The Benefits, Both Economic and Emotional, of A (Relatively) Minimalist Christmas

My family’s yearly Christmas ritual is relatively benign. Every December, the emails from my mother increase in urgency as the month progresses. “Let me know what you want for Christmas!” becomes “PLEASE send me your wish lists!” As boys, we conducted zealous household wish-list campaigns, pamphleteering and propagandizing and extolling the various merits of Voltron or Optimus Prime or, in high school, the Sony 6-disc home entertainment system. Now the script is flipped and our mother has to nag us to tell her which Smartwool socks and space heaters we want, and her shiftless prodigal sons can’t even be bothered to respond in a timely manner.

Meanwhile, my wife and I do a weird two-step: “How much are we spending on each other for Christmas this year?” “I don’t know, how much should I spend? What do you want, anyway?” “I don’t know. I’ll think about it. I’ll let you know.” A week goes by. “What are you getting me for Christmas?” “Ha ha, I’m not telling (because I still don’t know, because I haven’t gotten you anything yet).”

And every year, despite her efforts to manufacture and then fulfill her adult sons’ every material need, my mother peppers her emails and phone calls with a disclaimer: “This year it’s going to be a minimalist Christmas. Only a few gifts.” And every year, my brother and I remind her she’s been saying that for about 20 years now. Being the left-leaning pro-labor Midwesterners we are, we are viscerally repelled by the thought of ostentatious largesse. We watched Wal-Mart drive almost every independent retailer in our small town out of business, and are horrified by Black Friday. (In my twenties, when I still read Adbusters, I came home for Thanksgiving to vituperate about Buy Nothing Day, and probably made a point of only getting each family member one gift, which was probably a book, because I was The Worst.)

But there is another reason for our scaled-back Christmases that has less to do with material excess and more to do the weight of memory: For the past 10 years, we haven’t had to get our dad anything. The first Christmas after he died was often difficult, but also, strangely, one of my favorite. My brother and I spent far longer at home with our mother than we would have otherwise, keeping her close, visiting family friends, and trimming the tree. It may have been the last year we even had a tree, or accompanied our mother to Christmas Eve Mass. We hunkered down in our small house in our small town against not just the snow and cold, but the world in general and our grief in particular.

In that context, the exchange of material tokens seemed almost pointless, and while we’ve done our best to have “normal” Christmases in the years since, gifts and wish lists seem like gauche afterthoughts even more than they did in my Adbusters days. This is probably why I procrastinate in sending my wishlist to my mother each year: it’s not so much the crass transactional nature of the exercise, as that it just seems superfluous. My expectations of the holidays have become much easier to meet, which is not the same as having been lowered. All I want is to return home with my wife for a few days, to eat my mother’s meals and watch stupid movies with my brother and go on long runs around the town’s perimeter, past my high school and the new subdivisions bordering corn fields.

Even accomplishing that much is difficult, as it forces me to be vigilant against nostalgia and any attempts to measure the present against a romanticized past. It’s a fool’s errand to try and recapture the years when our family had four members instead of three, just as we can never again feel the wonder of being nine years old and unwrapping a new Lego kit. Instead, we try to be grateful for surviving another year, remembering the Christmas of 2003, when one of us hadn’t. We were still a little shell-shocked, of course, and had a lot of new lines in our faces, but I remember feeling safe. The older we get, the less that safety feels like a guarantee, so emerging physically and psychically unscathed from every subsequent year is a mystifying gift in itself.



Jake Mohan lives in the Twin Cities. He is on Twitter



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