How does a frugalista celebrate Christmas? How does a frugalista negotiate present giving? Is it a time for splurging? Or a time for saving?
Firstly, thank you to everyone for your well-wishes for Neil. He is still in hospital, and will need more surgery, but the prognosis is good. The reality hasn’t quite sunk in. But you know the weird thing? This evening, while relaxing with a very dear friend over BBQ and a glass of wine, I suddenly felt at peace – relaxed and happy. No, not because of the wine. Just a sense that it will all be alright.
Today I have met more of Neil’s friends and family than I thought possible. I felt a bit like his secretary – taking calls and writing messages. He is such a good and decent man, and that is reflected in the extensive network of people he has that cares about him – as well as friends and family who care about me. Nearly losing him like that has made me realise how much I value him and how much a key part of my life he has become in the seven months since I first met him. I know that recovery might not be easy, but I feel confident that together we will get there.
Through all of this, I had been worried about how to balance being with Neil in hospital with looking after my kids (and ensuring they were not too traumatised about their Gold Coast caravan trip being cancelled). Well, my kids surprised me by being understanding and resilient. And family and friends surprised me by coming to the rescue. Neil’s niece entertained my boys for several hours this morning with Pokemon Go so I could be by Neil’s side. Then my good friend Trish looked after them again and then had us over for dinner.
Tomorrow morning my Dad arrives to help out. He changed his Christmas plans especially. We will Christmas with Neil’s family – even if Neil is not out of hospital we will all go out to their farm – including my Dad. So it is a Christmas miracle of sorts, even if it is not the conventional sort.
As to me and my relationship with Christmas, well, as a child I loved Christmas. I loved the ritual of buying a fresh pine tree. I loved the wooden box full of shiny Christmas baubles. I loved trying to guess (or even sneak open) the presents under the Christmas tree. I loved watching Carols by Candlelight on the television, and I loved the sound of Christmas carols. My mum would read The Night Before Christmas to us on Christmas Eve, and I tried to stay up to hear Santa.
As a teenager, I spent a memorable Christmas in a small German village north of the Odenwald. I was on a student exchange. My exchange family treated me like part of the family. They lit an advent candle on their Christmas wreath for each weekend in December. They baked Christmas cookies and poppy seed stollen. I drank gluhwein while shopping at Christmas markets. Candles and trees and the scent of spices were everywhere. I was part of a musical concert in a centuries-old church in town. And on Christmas Eve, the REAL Christmas tree decked with REAL candles and handmade straw decorations was unveiled. My presents included handmade items including a handstitched shoe bag that I still use and treasure. Magic times.
But at some point, I just decided I was over Christmas. I think it was the year, as a student in my final year at Uni, when I didn’t have much money. I begged to avoid the present exchange as I was really stretched, but my family insisted. It was a real struggle to afford things. And then it hit me that for many people, this is their reality. Christmas was not a joyous, magical occasion of abundance but a lonely and miserable time when their lack was inescapable.
As I became more and more interested in Buddhism and non-attachment principles, I started to become more attuned to how commercial Christmas had become. Somehow the pretty baubles and tinsel had become tacky – did you know that many ornaments are made in China and other parts of Asia in unsafe conditions? That red dye is particularly bad. And what about the environmental impact of all of those plastic bits, coloured paper, sticky tape and unwanted presents?
I also started to notice how many people threw themselves into debt so that they could have a happy Christmas. I found it so sad that many families did not regularly speak to each other, except at Christmas time, and how toys had become a replacement for children spending time with parents and grandparents. How many hours do kids even spend playing with these Christmas toys anyway?
And it disturbed me deeply that Christmas was no longer one day – it had become a religious cult, not driven by the church but by the shopping mall. It was no longer a thing of simple beauty, a celebration of joy and love and people, but something big and vulgar and loud and commercialised.
No, I’m not the Christmas grinch. But I do try each year to find ways to reconnect with the core values of love and gratitude that I believe in, and not to get drawn into excessive consumerism. So here are some things I do to have a frugal Christmas.
- I accept that Christmas is one day. It seems that the whole year builds towards ‘Christmas’. Yet the sun comes up and goes down on Christmas just as it does on every other day. Yes, this is a miracle, and I always try to retain wonder in the beauty of the everyday sunrise and sunset. But let’s not build Christmas into something it isn’t. It is still a day that lasts 24 hours, it will come and it will go. I will like some presents, I won’t like others. My kids will be excited, then the post-sugar high will crash down on them along with lack of sleep. Tantrums often accompany Christmas Day – I just accept that along with angelic smiles there will be demonic screams, and I plan so as not to overwhelm them. Some family times will be great, some other family members will test my patience.
- I am prepared to say no to doing things I don’t want to. I used to go to certain family members houses because Christmas was important to them, and in particular because they wanted to see my kids ‘on Christmas Day’. Now I think about what is best or my kids and I. Is having an expensive and tiring trip just because it is Christmas really in our best interest? Isn’t it better to have a better relationship with these family members throughout the year rather than presenting my kids with plastic crap on Christmas morning as a substitute for real love and affection?
- I recreate new rituals that promote togetherness. Rather than focusing on presents and what Santa will bring, I try to do things that involve interaction with my boys. Since they are only 5 and 8, there are limits to how excited they are about doing things together with Mum. But, decorating a tree together imperfectly – even if only for 10 minutes – is important. (I reckon I only this time away from their devices anyway.) And I really love bakig Christmas cookies together (OK, they eat more than they cook but one day they will remember, maybe).
- I never set foot in a shopping mall from 1 December until after Christmas sales. I have done this for over a decade now. It is the single best piece of advice I can give anyone wanting to enjoy a pleasant Christmas. Stay away from malls. I started this after my mall hairdresser shared how someone had suicided by hurling themselves down several floors in front of kiddies waiting for their turn to meet Santa. Charming. Each year I am tempted by last minute forgotten Christmas presents and all sorts of things. But each year I think laterally and find a non-mall solution. It saves so much sanity.
- My kids have never sat on Santa’s lap for photos. I know this is controversial – but how can I teach my kids about stranger danger and inappropriate sexual behaviour when I encourage them to sit on the lap of an old man they do not know and take photos? Yes, I know most store Santas have security checks. It is not so much the potential for sleazy store Santas I am worried about but the whole principle of engaging with strangers. Instead, I take cute photos of them in front of a tree or with family members and that is enough.
- I make homemade gifts. Now that I have kids and have less free time I do this less than previously. We haven’t baked cookies this year, but I still made some homemade plum jam.
- Neil and I do not plan to go overboard at Christmas. We put up the tree together a few weeks ago. What was interesting is that I noticed he started to get a bit tense … like many people I know, he has experienced the excess of Christmas and all the angst that goes with it. Once I talked about my people over things approach, he was much calmer about it all. Now that he is in hospital, the fact that we didn’t go overboard and expect a big do makes the fact that he might not be home at Christmas less of a big deal. Are you overdoing the Christmas spirit because you think you have to? If so, you have stopped to notice if it brings joy or anxiety to those around you?
- My family and I give to charity at Christmas. My charity of choice is the annual Christmas hamper appeal through Unitingcare Kippax. This is because I know first hand, as it is my congregation, the incredible work they do to support people who are doing things tough. Christmas is a time when the reality of lack can be felt very keenly – it is inescapable, and especially when there are young children expecting presents like their friends at school.
So, without any further ado – from my family to yours, I wish you peace, love, joy and frugality this Christmas!
How do other frugalistas and personal savers celebrate Christmas/ Check out ‘Christmas around Australia’ posts from: