For consumerist dread? I like to fill this space with ideas for merry making and simple festivities, especially in this time of year. To me, conjuring a bit of reverence and a bit of handmade magic during the holidays is a special joy. In my work, I love to share ideas that counter popular consumer messaging. While my inbox is increasingly filled with missives screaming IT’S NOT TOO LATE, IT IS THE LAST MINUTE and FREE SHIPPING, it feels calming and grounding to encourage the gift of a simple craft project, or a simple experience.
But the truth is that this time of year can really throw me personally. There’s inevitably a moment when I feel a disconnect between what I want to do and what I end up doing; what I think I might accomplish and what I have the bandwidth or even desire to complete. The season can feel like a referendum on the efforts I’ve made to consume thoughtfully, to value people and planet over goods, to instill values of community and care in my children. Hell, consumerism aside, the season can feel like a referendum on parenting in general.
In minimalist discourse, there’s not simply a keeping up with the Joneses, but its counterpart which is just as fraught: keeping up with whoever is navigating life under capitalism with nary a consumerist care. In this minimalist fantasy there are children delighted by nothing more than walnuts in stockings. There are folks who gladly forgo their own gifts so that others may have them instead. Looming large in the minimalist imagination are the mythical families, who, shielded from the ever-present consumer goods directed at children, have Christmases that come and go without want or greed or miserly Scrooging of any kind, not to mention a single item that nobody really needs or likes at all. Holiday activities take precedence over gift giving. Cookie-baking and crafting happen without harm or hiccup. Ice skating and sledding adventures come and go without temper tantrums. No one is too hot or too cold or too tired to take one more trek up a hill. No one is pissed about the color of their snow pants or the fact that they already drank all the hot chocolate. Holiday meals emerge from the ether—or maybe they’re simply the happy result of utterly harmonious family revelry. No one complains and everyone pitches in and a wholesome meal is shared by all.
Sometimes this is the way things go.
There are moments when my kids are delighted by very small things indeed. On winter evenings, the sunsets outside our rear windows are incredible—a light display of epic proportions that make us gasp night after very long night. When the sky turns pink then purple and brilliant cerulean my kids run across the room and implore us to take a look too. They clamor onto chairs and insist that if we just crane our necks a bit more we’ll be privy to even more celestial glory. Last week I stuck leftover pieces of gelt into my agnostic children’s advent calendar and they squealed and shrieked over the coins as though they were made of actual gold. A pajama-clad walk to see the neighborhood Christmas lights after dark might very well be every bit as joyful as we imagine it could be at the start. In these moments I’m tempted to pat myself on the back and say job well done.
But more often, there’s wonder and want at the same time. Cookies are made and delighted over and they also inspire a raging sibling squabble and parental regret. Christmas lists include a wish for world peace and a Spiderman costume with sewn in muscles. There are tears over the lack of a sequin-festooned reindeer sweater and there’s the patient knitting of a scarf for a newborn cousin. I’m learning to say job done well enough in these moments, too.
For me, and maybe for some of you, it’s helpful to remember that the holidays are like the other days. We do our best, we begin again, we marvel at the setting sun and we wish we had a sequined sweater.
PS. On Instagram this week, I’ve got an ad campaign around using recycled paper packaging to make easy, festive holiday decorations. They’re currently hanging all over my house and making things feel very festive indeed. To her delight and my horror, Calder has already ripped three garlands from the wall. Both, and, et cetera.
Thank you for your kind and considered words. There are so many expectations around Christmas that we can’t even articulate them all, they’re ingrown! It’s so hard to let them go and enjoy what is, instead of what you think it should be. I made my mom a coffee yesterday with some ground cinnamon, ginger, a dash of maple syrup and some milk foam. A Christmas coffee! She was so delighted. We sat quietly and agreed that THIS is Christmas. A peaceful moment, enjoyed together. Wishing you some happy and peaceful moments, and plenty of goodwill and strength to get through the trickier ones. X
I appreciate this measured and more honest/nuanced check-in so much. Perhaps goes without saying that the ongoing pandemic makes it all so much more exhausting. The joy of sharing homemade cookies with family I haven’t seen in 3 years, with the backdrop of anxiety that cases are rising and this experience could be risky, plus the trash of a rapid test taken while the cookies baked.
I don’t have kids yet, though I hope to. It all seems like so much to navigate, and I know it’s often said in minimalist circles that “they won’t remember the gift but they’ll cherish the memory” (etc). The thing is I *do* remember specific moments from holidays and birthdays where I didn’t get *the thing* and I think what I’ve held onto is a sense of not quite feeling “seen” by my family. And I think that’s another layer that all the holiday myths and wistfulness can overlook — celebration (consumerist or not) is made merry by true connection. May we all receive some space and support to cultivate that this year.
This is so perfect <3
YEP. When my kid was younger & I was recently single & very broke, we made a bunch of things from paper. Each year for a few in a row we took a project and made a theme of it. The favorite was a bunch of corks (wine corks that we thrifted at the reuse store) that we covered in old magazines and then stuck bent paperclips into. It’s cuter than you’d think, and really unbreakable. That was ten years ago, and some of those old corks still go up each year.
I wish I could have read this when my kids were younger. Even after the homemade treats and crafting I still felt like I was lacking, because I didn’t get to sending holiday cards or dressing the kids for a photo or…It’s hard to feel like enough, especially during the holidays. I’m getting better though. My daughter turned 13 today. All she wanted was a pair of Doc Martens. We don’t spend that much on birthdays so she had to chip in for them. They arrived a couple of weeks ago. I let her try them on to make sure they fit and then she had to wait. This morning, I didn’t even wrap them as I am currently very limited due to illness. She was glowing with them on and I could tell she had planned her entire outfit around the boots. I took a picture with my mind of her standing there happily. Tonight we will feast on a store bought cake and take-out of her choice. If I am feeling up to it, we will take our holiday photo (that I’ve been meaning to do for days) in whatever clothes we are wearing. And I will bribe the kids not to open their mouths or stick out their tongues or do anything obnoxious with their hands. Thanks for the inspiration and grounding words, Erin.
I have all these oppositional pulls in my own head and household of adults, too. I’ve been in a push/pull with Christmas the past five years or so. I try to remember these things happen in spirals. Sometimes I’m ready to get rid of all my Christmas “stuff,” and a week later I’m wishing I had more festive things around. That’s why I love your craft suggestions and the paper garland ideas so much. It allows me to spiral around and see what hits the holiday spot for me without buying things I change my mind about. It gives me some mental space to think about what would really be great and feel special without being overwhelming.
Yes, totally my thoughts! We end up adding and removing bits and pieces of decoration all season!
WOW, this was exactly what I needed to read tonight after taking my son to Zoolights and then him proclaiming at bedtime that he didn’t have fun because I didn’t buy him a toy (he’s 4.5). It’s been tormenting me since I put him to bed – should I have bought the plastic light up sword he wanted? Why does he have to get a toy for something to be fun? Why can’t he be happy with the ~*experience*~. Thanks for reminding me this is all OK – normal even.
Ah! Totally. There can be such a feeling of failure. “What have I done wrong that my child covets this crap?!” Nothing! It’s in the air we all breathe!
This is excellent. That third paragraph hits home!! Although there’s much about the season that’s not quite going as planned, I do have a lovely story.
This year, my German neighbor asked me if my 3 little ones would be interested in the toys her three older children had outgrown. The only ones she’d saved were a dollhouse complete with little accessories (which my oldest will love), wooden train tracks with a train and little wooden trees to set up along the path (which my middle daughter will love), and lovely time-worn Schleich animals (which all 3 kids will love). I brought my girls to her home and her daughters introduced my girls to their old toys. My kids were in love–not just with the toys, but with the experience of seeing how they’d been so loved by these cool older kids. This Christmas, my kids will wake up to these toys as a surprise under their tree! To me it feels exactly right, and I’ll encourage them to donate some of the toys they no longer play with so we can lengthen the lifespan of things that might otherwise end up in a landfill.
Thanks, as always, for the inspiration and words of solidarity, Erin!! Tidings of comfort and joy to you and your family 🙂
Long-time reader, first-time commenter. Believe it or not Erin, YOURS was the mythical perfectly-minimalist family I was negatively comparing my own to this morning as I looked regretfully at the pile of gifts I have somehow, against my more conscious intentions, amassed for my young children. It is so refreshing to read such an honest and nuanced post from someone with your platform — a powerful reminder that real life is beautifully complicated for every single one of us. Thank you.
ugh, i do believe it! this thought paralyzes me, honestly. nothing’s picture perfect here, there, or anywhere!
This was such a thoughtful post. I have memories of my own self as a child being angry at my parents, who, were oftentimes struggling to keep the lights on. It still upsets my mom that she never got me an American girl doll I wanted (a $200 doll?!), and I’m just shy of 30 now. I think in her mind she grieves that that time is forever gone to get me a doll like that. Instead, she bought me the set of American girl books and I feel so much tenderness towards her. parents do what they can with what they have and kids are sometimes bratty but it’s not their fault. as you said consumerism is everywhere! it’s so so hard to escape it. even now with our wallets and accounts and desires. x
Erin, yes and yes and yes. I’ve been yoyo-ing, spiraling, and bouncing back and forth (it often feels like all of these movements once) between: enjoying this season and not, enjoying my husband and not, liking my children and not. I feel like I’ve been battling consumerism — and the endless litany of “I want…!” from my kids — but also, the consumer that I am. The one who loves surprises under the tree, surprises wrapped for others, and to be the one to help my kids feel the magic of the season seemingly through gifts. I’m exhausted and resolutely trying to pause long enough to come back to my own center this season. Thanks to this essay, now I get why this is all so friggin hard: consumerism is in the air we breathe; I can’t fully cleave it from me. Thank you for always finding a way to express the intangible.
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