An Uncluttered Christmas

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Mom and Dad guilt? Who’s ever had that?

There are so many reasons we all carry guilt; death, divorce, financial stress, lack of personal time with our kids. The holidays come, and somehow we think if we buy them more stuff it may just make up for the losses in their little lives.

I remember so clearly the first few Christmases after my late husband Mitch died. I did my best to make up for his death by going overboard with stuff! I think that this is a relatively typical human reaction when we can't fix a situation that is beyond unacceptable. All of the sudden, I was guilty of trying to replace his absence with endless gifts. Each Christmas post-tragedy was full of plastic junk and mindless clutter. Somehow it felt so good to buy for my kids, yet it ended up feeling so sick later as I watched them rip apart gifts senselessly. In their young little lives, they were not learning an appreciation for thoughtfulness nor an understanding of the valuable lesson of giving instead of receiving.

The photo above was from our second Christmas post-loss, where I had Santa come to our house! It is a fun memory, but the amount of useless stuff behind those two kids didn’t do anyone any good!

I was at the beginning of raising entitled, selfish children who valued clutter and stuff over memories and experiences.

Wow, that sentence alone breaks my heart. You see, this goes against everything I’ve learned through tragic loss. It was ironic to think of myself as a woman who preaches the value of moments over material objects would be going overboard with her kids and losing site of her core values.

“I was at the beginning of raising entitled, selfish children who valued clutter and stuff over memories and experiences.”

Welcome to another lesson in life that I had to learn the hard way.

A few years later I met a wonderful man and as Keith and my relationship grew I soon realized he was the man who was going to stay and be a permanent part of our lives. Keith had his story which included an unpleasant divorce and two young kids who’s parents were living in two different states, and as Christmas came closer, Keith and I seemed to be determined to make up for past pain for our children by once smothering our kids with endless presents.

The morning of Christmas 2012 we shared together as a couple. It is hard to come to terms with all that had happened over the past few years. Here we were, this young couple, one widowed, one divorced, both overcoming obstacles and fears, both unsure how to do this life we never planned on. As we made our way to the tree I went to take a photo, and I stopped myself short of taking the shot– I was embarrassed. It looked like Santa’s workshop had transitioned to my living room. There were so many gifts under the tree and the magic of the moment suddenly turned total sadness and regret.

Who was I kidding?

There were no replacements in any box that gave my kids their father back or Keith’s kids their broken family back. Keith had the same look on his face, and we both knew what we had done. The kids ripped open presents, one to the next, forgetting to ask who gave what and take the time to be thankful for all they had been given.

“There were no replacements in any box that gave my kids their father back or Keith’s kids their broken family back.”

That was it.

Keith and I drew a line in the sand and no Christmas since have been the same. From that moment on we vowed to make Christmas, not about the stuff but about the memories we could create and the time that we would spend.

With four kids Christmas can become cluttered very quickly, but Keith and I have an ever-evolving plan to declutter our lives and raise kids who aren’t entitled and selfish. At first, our plan to buy less and live more made us both a little hesitate.

Would the kids miss the magic without so many presents?

Would the lack of stuff make them sad?

Did it matter?

Enter our new plan for a meaningful Christmas – The First Christmas Post Clutter!

For us, it all started with Christmas 2013 when we bought the kids just three gifts for under the tree.

The first gift came from Santa since all four kids are still young enough to believe in the magic of Christmas.

For the second gift we bought them each a personalized ornament so that someday when they move out from our home, they will have a tree full of family memories for their trees.

The third present consisted a bunch of clues that took them on a scavenger hunt around the house. At the end of the Scavenger Hunt was an envelope that let them know we were going on a family trip to California. Our trip was the present of an experience to be shared as a family – a gift of time and memories and the chance to see new things.

Our time in California is still one of my fondest memories of our young family. Sand castles, running in the surf, boogie boarding, and so much more. The kid’s laughter was better than any toy ever placed under a Christmas tree. We even skipped the amusement parks and just enjoyed each other’s companies and Keith and were less stressed because we didn’t run around in the California traffic.

The Second Christmas Post Clutter

In 2014, after Keith and I had married we decided to go all out and get them on an exceptional experience! We ended up giving them an adventurous trip to Alaska.

This trip was not only an excellent Christmas present but it also served as my annual bucket list adventure. Those who follow my writing know that each year we do something off my late husband’s bucket list in his honor. Mitch had always wanted his kids to see Alaska and this trip allowed us to honor that wish and give our kids the adventure of a lifetime. Our Alaska trip didn’t happen until six months after Christmas which gave us a chance to work on delayed gratification which is an important lesson for kids of all ages – including adults!! The kids were so excited counting down the months, weeks, and days and since we returned they already talk about it like it was the best experience of their little lives. We zip-lined, whale watched, explored, and we cherished each moment.

Again there were just three total presents under the tree.

One gift from Santa, one ornament, and one awesome trip that filled us with memories for a lifetime!

2015 – Three Year Post Clutter

In 2015 we evolved our uncluttered Christmas just a little bit more. In addition to our usual three gifts, we have decided to add two new gifts.

Keith and I plan to give the kids tokens that they can cash in to spend time with us as a family or one on one with each parent. Tokens for family board game nights, throwing the football or seeing a movie. Our trip won’t be as elaborate this year, but we plan to take advantage of our beautiful home state and spend two weeks hiking and exploring the great outdoors. The final new addition this year will be a letter to each child from us. I will write one to all four and Keith will do the same. This letter included things we want them to know, how we felt when they were born, or when they came into our lives in the case of Keith’s kids with me and my kids with him.

When I lost my late husband, I sincerely regretted that he never wrote our kids a letter telling them just how much he loved them and how much they meant to him. On the off chance, something happens to either Keith or myself – I want our kids to have that written love letter.

2016 - Four Years Post Clutter

We plan to continue our tradition, and the kids have been talking about our surprise trip for several weeks. I can’t say what we are doing yet, but it will create memories to last a lifetime.

So how can you incorporate these same traditions into your family? How can you prepare and start the tradition of An Uncluttered Christmas?

Tips:

Don’t feel guilty – this is an awesome chance to teach your kids what matters.

Make it fun. We suggest things like scavenger hunts and secret clues.

Warn them ahead of time. Set expectations so they understand why the family is making POSITIVE changes.

Believe in why you are doing. Kids can read your body language, and nonverbal cues so make sure you are on board too!

Make it something they get excited about. Let them give suggestions on family memories and experiences.

Follow through. This concept could be disappointing if you never actually spend time with them.

Start family traditions. My kids LOVE opening their ornaments each year and helping to decorate the tree.

Use this as a chance to teach them about giving to others and be together as a family!

Remind yourself that kids tend to be grateful with LESS than with MORE. I’ve personally seen this time and time again.

Ask yourself if you remember any material gifts growing up? I don’t – but I remember every trip ever taken with my Dad hiking and exploring. Memories last – material objects don’t.

Take lots of photos and give them memory books in the proceeding years so they can remember all you’ve done together.

I wish you so much success with your UnCluttered Christmas. It’s one of my favorite things about the holidays for our family.

Good luck,

Michelle

Listen to the Podcast I did on this subject: An Uncluttered Christmas