Simple Living with Children: The Christmas Conundrum

We’re getting there, I think. The kids’ haul this Christmas was slightly less unreasonable than in years past, but they still got way more than two children really need. Way more.

As I organized the gifts by recipient yesterday, I eyeballed the size of the stacks critically.

“They’re still getting too much stuff,” I lamented to my husband.

“Come on. It’s Christmas! What they don’t play with after a few months, we’ll pass along to someone else.” While I appreciate his unflappable personality, I sometimes wish he’d get just a little uptight about the things I’m uptight about. It’s a real burden being uptight enough for the both of us.

I bought our son two gifts, a book and a wooden train set. I bought our daughter four smaller items (Bananagrams, a chess set, a pair of binoculars and a book about being a young naturalist). In their stockings we put two cookies, three pieces of candy, a set of “Three Little Pigs” finger puppets I real quick made up Christmas Eve, and a few stuffed toys and plastic animals that they already owned. I was skeptical about regifting to them things they played with every day, but my husband was right: they were thrilled.

“A new Elmo!” my son exclaimed when he from his stocking retrieved the small stuffed toy he plays with practically non-stop throughout the day.

Even with this pared down Christmas and the de-cluttering I did in the toy room before the holiday, it took some pretty creative maneuvering to find enough space to house the new stuff.

Before the new stuff arrived, I was really liking the new streamlined toy room. The only trouble I had was that my son reacted to the neater appearance of the space by creating chaos of his own. He would dump out the stuffed animals and the toy cars and the play food and his dinosaur floor puzzle all at the same time. When I suggested we get just one toy out at a time, he seemed to temporarily lose the ability to understand the English language. In addition, the toys seemed to be distributed throughout the house more comprehensively than before the de-clutter.

My kids seemed to be having more fun with their toys, though, and using them in more creative ways. The dress-up bin was getting much more use and the kids were using the recently-dumped bins as cars and rockets and (rather disturbingly) some kind of stuffed animal prison. My son could be seen toddling along, pushing Winnie-the-Pooh, Elmo, the stuffed cat he calls “Tokyo” (which used to be “Gatito” in my daughter’s toddlerhood), and  his plastic panda in the toy stroller saying, “Okay, guys! Let’s go back to the park! Park then museum!”

With these new toys, I don’t know how the dynamic will change. One thing I really appreciate, though, is that as much as my children enjoy getting presents, they aren’t fixated by that aspect of the holiday. Opening gifts comprised a relatively tiny portion of our day yesterday. We opened gifts and played for about an hour and a half, then we headed to church. My children were the only kids there. They made rather more noise than I would have liked in the echo-y meeting house, but they were received graciously by the other ten people in attendance. We all sang carols together, my daughter following along in the hymnal with me, my son improvising an animal-related song to the tune of “We Three Kings.” I closed my eyes for meditation and saw the shadow images of the pews and the minister fade gradually away, reminding me of the transient nature of our time here. Afterwards we enjoyed cookies and coffee and conversations about solar panels and vegetable gardens and the aching absence of adult children grown estranged.

After church, we took a raw coconut cream pie next door and spent Christmas dinner with our neighbor’s extended family. Once again, my children were the only non-adults present and, as at church, they were welcomed and praised and entertained by grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles by whom we were adopted for the afternoon.

Back home, we called Nana and Skyped with Grandma and Grandpa and remembered again why so many gifts roll in at holidays and birthdays. It’s not to irritate me or to teach my children that materialism is paramount to interpersonal interactions. It’s how our families show their love for our children from hundreds of miles away. I know that they would much rather be here with us, eating and laughing and praising and petting, listening to my daughter play the flute and my son sing the alphabet song in person rather than over the internet. And we would rather be with them. My lamenting having too many or too few or the wrong kind just serves to put the focus more firmly on the items themselves rather than on the meaning behind them.

The gifts aren’t the point; it’s the love with which they were given. Yes, I want to simplify Christmas and streamline the kids’ toys and clothes in general, but I need to keep sight of the big picture.

3 Replies to “Simple Living with Children: The Christmas Conundrum”

  1. I agree. I actually felt ill when I was wrapping things and voe to, yet again change our gifting policies next year. I have a really difficult time decluttering once it’s in the house. But, I think I’m going to just be ruthless with myself. The kids won’t care or even notice, I’d bet. It’s my hang up.

    My husband’s solutions is to buy more things to put the things in, but there’s still not a place to store the things with the things inside.

    And, yes, it’s easy to lose sight of the real stuff in the face of all the stuff stuff.

    Things and stuff. It’s actually quite Nietschean decluttering. Being all: thing in itself that were better never to have been.


  2. I found myself in the same situation looking at my daughter’s Christmas gifts this year. It’s hard to not feel resentful towards the gifts even if they are bought out of love. One of the ways we’re handling toys this year is a one toy in one toy out rule. I’m not going to be super strict about it, but I expect all of her toys to fit into the area (a cabinet) that we’ve designated for toys, so some will have to go to fit new ones. We’ve talked with Peanut about it a lot (and about how her old toys will go to children who don’t have many toys) and hopefully she’ll be pretty happy about doing it.


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