Like most parents, Bea Johnson, mother of two boys, would go into a spending frenzy every December. But as she and husband Scott adopted a “less is more” lifestyle, the holidays changed–for the better, for the whole family. From her book Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste.
When Max and Léo were toddlers, I mapped out holiday fantasies for them. Each year, I planned for months to exceed the previous year’s festivities, and hoped for our best Christmas ever. I always kick-started the season with a trip to the art-supply store to scout fancy paper and scrapbooking materials in order to handcraft our family’s greeting card. The elaborate design had to outdo my previous ones; the forty cards took a week to complete and were mailed out the first week of December. The seasonal preparations also included inflating our Christmas decor and adding lights to our existing collection to ensure that our house outshined our neighbors’. Each time, the size of our tree increased; each time, I purchased new ornaments to decorate it. Throughout the year, I bought various gifts on sale and gathered them in a dedicated cupboard. But as the holiday neared, I ramped up my expenditures, looking for more, including stocking stuffers from the dollar store. It was not quality but quantity that I was after. I spent hours paper-wrapping countless and oddly shaped presents; I planned feasts and outfits for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Advent was basically filled with activities aimed at psyching us up for the “big day.” My quest for unbeatable excellence was a source of a lot of stress. Still, I considered myself a dream maker and worried about meeting expectations—expectations that I had created for myself, I now realize.
The long-awaited moments were short lived. They vanished into memories as we fought with the sea of discarded wrapping paper and ribbons, queued for returns, looked for storage for new possessions, and dealt with the mountain of post-holiday trash. We hoped to see our waste swiftly disappear from the curb by stuffing our sixty-four-gallon container as much as possible, but the load usually required subsequent pickups.
Nonetheless, the inconvenience was quickly forgotten as post-holiday sales appeared in the stores. In January, I bought ornaments at a discount and welcomed greeting card ideas in anticipation of next year’s celebration. A pop-up tree decorated with hand-sewn family pictures would certainly top the beaded ornament I had sent to friends and family that year! Striving to be a step ahead of everyone else was a symptom of the addictive consumerism we’d fallen into.
Simplifying our lives led us to evaluate our consumption habits and face the enormity of our wasteful holidays. It triggered reflection. Were my efforts aimed at satisfying my children or my competitive cravings? What principles was I instilling in my boys? What was I setting them up for? For bigger and better, year after year? I sure did not grow up that way! As a child, I anticipated receiving gifts, and Santa did drop by our house, but with modesty and consistency. While I have forgotten what he brought, beyond the baby doll, Barbie, and secretary desk that I used for years, I do recall never expecting an outperformance. I just hoped he would come again. What I recollect most vividly are the simple traditions. Every year, I looked forward to decorating a small tree (a couple of days before Noel), singing “Douce nuit, sainte nuit” at mass, and sitting at a beautifully decorated table, indulging in the annual shellfish platter, foie gras toasts, and my grandmother’s crêpe suzette, to the clinking sound of champagne flutes and the glow of the candles that my mom would save for the special night.
Traditions, rather than the objects stuffed into my shoes (in France, we use shoes instead of stockings), filled my memories. I came to wish for the same simple appreciation of the holidays for my children. But how could I reverse the traditions that I had established? How could I lower the expectations that I had set? As much as keeping up with the Joneses was no longer an option, alternatively, changing our ways seemed like an impossible feat. Our first attempt at a simplified Christmas felt like I had invited the Grinch into our home. Weaning the children off the fantasy that I had imposed on them took a couple of years, but eventually they got used to our pared-down rituals, and as a result of the change, we all reconnected with the true meaning of the holidays: family togetherness and genuine cheer.
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