Downplay Gift-Giving and Bring up Ritual, Meaning and Fun

I am thrilled to have Amy at Frugal Mama here today with a guest post. I always get tons of practical and inspirational tips from her lovely blog and am honored that she wanted to write something for Slow Family:

“I think the best way to de-commercialize Christmas and other holidays with kids is to have lots of non-gifting traditions,” says Nancy Shohet West, Boston-area essayist, friend and author of the newly-released The Mother-Son Running Streak Club, a memoir about bonding with her son by running a mile with him every day for a year.

I like the way Nancy thinks about giving presents:  as just one of many holiday traditions.  (Clearly dedicated to routine, given she is now on day 1,215 of her daily running streak, I consulted Nancy when I took on writing this article for Suz and Slow Family Online.)

It’s Not that Gifts are Bad…

I’m not saying we should completely give up presents.  But too many can empty our savings, clutter our homes, and pile landfills with more junk. I knew things had gotten excessive in our family when we had to take a lunch break from Christmas present-unwrapping.  Now we have a one-gift-per-person rule.

This year we plan to revive the stockings, but instead of tiny wrapped do-dads, we’ll fill them with exchanged notes for everyone that begin with phrases like “I love how you…” and “I remember when you…”

But I still sometimes worry that fewer presents will be disappointing.

Make Those Traditions Constant and Pleasing

Holiday rituals — as keepers of our values and pleasures — have the power to replace the joy of giving and receiving gifts. As Nancy describes in her blog post A Month of Holiday Festivities, special activities fill all of December:

  • the town tree-lighting
  • a school holiday concert
  • a cookie exchange
  • buying a Christmas tree
  • decorating the house
  • throwing a party
  • making candy (truffles, peanut brittle, white-chocolate candy cane bark, toffee, and peanut-butter buckeyes)
  • a church pageant, evergreens sale, and children’s service
  • an annual holiday photo shoot and
  • composing the family’s customary 12-stanza poem

Breaking with Tradition:  Does This Happen to You Too?

Not everyone is as naturally inclined toward ritual as Nancy, however, and some of us face significant obstacles.

Since having our first daughter who is now eight, we have lived in five different places. (My husband’s medical training keeps us moving.)

Plus, we celebrate Christmas in different places each year:  at my parents’ Ohio farm, in my husband’s native Milan, or wherever we are living at the time. I’m sure people with blended families have an even more complicated geographical itinerary.

Traditions change even at my parents’ country house, which has been in the family since 1868.  Some of my favorite memories used to be singing carols around the fire on Christmas Eve while my uncle played guitar, eating tins of caramel clusters that family friends would send us every year, and taking a tractor ride up to the woods where we’d cut down a Christmas tree, roast hot dogs and make s’mores.

But my parents don’t own that little piece of woods anymore, my uncle doesn’t come these days (he has grandchildren of his own), and those family friends sold their popcorn company.

Then there’s the issue that I’m sure many mothers of young children face:  even if it’s possible to continue the same childhood traditions, do you want to?  Or do you adopt new ones?  If so, which ones?

Finally, piling on more have-to’s onto our loaded holiday plates can risk overwhelming us, instead of delighting us.  (If you have the feeling you need to pare down, Nancy recommends asking your children which traditions mean the most to them.)

So, creating a spectrum of rituals that your family looks forward to every year is not simple, but I think it’s worth working towards.  Especially for the power of tradition to take the pressure off material things.

Holiday Rituals that Captivate

Here are some activity ideas, besides the ones already mentioned, that could populate your holidays.  Presents or no presents, your family will remember this time as one of warmth and magic.

  • Make a gingerbread house (Suz has great suggestions for both hand-made houses and kits, as well as workshops and classes)
  • Attend religious events, such as midnight mass or creche scenes
  • Drive around festive neighborhoods at night or go to a festival of lights (zoos often put these on)
  • Light candles or make a cupcake Menorah
  • Give away toys to the hospital, deliver meals to shut-ins, volunteer at at shelter, or drop off cans at a food bank
  • Read aloud together Twas the Night Before Christmas in holiday pajamas
  • Or read books about the history of Santa Claus and how Christmas Chanukah, Kwanzaa or Winter Solstice is celebrated around the world
  • Make hand-crafted gifts and cards
  • Go sledding, skiiing, tubing, or ice-skating
  • Eat food you only make at this time of year, such as eggnog, roasted chestnuts, rugelach, mulled cider, cut-out sugar cookies, mincemeat, kugel, gingersnaps, peppermint bark, or potato latkes
  • See the Nutcracker, or stay home and play board games
  • Go to the botanical garden for a toy train exhibit, or downtown for a horse and buggy ride
  • Set cookies out for Santa, or deliver plates of goodies to neighbors
  • Every Friday night, watch a classic holiday movie like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or How The Grinch Stole Christmas
  • Invite an international student over for a holiday meal
  • Take a train ride to a festive old-fashioned town
  • Send care packages to friends or family who need a boost
  • Make snowflakes (create your own or try these beautiful snowflake patterns) and use them as decorations, gifts or ornaments
  • Don’t celebrate Christmas?  Make a tradition of going out for Chinese food and the movies on Christmas day.

Boost Your Chances of Success

Don’t worry if you miss one year of a time-honored ritual (or one you wanted to become time-honored).  Nancy was torn about missing her favorite holiday concert last year, but it made her more appreciative when she was able to go again this time.

I think the rituals we are most likely to stick with are the ones that we have strong beliefs about (like fostering a love of nature) or that we get great pleasure from (cookies we think are delicious, not just “what grandma made”).

If some traditions involve more values than pleasure (like visiting Uncle Eggbert for a piece of fruitcake); or the pleasure involves pain (like stringing lights over that stickery bush), follow them with something that’s pure enjoyment:  staying up late watching The Sound of Music, or eating fondue by a blazing fire.
Remember the procrastination-prone thank you notes?  Nancy creates a ritual out of that too, making it fun by taking her kids to a local coffee house, where they get to drink hot chocolate with whipped cream while writing to grandma.


What holiday rituals does your family look forward to year after year?

Amy Suardi loves finding the silver lining to living on less.  Subscribe to her blog Frugal Mama to get free bi-weekly ideas on saving money and making life better.

Stories and photos by Amy Suardi/Frugal Mama

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4 Responses to Downplay Gift-Giving and Bring up Ritual, Meaning and Fun

  1. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to guest post on your site, Suz!

  2. Wonderful post, Amy. I love this time of year and the traditions of the holidays.

    It has been hard for my immediate family as well, as my husband is also in medical training. We haven’t moved too much, but we can’t afford to visit too often either.

    But we have actually managed to create a tradition because of that thought. Because we don’t visit often, whenever we can I always try to get to my parents’ house as early before the holiday as possible so we can help with preparations.

    This helps me feel more connected to the family (the rest of the group lives much closer and see mom and dad — mom mom and pop pop — much more than we), and as they are aging it helps my parents with some of the larger last minute decorating — the christmas tree and the train village that goes under it. Both of which are handled in good humor by my dear sweet husband (who happens to be allergic to pine and so wears a long sweater to protect his arms and gloves to protect his hands while sawing off the end of the tree to fit in the water bucket, and the top to fit in the house). The men then leave the trimming to my mother and me!

    This has become such a joy for me and the kids, who get to weigh in on which tree to bring home and which way to turn it so it shows the side with the fullest branches.

    We all love this time of year, and helping out mom mom and pop pop before anyone else arrives to share the holiday fun, is a special treat I know the kids will remember for ever.

    Love and happiness,
    e.

  3. Hi Elizabeth! Thank you so much for writing and for sharing your family traditions. I’ll let Amy know you came by. I hope you enjoy the warmth of the holidays and all the memories you’re creating.

  4. Pingback: Holiday Giving: 7 Ways to Spend Less on Gifts and Still Be Generous — Frugal Mama

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