Skip to main content

$Monday: Dreaming of a Wise Christmas

It's a tough holiday season for the half of Americans whose finances have taken a hit in 2020, especially families with children. And yet, we can make it a profoundly meaningful holiday. The pandemic is a tragedy of what you might call Biblical proportions. Paradoxically, that presents a unique opportunity for us to get serious about the reasons for the season. Think of all the Christmas and winter-holiday stories you know, from ancient times to the New Testament to classic cartoons and holiday films. Can you think of any that don't involve the overcoming of a terrible hardship? How many involve poverty and deprivation, like the Biblical Christmas story itself?

This is the year of all years to shift our focus from greed and gluttony to love and hope and faith... from flashy vanity to quiet sparkles in the dark.

If you have children, you are most likely experiencing some kind of financial hardship this year. Let go of the idea that you must buy your children a pile of toys. Children are less materialistic than we give them credit for. Be honest with them about how this year is different, and focus less on wrapped gifts and more on quality time together, like baking, playing games, doing puzzles, singing or playing Christmas songs, decorating with whatever you have or can make together, and making snow sculptures outside. Even playing video games together can be quality time. Kids don't remember most of the gifts they unwrap each year, but time spent with family members is the stuff childhood memories are made of. Trust me, trust every expert on this: Your child will benefit less from receiving presents than you think, and they will be harmed by your stress more than you realize. The greatest present you can give your children this year is your own mental health, your emotional support, your calm, and your presence.

Did Mary and Joseph buy Baby Jesus a bunch of presents to unwrap? NO! But they did let wise guys bring the child gifts, no matter how impractical or child-inappropriate. (Lesson: Be gentle and flexible with your crazy-gifting relatives and acquaintances this year.)

For a shot at having your Christmas cake and eating it too, respond to relatives who express sadness that they don't get to travel and see your children this year with gift ideas to send. Make sure your child knows who sent each gift so they can feel the love beaming in from all directions and thank the sender.

At my house, I've already explained to my daughter that she can't expect a mountain of presents this year. (She helpfully reminded me, "Mom, I've never had a mountain of presents for Christmas.") Uh, true! Still, I don't want the tree to look sad on Christmas morning, so in addition to the three or four fun things I bought for her, we'll wrap up a bunch of stuff we would have had to buy for her anyway, like socks (every kid's favorite gift, I know--but at least they're fun socks with favorite characters on them) and body care products (hint hint, quarantine is no excuse for going over a week without showering, stinkbutt). Meanwhile, I told every relative who asked what to buy my daughter to send Robux, because I hate buying that dumb cryptocurrency, but it makes my kid incredibly happy. I guess I understand. I do remember the joy of receiving a fat roll of quarters to put in the Ms. Pac-Man machine at the arcade, and Robux are kind of the same thing as that. Also Robux are easy to mail in a card and don't take up space in my house.

Whether or not you have children, you can exchange meaningful and useful gifts that not only don't cost extra money but might even save everyone money and time. Win-win! Everyone has to eat, right? And everyone needs hygiene and cleanliness and good cheer, wherever they are staying, whether it's a house or an inn or a stable. By now I'm sure everyone but the very rich has completed a crash course in home economics--cooking, cleaning, and grooming ourselves and our own families, at home, even if we used to outsource some of that labor. And we've all discovered that we are better at some of those tasks than others. We enjoy some of those tasks more than others. (For example, my husband has mastered the art of creating homemade personal care products!) So why not share our housekeeping "gifts" with each other so that we can enjoy some variety and special treats without having to become Martha Stewart on top of everything else we're dealing with?

For Thanksgiving, my local extended family members exchanged homemade foods by porch drop so that we could all share and enjoy a varied feast without having to cook small portions of a bunch of different things ourselves. My parents roasted the turkey and made dressing and gravy, then portioned it out for my household and my brother and my aunt. I made mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and a cheesecake. My aunt made cookies. My brother made corn casserole. We all feasted on a big spread of different dishes and enjoyed each other's efforts, even though we had to tell each other so over Zoom. Nobody had to host a big party or hire a dog sitter or travel a long distance with a dog or wait in line for the bathroom or shout over the TV and crowd noise or dress up in clothes without a stretchy waistband. It was kind of great.

Any group of local relatives, friends, or neighbors can do a casual exchange like this for any holiday, of food or anything else you happen to be good at whipping up in a large batch in your own kitchen, such as body scrub or bath bombs or nice-smelling household cleaners or beeswax candles or even cheerful holiday decorating crafts.

For absolute grinches of all things crafty or domestic, you can do a free exchange without even spending the time creating anything new--by swapping used books, board games, or puzzles. Gifts of fresh entertainment don't require a purchase. Just plop something that once entertained you but now bores you in a reused gift bag or some "wrapping paper" made of old magazine pages or junk mail or festively decorated paper grocery bags, and off you go! Ho ho ho!

The magic of the 2020 winter holidays is all about rising above adversity and honoring the traditions that matter most--or starting new ones that have special meaning this year. Vaccines are on the horizon, but they aren't here yet. We can give each other strength, inspiration, and emotional support to have a quiet, meditative, safe and healthy holiday. Other winter holidays in other years can be slap-happy, carefree, or excessive; this year, may yours be peaceful and clever. Don't pressure yourself to make it more-more-more.

As my daughter reminded me, this is actually nothing new at my house. I've been promoting this approach to the winter holidays for years now. For more ideas and reflections, see The Magic Nutshell's POSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST.


Popular posts from this blog

35 Great Things About Turning 35

The prime of life starts at 35! It's the best-kept secret from younger people, but your 35th birthday is a major cause for celebration. For mine, I have made my own listicle of 35 reasons why experts agree that 35 is the best age to be: You get to say, "I'm 35." The number 35 carries so much more gravitas than 30, but you're only a few years older. At 34, I've started fudging my age--by adding a year. People automatically take me seriously, and if they don't, at least they tell me I look young for my age. (Eye roll, hair toss, "whatever.")    35-year-olds DGAF. Inner chill reaches new heights at 35. Despite its #2 status on this list, it's the #1 response I hear about what's best about hitting 35. My gorgeous friend Nerlie was beautiful and resilient and wise beyond her years in high school, but now, at age 35, she gets to fully enjoy being herself on her own terms. She writes,  "I've survived so much that I don't

The Incredible Lightness of Loss

We Americans are losing so much right now: loved ones to death, other relationships to political violence and conspiracy theories. Americans are losing touch with reality, losing beliefs, losing real freedom and trust and patience and hope. Some of that loss comes with searing pain, but every loss can also give us a new lightness, if we know how to sense it--the unburdening of worry, shame, failure, obligation, terror, naivety, delusion. Even when we lose what we desperately wanted to keep, we find our hands and eyes and hearts left open to new sources of light. I am reminded of the first time I traveled abroad without family or personal friends--when I went to study abroad in Rome, and upon landing was robbed of my baggage. (What a funny metaphor, right? But it wasn't funny to me at the time--it was terrifying.) I was, to put it nicely, not one of the rich kids on that trip. Not only could I not afford to replace the belongings I needed, I was already running up a deficit in the p

Budget Bride III: Location, Location, Location

Today's Budget Bride post affirms that a wedding isn't just about providing a cool photo backdrop for the star couple. The location and venue create the environment that shapes the whole experience. Location determines who can attend, how much and what kinds of fun everyone can have, and how everyone feels throughout the ceremony and reception. In addition to accessibility, aesthetics, and amenities offered at the site, there's also the general aura the place gives off. Is the site associated with historic events? Legendary romance? Is there anything ugly associated with it, like bigoted owners who refuse to support unions between people who are not of their preferred race or gender combinations? If your guests can possibly know the answers to those questions, your choice of venue will send a message that includes the values associated with it. A blank slate is just fine, but take care to avoid obvious stinkers like gay-hating orchards and slavery-stained plantations (that

Budget Bride I: Put Your Friends and Family to Work

Welcome to the Budget Bride series, in which I share wisdom from my "recessionista" wedding in 2007 on how to treat a small budget as a creative opportunity rather than an obstacle to the beginning of a shared lifetime of gorgeous memories. Over ten Thursdays, I am sharing updated tips on how to use the friction of financial restriction to spark the kind of light, warmth, joy, and graciousness in a wedding that money can't buy anyway. My husband and I have enjoyed almost 15 years of happy marriage (not without ups and downs but with the tools to handle challenges while remaining best buds with benefits), and we'll always have our wonderful memories of our wedding day to look back on--not just in shiny, retouched photographs but in the visceral reliving of the actual experience. Whether you've struck it rich in the stock market or you're just grateful to have survived the past year, there is timeless wisdom in starting a marriage by setting an intentional rhyt

The Last $Monday: Dumpster Dived FIRE

The cursed year 2020 is finally ending! Let us warm our cold, tired bodies beside this dumpster fire and, before it goes out, dive in to salvage the embers that will spark new joys in 2021. For example, this is the last $Monday post I am going to write for " Money Money 2020 ," but it won't be the last time I write about money at all. I am simply going to change my focus to clarify that money is a means, not an end--and that personal finance isn't the only means to achieve our ends. During the 2010s, many of us were briefly interested in the FIRE movement (Financial Independence, Retire Early) and ultimately discarded it as neither practical nor joyful for most people, because it only works if you can score yourself a six-figure income as a young adult (unrealistic for most Americans) and if your big life goals can wait until you're middle-aged (in other words, if you're willing to risk running out of time before running out of money ).  There are components

$Monday: Boots Theory

Fans of author Terry Pratchett understand the importance of investing in good footwear. Pictured here are my husband's work boots and some of my "work boots" (for the office, heh). In both categories are shoes that are over 15 years old. In Terry Pratchett's 1993 novel Men at Arms , one of the characters realizes: The reason that the rich were so rich...was because they managed to spend less money.  He goes on to explain, "Take boots, for example. ...A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. ...But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and

$Monday: Testing a New Kitchen Design Before Renovation

My husband and I planned to renovate our worn-out kitchen this year, with my dad's help. And--oop!--we all know what happened to everyone's plans for 2020. There is no way I can keep my family fed properly through the pandemic in my designed-circa-1990, tacked-together, corner-cut, stingy-cheap, crazy, nailed-it-wrong kitchen nightmare that has been crumbling, grumbling, rotting, rusting, and breaking since we bought this house in 2008. We have to do something, so we turned a setback into an opportunity to slow down and beta test some of our new kitchen ideas with temporary staging. It might look insane, but who cares? We won't be having the queen over for tea anytime soon, so we can take time to play with space and function before we commit to building permanent structures and finishing surfaces. For example, open shelves are not practical for everyone. They don't hide clutter or protect things from dust. However, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen and prefer

$Monday: How to Make Do Without Hoarding

As more of us stare down the possibility of weeks in quarantine, it's easy to understand why some people are panic shopping. There's not much else to do when most activity and gathering places are shuttered. And many people are terrified--if not of the coronavirus itself, then of the disruptions to daily life and supply chains. But hoarding is disastrous to society; crowding ourselves into grocery stores is a serious health hazard; and there's no stockpile of stuff big enough to last through a doomsday scenario in which--oh, dare I say it--coffee beans become unavailable for the long term. (Not that I believe that will happen, but...) What are we to do? We can take a lesson from our grandparents who lived through the Great Depression and start learning how to do without some of the things people didn't always have. Some of the things we consider "essential" are things which we can, honestly, live without. Here is a list of items that some people are hoardi

$Monday: The Life-Preserving Magic of Hunkering Down

Here I am trying to show off the new silver streak in my hair that matches all my cozy gray loungewear. There's no banishing the gray this year--the hair, the clouds gathering outside, the moods of quarantine, the mental fog--so we might as well embrace it with as much warmth and compassion as we can. In a dreadful and lonely time, my anxiety tells me I need to get out and do more, to do people favors, to keep someone company, to reach out, to find a change of scene, to earn more money in case of financial disaster, but my rational mind knows that the most helpful thing I can do for my family and community during a pandemic is to hunker down.  Settle in, simmer down, think small and simple and safe. Make smart, long-term investments of time, attention, energy, and resources for the next year. This is not the season to hustle and produce more, it’s time to wait patiently and conserve. The best most of us can do right now is damage control. A pandemic is no time for big risks or gamb

TBT: Dandelions for Wine, Salads, Bees, and Beauty

Spring is coming! Soon the snow will melt for good, buds will emerge, birds will nest, and dandelions will decorate green lawns with bright yellow polka dots. Long ago, when I wrote the post below, I branded myself the "Recessionista Genie" and lauded the joys and benefits of an organic dandelion crop. Since then, the trend (at least in my kind of suburbia) has continued away from Hank Hill lawns and toward colorful, maximalist, slightly wild urban landscapes that support pollinators and healthier ecosystems. We are still all about the dandelion life. Dandelions for Wine, Salads, Bees, and Beauty I don't mean to brag or anything... but I have had a bumper crop of dandelions already this year. As all children under the age of five know, dandelions are pretty flowers. They are sunshiny yellow and signal the beginning of warm weather. Since the 1950s, the era of the suburban "postage stamp" Astro-turfy lawn, we have been taught to see dandelions and ot