How to Give Your Kids a Minimalist Christmas Without Being a Scrooge

We’ve all had those moments.  It’s usually hits you late at night, as you are organizing the kids toys because you’ve had enough, and they don’t know how to do it right anyway.  You see tons of toys that your kids just dumped for the thrill of it.  You are reorganizing again, exhausted, and wondering even what in the world to get your kids for Christmas, because seriously, you don’t want to deal with any more freaking toys.

I think it’s important to recognize the feelings of a consumerist Christmas:

-Guilt over not getting your kids things

-Feeling like Christmas is when budgets don’t matter, and if budgets do matter to you, you feel guilty about it not being enough too.

-Worry your kids will be disappointed

-Feeling like Christmas = fantasy, and therefore, Christmas is allowed to break the rules.

-Worry that if Santa doesn’t visit your house, or your kids don’t get as many gifts as their friends, than when they grow up they will hate Jesus.

The consumerist-Christmas is a big, fat, guilt trap.  Don’t buy it.

For us, Christmas isn’t time to break all the rules.  Fantasy and imagination are completely encouraged, but that doesn’t mean you break your budget, the bank, or your household standards because it’s Christmas.  We don’t push pause on our values and ideals during this season.  Instead, it’s a time to present our ideals and values from a different angle.  We present it in a very tangible way.  We want to magnify the joy of our beliefs.

Here are some ideas to handle the Christmas onslaught of stuff.

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1) Do a yearly November toy purge.

Our family goes through toys twice a year to get rid of stuff.  Not only does this make toys more manageable to clean, and more appealing to play with, it also lets you know what is missing, and what might need replacing.  Is there a part of a set that your kids would really love?  Do you need to just stop buying a certain kind of toy?  How much space for toys do you have in your house?  Knowing your limits and space is a major thing to keep in mind when going into the Christmas season.  Living outside those limits = stress.

Those limits aren’t there to make your life miserable, they’re there to make your life manageable.  If you’re already full to the brim after the big purge, then make some decisions.  Whether or not you involve your kids in these decisions depends on their age.  As a rule of thumb, school aged kids can handle these sorts of conversations, and younger kids won’t grasp any anti-hoarding message.  Either you get rid of some toys, by donating them to others, or you decide not to spend money on toys this year, and know that upfront.  You can always go for experiences or consumable items instead.  But if you don’t have room going into the season, you need to make some hard decisions, before you end up crying on the playroom floor in January, wondering how on earth you got there.

2) Adopt the concept of “1-week toys” with your kids.

They are the dollar-store toys.  The happy meal, VBS craft, cheap group exchange items.  We call them 1 week toys in our house because honestly, they aren’t toys that are made to last.  They are toys that are made to be cheap, so that people can buy them and show affection and friendship without having to go without food for a month.  They are sweet, cute, cheap, breakable toys.  They’re 1-week toys.

My kids know that some toys that I give them, and some toys that others give them won’t make it to our permanent toy storage.  We’ll have them in our house for a week, and then I will get rid of them.  Sometimes they get thrown away, sometimes they are donated to Goodwill, and very rarely, I’ll keep them in a memory box for the kids, if it holds enormous sentimental value.

While I used to fight the whole idea of cheap dollar-store toys that just felt like an enormous waste of money and resources, I have learned that with 6 kids, they will just be a part of our life, and it is ungrateful of me to say what people can and cannot buy us from the kindness of their hearts.  This has actually made the concept of fluidity of items something that my kids can understand.  They learn how to hold onto something loosely, and enjoy it while you have it, knowing it’s not going to be permanent.  Kids like everything to be permanent, and can’t stand the idea that I don’t keep the 20 pictures they color a day.  This has been an enormously helpful thing to teach my kids that it’s okay to declutter.  It’s okay to say goodbye to things that you have loved.  It’s okay to make choices about what stays in your life and what doesn’t.  It’s actually proven to be a joy to my kids when they get them, and a valuable lesson for them when they say goodbye to them.  And they don’t break the bank.

3) Define what kinds of toys you want in your house.

Just like my kids know that some toys don’t stay in our house, they can recognize a toy that will stay permanently too.  I love toys that make my kids use their imagination, and not merely amuse them.  I like toys that make their brain spark with ideas.  It is very rare that we keep toys that require batteries.  The exception to that has been some robotics, and electrical sets when they get older.  I’m not into the flashing lights and noise.  I like wooden blocks in my house, kitchen toys that don’t crush within 24-48 hours.  I like games.  I like things that either tell a story like a book, or encourages the child to tell a story like puppets.

When you define what sorts of toys you want in your house, all the choices for your kids storage will meet that criteria.  Houses collect toys like a vacuum, so you can afford to be picky, no matter how poor you are.  In fact, when you keep your standards high, toys will be more expensive.  When toys are more expensive, your kids will get less bulk in toys.  When there is less bulk, there is less mess, less cleaning, less purging, and more time to actually spend with them.  Also, the toys won’t break as easily, so less disappointment as well.

4) Make gifts homemade, and encourage your kids to do the same.

Not of all our gifts are homemade, but we try to make our kids at least one of their gifts each year.  I often make them, but my husband will often choose to make a few of them as well, depending on his work schedule that year.  My kids see me making gifts for their siblings weeks ahead of Christmas.  This will a) reinforce the idea that I spend lots of time thinking about them, and what they like, b) fire up their imaginations on what they can make others.  This takes the focus off of what they will GET and trains their mind to think of what they can GIVE.

We will make a yearly fall trip to a craft store, and my kids will pick out some things to make for others for Christmas.  This year I made the older kids make a list of all the supplies they would need, so they didn’t spend hours agonizing over which craft to do while I’m chasing around the little ones in the store.

Handmade gifts have love poured into them, both from the parents end, and the kids’ end.  It reinforces in kids what the gift is actually about, as opposed to just the dream of getting everything you ever wanted.  Also, making gifts limits how many you can give as well, just because of the time they take, and puts into better perspective of how big Christmas should be.

5) Remove catalogs from your home.

I do my best to not let any of the hundreds of Christmas catalogs that come to our mailbox ever reach it to the mail pile inside the house.  I let the charity ones through, where you can buy a calf or rabbit to give to a family living in a 3rd world country.  Occasionally, I’ll let ones through like the American Girl Doll catalog, if I can somehow spin it as “So, do you think we could make something like this for your sister?  How hard would it be to make little doll muffins out of clay, and give them to her as your homemade gift?”

Sometimes if I actually want to look at the catalog to figure out if they have something I want to get for the kids, I will hide it so the kids can’t pour over it.  I think having tons of catalogs around makes it really difficult for my kids to be others-focused.

6) Live within your means.

Living within your means usually refers to not spending more money than you have.  That is definitely a good place to start.  I have learned, however, that this doesn’t just apply to money.  Do you have space for it in your house?  When buying a toy, don’t just ask if you can afford it.  Ask yourself where it will be stored in your home.  Ask if you have the time to train your child to care for this gift.  Ask yourself if you have the time necessary to manage it in your home, whether being cleaned up and spread to the 4 corners, or replacing batteries regularly.  What’s the plan for this item?  When I face the reality that things in my home are work to manage, I become extremely careful to choose items that have a place, (otherwise they live on my dining room table for weeks/months, and then end up under a bed) and whether or not I have the time to include managing it into my routine.  If these questions aren’t answered before the purchase, I end up, by default, making the decision to live in clutter, and always feeling behind in everything.

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7) Let go of legalism.

On one end of the spectrum, we can err by being swished around by the waves of culture.  We can feel guilty that we don’t spend more money.  We can feel guilty they only have 2 toys.  We can feel guilty that everything we’re giving them is practical.  On the other end of the spectrum, we can feel rigid and burdened that our kids have obsessions about getting the $100 deluxe Lego set, feel annoyed that family or friends don’t respect your family rules, and instead of making Christmas about Christ, you’re making it about what you’re NOT doing.

In part of the Jewish tradition of Passover, part of the feast is where the father gives the children something sweet to eat.  The symbolism that they were trying to teach the children was that God is good and sweet.  God is a delight to our hearts.  I think it’s not crossing over to any prosperity gospel to say that God wants good things for you.  Gifts might be a great way to communicate that truth.

The reality is that we strive towards as minimalist Christmas because I was sick of the stress.  I was feeling lost, and we honestly can’t afford more.  I didn’t want my Christmas filled with guilt, and I was convicted of all the waste of it.  It felt like an enormous distraction.  But we aren’t any holier than the family who spends $1,000 on each kid for Christmas.  The Bible warns against gluttony, but also talks about how natural it is for a father to give his child good gifts.  What is right is somewhere in the middle there.

It is good to set for yourself standards of what kind of toys, what kind of budget, and what kind of purpose you want gifts to be in your family.  There’s a difference between being intentional, and being legalistic.  You need wisdom to distinguish between the two.

This list is merely brainstorming with you, not a list of what is right and wrong.  When talking to your kids about it, take the time to explain that this is what your family does out of choice, and talk about how you and your spouse arrived at that decision.  Talk about the pros and cons.  Your kids might have a friend who gets more presents, and they need some perspective, or they might grow up and marry someone from a family who did Christmas totally differently, and they need the freedom to know that’s ok to compromise.  Don’t make a minimalist Christmas a legalistic Christmas.

Comments

  1. says

    I will never forget the Christmas in 1980, when our two oldest were very very little, making a Christmas for them with a 35-dollar budget. Seeing the pure joy in their little faces made it all so worthwhile. It’s a memory I will always cherish!
    Thank you for this post.

  2. says

    I saw a neat idea last year, where you wrap up a book for each day of December until Christmas, and let the child pick one each night to unwrap and read. But we don’t have 24 Christmas books in good enough shape to do that with, and we definitely don’t have the money to buy 24 Christmas books. Today I had a brainstorm: Check the books out from the library, wrap them up, and when we’re finished they will all be returned. I think that will make the stories even more special, since the only time they get to read them is around Christmas, and they won’t have them throughout the year.

    Ever since I learned how to knit, I haven’t felt bad about giving a ‘practical’ item that I’ve made, because it isn’t just practical, it’s also attractive. Even the youngest in our family love to get a pair of mittens or a hat from big sister :)

    Oh, and I really like the idea of a 1 week toy.

    • Kharking says

      I love the idea of using library books. Our library only allows 5 holiday books per family out at a time so I have spent the last few years looking for Christmas books at library sales and thrift stores. The pickings are particularly good in February in my area. By the time Advent comes around, the kids have completely forgotten them. I think that we are pretty close to 25 at this point and books are something that I don’t mind storing from season to season, especially as we have books for each one so that I put away the fall books and get out the Christmas ones.

  3. says

    I love this post. Also the commenter who suggested wrapping library books. How cool is that! I would get the books from the library anyway, so wrapping them just adds to the fun! So many of my Christmas sentiments echo yours. I am glad you talked about 1-week toys, because I had never thought of them that way… I thought of them in the snooty manner you mentioned. :-) Thank you for taking the time to write this post for us!

  4. Kathleen says

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve needed some practical advice on how to minimize, and I love your distinction between intentional and legalistic.

  5. says

    I struggle with this every year. We do our best. We buy our kids books, experiences, and one toy-a total of 3 gifts each. It’s so hard with family though! We ask grandparents to only do 3 gifts and even that is a struggle. They always go over. I have said time and again that if they want to splurge, please do it on their birthdays and not Christmas. It’s always the opposite. Plus, my husband’s parents are divorced, so they get 3 sets of grandparent gifts. On top of that, my sister buys them gifts (she’s good about being a minimalist too, though), my husband’s aunt, his uncle, his cousin buy them gifts (WHY?!). I have expressed wanting to put an end to it, but my husband doesn’t want to upset his family. I want to allow people to be generous, but it’s expected for us to buy them gifts too. It’s just frustrating.

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