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!

The Christian Minimalist

Over the past couple years I have become increasingly interested in minimalism as a lifestyle. It started with a desire to pare down my wardrobe and from there it seeped into all the corners of my life. I began to evaluate every little thing I wanted to buy. I went on a decluttering spree through the house. Several times. I started to become overwhelmed with the sheer volume of stuff I owned. How did I get so much stuff? I asked. Where did it all come from? Why did I think I needed so many of this?

The questions kept coming, and the answers turned my reflections uncomfortably inward. Was I trying to fill a hole? Was I attempting to manufacture happiness by getting something new and shiny? Was I just buying things to mask the symptoms of a life of discontent?

As a Christian I knew I was supposed to find my fulfillment in a relationship with Jesus Christ. No one else and nothing else can fill that hole. So if my God-shaped hole was filled, why was I still searching? Was it an attempt to take hold of the reigns of my life, instead of giving them over to the One who knows what’s truly best for me? For the last several years it wasn’t uncommon for me to just buy little things, here and there, as a release from the constrains of very tight finances. I felt trapped by my circumstances when I should have been surrendering them to God, and that led to needing that consumerism-fueled release.

James 1:2-4 says, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” Looking back—and even looking at my current situation—I can see how God was and is using tight finances to teach me patience and reliance on Him. But now I have a different way of viewing my circumstances. I’m learning to let patience have its perfect work. The money is just as tight, but as I have moved away from materialism and consumerism, the need to fill the void with stuff for the sake of stuff has disappeared. I can count on one hand (maybe two) the non-food, non-essential things I’ve bought in the past six months, and they have all been calculated, carefully considered purchases.

God has been teaching me contentment with what I already own, which is so much more than enough. I live in a country blessed with abundance, where the term “need” is frivolously thrown around for countless things that are far from necessary for the sustainment of life and health.

It’s true that Joshua, Ryan, and Leo, as well as many other minimalist bloggers and writers, taught me the importance of carefully examining what I bring into my life, but it was God who taught me why it is important. All that extraneous stuff in our lives can easily “jam the signal” and keep us from hearing God’s voice. But when we remove what isn’t needed, we make room for the essential. We make room for the eternal.

When the rich young ruler asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, He instructed him to go and sell all of his possessions and follow Him. Sadly the man couldn’t bring himself to part with his earthly treasures.

While Jesus doesn’t call most of us to sell all we own in order to follow Him, the lesson is there for all of us: When our stuff owns us, it gets in the way of what’s truly important, including our relationship with our Savior.

Maybe we could all do with a little less stuff and a little more contentment.