or for divine revelation to rain down on us, but deep inside, we really know the answers. We’ve known them all along. The problem isn’t knowing what to do, it’s applying what we know to do, day after day, moment by moment.

For instance, I know that even though I view doing the dishes as a mundane, rather unpleasant duty, that God wants me to choose to have joy in doing the task. I can elevate it by doing it for Him. It suddenly becomes, not a Sisyphean drudgery, but something transcendent—something holy.

Maybe that sounds a little over the top, but think about it: how would your attitude be effected if you took that dreaded task and decided, not only to tackle it, but to find some small speck of joy in it?

Hey, I have nice dishes to eat off of. Not everyone has those. Some people in the world don’t have to wash dishes. You know why? Cause they don’t own any! I bet they’d love to have a kitchen as nice as mine with running water to wash dishes so they could eat wholesome food off of clean plates.

See? A little gratitude and perspective can go a long way towards developing a sense of joy, even in the mundane.

I guess joy is sort of like a muscle. You have to exercise it regularly to make it stronger. And if you neglect it, it atrophies and withers away to nothing.

So for me right now, my “workout” is finding joy in having a broken water heater.

What about you? What circumstances in your life today are giving you the chance to exercise your joy muscle?