Reinvent the Holidays
More Meaning, Less Stuff
by Ronica O’Hara
Like many parents, Alicia Hough, a corporate wellness expert in New York, used to go overboard plying her kids with gifts at Christmas. “I was always busy with work, which is why I thought that buying my children the latest or most trending toy in the market will make up for the time I’ve lost,” she recalls. “As kids, they indeed get excited with material gifts, but that joy is just temporary, and that’s what I realized throughout this pandemic. In the end, it’s the relationship with people you value that matters, and not these material things or celebrations.”
Hough, who considers the pandemic a turning point, is not alone. In this turbulent year, holiday celebrations will likely be smaller, quieter and less opulent for many families. Yet the crisis has also set the stage for families “to create a holiday that is more in keeping with their values, finding deeper connection and meaning with less rushing around and spending less money,” says Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids.
Besides passing up traveling and parties for cozy pajama times, many families are seriously rethinking their gift-giving habits. Although presents are a beloved part of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa celebrations, many families have come to wonder how the shopping and spending has gotten so out of hand. According to Investopedia, in 2019, the average American spent $942 on holiday gifts, a figure that has steadily mounted in the last decade to total $1 trillion. An estimated $16 billion worth of those gifts are unappreciated and tossed aside, reports Moneyish.
This pandemic season offers “a chance to reset expectations if festive gift-giving has become excessive in recent years,” says Beth Kempton, author of Calm Christmas and a Happy New Year: A Little Book of Festive Joy. “Perhaps most important is to have a conversation with children about buying less stuff and avoiding waste,” she adds. “They may have their own ideas about how to reduce waste and relish the challenge of thinking about what they really want.”
For Evan Porter, of Milton, Georgia, a parenting writer at DadFixesEverything.com, “Less clutter and fewer gifts are something we’ve been working toward anyway.” This year, he and his wife plan to drastically pare down their kids’ gifts, possibly using this formula: “Something to read, something to wear, something you want and something you need.”
Instead of presents under a tree, Dawna Campbell, of Bigfork, Montana, founder of ThetaHeartHealing.com, will give her kids an unplugged (and coronavirus-compliant) nature retreat where they can investigate the natural environment, work with animals and journal about how to make the world a better place.
For parents that want to embrace creativity, low costs and sustainability this holiday season, Kempton suggests the following gift-giving ideas:
⬛ Build anticipation with a treasure hunt or by opening presents over a period of time.
⬛ Incorporate a sense of wonderment with a wooden magic set or a storybook written by either or both parents that stars the child.
⬛ Surprise the children by transforming a room in the house into a winter wonderland or turning the garden shed into Santa’s grotto.
⬛ Offer a parent’s time, skills and attention in the form of promissory notes or a small token that indicates a future shared experience, such as a jar of homemade marshmallows tied with a label promising a family camping trip.
⬛ Give children items that they can use or eat that are handmade by the parents.
⬛ Invoke a sense of nostalgia that prompts family storytelling, such as a jigsaw that summons memories of putting together a puzzle with a grandfather 50 years ago.
⬛ Celebrate environmental stewardship by planting and growing a Christmas tree or Hanukkah bush.
Even gift wrapping can become a fun and eco-smart family game by challenging everyone to creatively repurpose everything from old maps and fabrics to magazines and paper bags, perhaps decorated with artwork and nature finds. If every American family wrapped just three presents in re-used materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However they are wrapped, gifts demonstrate in these unprecedented times that deep joy comes not from acquiring new stuff, but from caring for and giving to each other—especially our children. “In the end, the most precious gift parents can give their children this holiday is their attention, infused with a little bit of festive magic,” says Kempton.
Instilling the Giving Spirit in Kids
Children love getting gifts, but they also love the feeling of giving them, and the holidays are an optimal time to encourage this natural human impulse. Giving helps build their empathy and compassion muscles, which in turn makes for happier, more fulfilled lives, studies show.
Bridging the hug gap. With grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and family friends less likely to be sitting around the table this year, having kids open those presents when the loved ones are on the other side of the Zoom or FaceTime screen can help ease the pain of the time apart. Or children can put together a love package for them that includes drawings and notes to be opened on the other end of a livestream virtual gathering.
Care for the community. “So many families have been devastated by COVID-19 and fires this year. And many of us have become aware of the cost of institutional racism to families of color,” says psychologist Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. “Why not discuss and decide on a family gift to make the world a better place? You could decide how much you would normally have spent on presents and give some portion of that away to help people who are struggling or support a cause that is important to you.”
Simple steps like giving neighbors homemade cookies or candies tied with ribbons can also do much to lift holiday spirits. With her kids, Beth Kempton, author of Calm Christmas and a Happy New Year: A Little Book of Festive Joy, makes up a batch of mince pie to share. “We might be wearing masks, along with Santa hats, and leaving the holiday treats on doorsteps instead of going in our neighbors’ homes this year, but we can still share holiday cheer,” she says.
Alexandra Fung, CEO of the parent networking site UpParent.com, says her family in Chicago will provide gift boxes for families in need through their church or a local nonprofit and may work together to make blankets for traumatized and ill children using patterns supplied by the nonprofit Project Linus.
We are the world. Another approach is to give children a small sum to donate, perhaps $10 or $20, and encourage them to find a cause they care about in town or by researching online—from putting money in a Salvation Army Christmas kettle to saving rainforest animals. Or encourage them to find a humanitarian or environmental project to focus on over the holidays.
At UpParent.com, kids can find 11 ways to help others around the world without leaving the house, like turning old jeans into shoes to help Ugandan children fight parasites or helping to track animals in the wild. The National Environmental Education Foundation at NeefUSA.org lists dozens of at-home projects for kids, such as doing a home-energy audit, creating a compost pile and helping to identify wildlife caught on camera for a digital database.
Gentle Self-Care for Parents
It’s been a long, hard year for many parents, and working to make the holidays special for the children may add another layer of stress and anxiety. That’s why it’s key to acknowledge any sadness one is experiencing.
“Feelings of melancholy are a reality for many people over the holidays, and this year it is likely to affect more of us than usual, given how so many of us have lost someone or something this year,” says Beth Kempton, author of Calm Christmas and a Happy New Year: A Little Book of Festive Joy. “It is vital to acknowledge these feelings and accommodate them, whilst also making space for joy. This comes down to talking about it, letting people know what you need or asking what they need and being prepared for the emotions to rise to the surface in the middle of things.”
She suggests “putting some slack in your schedule, taking extra care of your health, reaching out for support and giving yourself permission to do things differently this year.”