I’m Dreaming of a Minimalist Christmas

From the time I was young, I’ve had mixed feelings about the holidays. While I love the excitement, the festivity, and the gatherings with family and friends, I’ve always dreaded the “stuff” that seems to come along with it.

When I was a child, I couldn’t articulate just what it was that made me so uncomfortable about Christmas. I enjoyed the anticipation, and how the spirit of the season made the everyday world seem more magical (I’ve always had a thing for fairy lights.) But the day after opening my mountain of presents, I’d tuck them away as quickly as possible, unsure of how to handle the sudden barrage of new possessions.

I began to understand my problem as a young adult. Immediately after Thanksgiving, I’d go into defensive mode. I knew stuff would soon be flying at me from all directions (from family, relatives, friends, colleagues). I’d try my best to get out of gift exchanges, and dodged social calls that might involve presents (“let’s get together after the holidays instead”), but I felt like I was fighting a losing battle. In the end, I’d graciously accept what was given to me, and then return, regift, or donate what I could.

Fortunately, as my minimalist lifestyle became more understood and accepted, things changed. At first, people despaired about what to get me. “You’re so hard to shop for!” was a common refrain. Eventually, though, there came a point where I could rest easy; the vast majority of gifts I received were of a consumable nature (food, wine, homemade cookies). Better yet, many friends were happy to get together for a holiday lunch or dinner in lieu of exchanging presents.

In fact, as awkward as the topic often was to address, it seemed that the end of a gift exchange brought a sense of relief all around. I honestly think that a lot fewer presents would change hands if people had an easy way to say “Let’s stop” (like this gift exemption certificate).

If you’d like to join me in making this holiday a minimalist one, here are some ideas to consider:

Gifts. Try to limit gift exchanges as much as possible. Propose alternatives (like a get-together instead of presents) to friends and family. At the very least, express a preference for consumables; it’ll dramatically decrease your post-Christmas clutter. For those with children, consider following Heather’s example in her comment to my Born Minimalist? post. She gives her young son four gifts for Christmas, and asks him to donate one to Toys for Tots. (I just love this idea!)

Cards. The vast majority of holiday cards wind up in the trash by January, so consider emailing a holiday greeting instead. You’ll save time, money, and the environment. If you feel you must send a card, consider recycling an old one—cut off the picture on the front, and send as a postcard.

Decorations. Give yourself permission to enjoy other people’s decorations, instead of feeling obligated to display your own. I haven’t had a Christmas tree, or decorated my home with lights, in years; I much prefer walking around neighborhoods and downtown streets, and admiring everyone else’s efforts. :-) If anything, opt for natural décor (greenery, berries, and pine cones) instead of mass-produced, store-bought items.

Just because you’re a minimalist doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the holidays. In fact, you may even enjoy them more! The key is focusing on the experience of the holidays, rather than the stuff.

Even though my husband and I won’t be sending cards, exchanging gifts, or putting up any decorations, we’re looking forward to the season with the same anticipation we had as children. We love seeing the streets of London turn into Dickensian scenes of twinkling lights. We’ve also booked a trip to the Christmas markets in Cologne, Germany—not to buy anything, but rather to nibble stollen and sip hot chocolate while taking in the festive atmosphere around us.

I’d love to hear how others plan to celebrate the holidays. Are you taking any steps to simplify your Christmas (or Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, winter solstice, etc.)?

31 comments to I’m Dreaming of a Minimalist Christmas

  • I like the sentiment that just because you are a minimalist doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the holidays. My plans this year are to do a little bit of baking for a couple of elderly ladies I have met. Also, my grown kids are all starving students so a giftcard or cash will help them out a lot. And that’s about it. I plan to buy a pointsettia or two and that will encompass my decorating. I’m looking forward to a quiet holiday w/o a lot of fanfare or extravagance. That will make me happy.


  • Jean

    Some holly and pine brought in from the garden, along with a few “fairy lights,” and we call it “done.”

    Me and mine pamper ourselves with perishables and appreciating the decor and community festivities is becoming a tradition. The more I read your blog, I am convinced we hail from the same tribe!

  • Michel

    Love this blog. Please don’t turn this into another self-help blog.

  • miss minimalist

    janet, great idea for your kids–when I was a starving student, cash was my favorite gift! And I think a few poinsettias would be perfect in your little cottage. :-)

    Jean, your holiday decor sounds beautiful; there’s nothing more lovely than natural materials and twinkling white lights. Very simple, yet very elegant.

    I love how this blog enables me to connect with kindred souls. :-)

  • miss minimalist

    Thanks, Michel! Could you elaborate on this comment?

    I appreciate feedback from my readers–especially on what kind of content they do (and do not) enjoy.

  • meagan

    I linked this post on my facebook status with the following note: “Here. This sums up well what I’ve been unable to articulate myself. :-)….”

    So, thanks! (and I so hope you don’t mind.)

    love meagan

  • I just wrote something like this in my blog the other day. When I was a kid, there were many a Christmas where we didn’t get presents. It seemed kind of sucky at the time, but now that I am older, I realize that I don’t remember a whole lot of the gifts we did get. However, I always remember the food and the family/ friends that got together to enjoy the food. That is what the holidays were always about then, but somewhere along the line, it got perverted into the monster it is today. I always wanted to make sure that my kids received lots of presents for Christmas and I admit to going into a spending frenzy during the holidays, but now that I am older and have put in many years behind a retail counter, I help but realize how much I messed up by joining the masses of frenzied consumers trying to compete with last year and everyone else. Simple is better!

  • miss minimalist

    meagan, thanks so much for sharing my post on facebook–I really appreciate it!

    Dreamer, I agree–I have much warmer memories of our family gatherings, than I do of any presents I received. I’m looking forward to reading your blog!

  • Heather

    We keep it simple..lots of white lights though…love white lights!!! We have a small tree with about 40 ornaments on it. With a 4 year old, he enjoys this. I tend to prefer whites, silver and natural elements—something that can be put out before Christmas and carried through the dreary days of late winter. I do have one HUGE wreath on the outside of the house…I gather up the branches myself and add a big bow. I have about 4 white jar candles that I put out— I love to make cookies this time of year and we read alot about our particular religion and just go to the malls, outside walking areas…wherever it is all decorated up. My son enjoys this greatly and it usually costs us nothing more than 3 hot white chocolate cocoas!!! : )

  • miss minimalist

    Heather, what lovely holiday traditions…I think it’s wonderful that your son will grow up enjoying simple, meaningful Christmases. And I agree, I love white lights, too! In our former house, we had them in the living room year round. :-)

  • Tracy

    I’m a little late since I just found your site now, but I thought I’d add our Xmas ‘tradition,’ new this year. We have three small children. We gave each of them 3-4 gifts, things we knew they really wanted (no clothes!) and then we started a new tradition, which was to log on to kiva.org on Xmas day and have each of them pick out an entrepreneur somewhere in the world to and make a microloan in their name. I think they thought the loan was more interesting than their gifts!

  • miss minimalist

    Tracy, I absolutely *love* the kiva.org idea–thank you so much for sharing this! What a wonderful way to get children excited about *giving*!

  • KC

    If you are going to Cologne, make sure you have some Gluhwein and kartoffelpuffer with apfelmus(potato pancakes – rosti – with apple sauce) at the Christmas market. I used to live there and enjoyed doing that every year. I recently treated myself to your book (The Joy of Less) and really enjoyed it. Thanks!

  • KC

    I have just noticed the date of this blog entry – you have already been to Cologne nearly a year ago, so ignore my previous email!! :O)

    • miss minimalist

      Hi KC! I had both the Gluhwein and kartoffelpuffer, and very much enjoyed them. :) Thanks so much for buying my book — I appreciate your support, and am glad to hear you liked it!

  • tangojuliet

    around this time of year , i get a small rosemary bush that sits on the windowsill. i love the smell, it sort of looks like fir :) and I can use the leaves to make rosemary oil and to cook with. By January, I freeze the remaining leaves to use over the upcoming year and i compost the rest. it feels like a hassle free but yet joyful way to celebrate the season.

    ps– your blog is wonderful. happy holidays!

  • Pat

    About 7 years ago, my extended family adopted doing a Chinese Auction gift exchange instead of buynig gifts for everyone. The children were older and only wanted (needed) expensive things, and the adults needed nothing.

    It still involves buying one gift, but it is much more about the fun and laughter, singing etc. We have a wonderful dinner that everyone contributes to – even the twenty somethings -and the younger crowd loves to share this event with the special person in their lives. It is a family party no one will miss.

  • Corinne

    A friend of mine sent me this article and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
    I have been struggling with the issue of Christmas gift giving with my family for a few years now. This year has been particularly upsetting as I left my job at the end of August and I don’t have any money coming in. With things as tight as they are, I feel that the gift exchange this year is simply not necessary.

    When I have approached members of my family, I have been met with a lot of resistance. Their answer is, “You can’t opt out. Just get each of us something small.” My problem with that thinking is that often something small is generally not something the other person wants and I simply don’t understand the concept of having something to unwrap just because it’s Christmas. (I’m also against wasteful wrapping paper and holiday cards.)

    The other challenge to getting everyone something small is that you’re the only one doing that. Everyone else is spending hundreds of dollars on each other and you’re only giving one gift. So it’s slightly embarrassing as well, since no one else shares your values.

    I am a huge fan of experiential gifts. Like treating each other to lunch or dinner or a small road trip. To me, those gifts are more meaningful and take so much pressure off of spending money unnecessarily.

    I’m just glad there are a few more of you out there.

    • Corinne, I am very sorry about your job and more so that your family seems not to understand. Could you get them simply a framed photo of your favorite time spent together that year or write them each a special letter or note in pace of the gift thing? I hope so.

      We’ve had huge issues on my husband’s side of the family with not wanting to do gift exchanges and it never goes over well either. I give the kids an annual membership to an aquarium (not cheap but worth it) or an award winning educational magazine subscription now which appeases them. We no longer attend one of their parties because of the mandatory gift exchange and every year they are trying to one-up each other. I wish I kept a box in the closet with last year’s gift so I could re-wrap it every year and give it to someone else! I’ve asked them to volunteer with me at a soup kitchen instead but that has never gone over well either.

      Best wishes to you. I hope you’ll still find the joy in the holiday, stuff aside.

  • We spend Christmas with minimal gifts and I limit gifts from others to one each for the kids (we have in-laws who have a problem with this so in the past I’ve actually unwrapped their gifts in advance and selected one nice one for each kid, then donated the rest BEFORE the holidays). We ask that people give us donations to our favorite charity where we keep our own family donation page. I like to give (and receive) gifts that are either consumable (I’m a huge fan of excellent quality chocolates and teas) or gift cards. I’ve also given and received donations for charities, like Heifer International, or microlenders, like Kiva.

    Our day:

    1. wake up as late as possible

    2. open stockings

    3. enjoy a big family breakfast and talk about our favorite things that happened this year and plans for the upcoming year

    4. open gifts

    5. work up motivation to spend the rest of day either skiing or snowshoeing on our land or ice skating. Winter weather is usually good for one or the other where we live.

    6. sauna time and showers

    7. after dinner we get together with neighbors and friends for a huge celebration that may or may not involve karaoke…

  • Jen Machajewski

    I am so pleased to find your site. While not at the same minimalist level, I don’t feel any sense of judgement from your posts that I haven’t “given up” as much as you or others. I appreciate that welcome feeling no matter where I am on the path.

    I get routinely depressed around the holidays, for many reasons, but one being the very issues with shopping you’ve expressed – as well as many who’ve commented on the blog. I have 2 family members who are cool with the “no one is required to buy and if you choose to gift, no one expects a gift in ‘return’. They get it. But they are a fraction of my ‘obligations’.

    With 2 school-age children, husband and I are struggling to find a path from the “extravagant” Christmas of the past to more pared down, activity-based, less-stuff Christmases without crushing their spirits unnecessarily. It’s a slow road, especially with grandparents who do not “get it” let alone support your viewpoint.

    We dropped cards ages ago. We do wrapping paper and we do a Christmas tree. We dropped the outdoor lights, mostly for safety (and a very tall house) but it helps in the electric bill and tendency to keep buy MORE lights. We’ve always limited Santa gifts to just 2; 1 they requested and 1 “Santa felt they should have”.

    I still wish we had taught them more by example to give handmade gifts or gifts of time to us and each other. But I keep telling myself it is not too late. At 9 and 12, they can still learn (as can I) and we can work toward a happier, more sincere, less depressing Christmas.

    Look forward to following you in the new year!

  • I moved overseas and shed most of our things to do it. I’m firmly entrenched in the idea of minimalism at this point. I’ve already spoken to our obscenely extensive family about trading “experiences” or “services” instead of things with each other for Christmas. Everyone loved the idea. It seemed like a relief. It makes the holidays much less stressful.

  • We dont buy any gifts for family members. We have 2 young boys who will both get a small LEGO set, a book and some chocolate. They are thrilled to build their LEGO on christmas morning and spend time with their parents, going to church, eating etc. I do buy around 15-20 chocolate santas (£1 each) for all the teachers and support workers involved with my children during the year and they go down very well as easily consumed and a thoughtful gift. I send a few christmas cards to close freinds and family but have reduced these over the years from 120 when we first got married to 27 this year. We do still get a tree as the boys love it. I dont find christmas that stressful and enjoy spending an uninterrupted time together with my family.

  • […] I’m Dreaming of a Minimalist Christmas: Miss Minimalist […]

  • Tina

    I’ve been reading some of your older posts. When my kids were young-the oldest is now 40– we gave them home-made clay and let them make Hannukah decorations or colored paper to make paper chains. Any child who came to visit got involved. We also got them some used things and homemade things for gifts, they just liked to open the presents. I used to save the Sunday comics and whatever yarn or string came in and only a few gifts were wrapped in “wrapping paper”. Today my grandchildren get art supplies and books and the other side celebrates Christmas by giving them museum memberships. I never saw the point in giving piles of gifts.

  • Shelley

    We are soul sisters!

  • Annie

    I keep my decorations simple. We have a wreath for the door and living room and a ceramic tree that lights up which used to belong to my grandmother. On Chistmas Eve we hang our stockings. My husband is Jewish so we also celebrate Hanukkah with just a menorah and a few dreidels. It takes us less than half an hour to decorate and the same to put it away after the holidays. I also like to enjoy other people’s decorations.

  • Tina

    The kids want a few big things so they will have to share them. We also bought some books as gifts. The adults get money and my adult children cook. My daughter usually gets a gift card for a fancy restaurant from her boss and gives it to my husband and me. She keeps her cash bonus. We also get movie passes. My mother died and I am sending her belongings to the people who wanted them. So many donations were made in her name to a number of great causes.

  • When my kids were in school, I used to give the teachers boxed cookies. Co-workers spent $1000’s on Christmas gifts for the kids.

  • Kelley

    My family always wants the “list” for Christmas and no matter what I say insist on getting me so much more than I am comfortable with. A couple of years ago I started making a list throughout the year for things that I would have normally purchased for myself such as new oven mitts, the glycerin soap that I love, reusable produce bags (my new favorite thing), or a new National Parks Pass. I also still love to get and give Christmas Cards (I find email cards impersonal and love sending a little note in each card) although I am down to sending around 15 and re-use the ones that I get as gift tags for the few small gifts that I do give.

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