How My Hoarder Family Saved Christmas

Photo: stevendepolo

Hoarding runs in my family. The only reason why most of our homes don’t reflect the OCD chaos of our brains is because we manage our belongings with the ferocity that most people reserve for calorie counting and fantasy football leagues. While none of my relatives live in squalor, as my cousin Carolyn puts it, "In our family, we file things horizontally." We are all wannabe minimalists with messy desktops. Although we joke about becoming crazy dog ladies or building a maze made of old National Geographic magazines in the living room, we all worry that one day we will fall victim to our belongings. So, after looking with mortification at the packed garbage cans stuffed with the aftermath of Christmas 2001, my extended family took a radical step in the direction of less stuff — we agreed to stop giving Christmas gifts to each other. Even to the kids. (See also: Simple-Living Lessons I Learned From "Hoarders")

This decision had several unintended consequences, all of them good.

We Regained Other Celebrations

Last year, 38.9% of Americans started shopping for Christmas in October, a statistic that is entirely believable to anyone who has noticed Christmas decorations jostling for shelf space with Halloween costumes at stores across the country. In addition to freeing up more time and money for Halloween and Thanksgiving, family birthdays in December and January suddenly got the attention they deserved. My grandmother, who was born on December 28, told me that she never got a real birthday. Sandwiched between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, her birthday had always been an important holiday travel day for friends and family.

My youngest cousin’s birthday is in the first week of January, so she was pleased that her birthday became a special day instead of just an afterthought to the December holidays. While Christmas presents were verboten, birthday presents were not. She quickly decided that the additional two weeks she had to wait to get “The Toy of the Year” were worth the extra attention.

On a side note, people who hear about our no-Christmas-gift policy seem to worry that the kids in my family are somehow suffering from Scrooge levels of deprivation…which was something actually worried about for the first year. However, there are several gigantic loopholes in the no-gift rule. First, while the kids don’t receive gifts from the family, they do get Christmas gifts from their friends. Secondly, everyone still gets a stocking full of candy on Christmas morning. Most importantly, during their winter break from school, the kids are allowed to ignore bedtime, sleep in as late as they want, eat dessert for breakfast lunch and dinner, and watch television with impunity. We had anticipated that there would be a lot of griping from the under-14 camp, but to their credit, I can’t remember one instance where any of my younger cousins complained about their lack of Christmas gifts. Perhaps they’ve been secretly pouting all these years, but I suspect that they prefer the additional freedom in lieu of opening a few more presents on Christmas morning.

It Allowed Us to Be Smarter Shoppers

Removed from the mass hysteria that is now part of Christmas shopping, we were able to shop after-Christmas sales without a deadline, but with all the post-holiday consumer reports. Because the kids got to play-test the “must-have toys” at their friends’ homes in the weeks after Christmas, their birthday present lists got shorter, not longer. Some things, they realized, just didn’t hold up to the hype.

We Saved a Ton of Money

Last year, the average American shopper spent over $700 just on Christmas gifts. While my family is pretty frugal, our combined savings still amount to several thousand dollars every year. Not spending money on gifts that go under the tree allowed us to spend money on family experiences like tickets to the zoo to see the Christmas lights. Two years ago, our huge extended family went to Las Vegas for a reunion at Christmas, a trip that a lot of us would not have been able to afford had we spent the money on traditional gifts.

Also, after Christmas, the price of just about everything drops dramatically. An expensive Christmas gift suddenly becomes an affordable birthday or graduation gift on December 26. When I got married this year, I know all the wedding gift cards from my relatives were purchased at a steep discount in January from gift card exchange sites like Plastic Jungle.

We Retained Our Sanity

Christmas shopping is stressful. A Consumer Reports survey from last year uncovered that 6% of Americans were still carrying Christmas debt from 2010 on their credit cards when they started shopping for Christmas 2011. British financial analysts estimate that one in three Britons will go into debt to pay for Christmas this year. Every January, credit counselors report a 25% spike in business as consumers come to grips with their holiday overspending. I don’t know one responsible person with debt who isn’t haunted by it. We discovered how easy Christmas is to enjoy when there are no bad financial repercussions lurking around the corner.

Additionally, while giving and receiving gifts should be pleasurable, a lot of giving has become a kind of social currency, with the givers hoping that the cost of their gifts are accurately appraised, for their full value, by the receivers. A lot of the pleasure of giving a gift is imagining the pleasure that it will bring the recipient. People are often so stressed out by end of the year deadlines that choosing gifts becomes more about efficiency and budgeting than about figuring out what will bring their loved ones the most joy. By removing the obligation of Christmas gifts, we were all able to delete a giant task from our end of the year to-do lists, which was, frankly, a relief.

We Saved a Lot of Time

I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, shopping — even online shopping — takes up a lot of time. Not shopping freed up time to enjoy other holiday activities like trimming the tree, baking 80 dozen cookies to give out to friends and neighbors, attending and hosting parties, caroling, and looking at Christmas lights.

It Allowed Us to Be Generous

What is the Christmas spirit about if not kindness to others? Christmas morning is now spent serving Christmas dinner to people who really need a nice meal, not sitting around the tree. We have the extra time and the extra money to help out local charities. My great-aunt was a lifelong patron of the Dumb Friends League, aka the city pound. Every dog she’d ever owned had been a rescue. One of our favorite holiday activities is bringing toys and treats to the pound at Christmastime and spending the day petting all the dogs.

It Gave Us New Holiday Traditions to Enjoy

Like ex-smokers huffing on second-hand smoke, my cousin Carolyn and I still love to window-shop the day before Christmas and experience the apex of American consumerism. Only instead of buying, we enjoy the vulgar splendor of the mall at Christmastime by people watching from the comfort of the Cinnabon.

This year my family will celebrate our 10th gift-free Christmas. What started as a strategy to keep our closets tidy, ended up bringing us closer together with each other and our community. It’s our own little Christmas miracle.

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Guest's picture

That sounds really awesome! Difficult to execute because of the cultural expectation of gifts, especially among parents who want to see their child's face light up, but awesome. I guess everyone really has to be on board with it to make it happen.

Guest's picture
Stephanie Del Principe

Great ideas in this article. I am inspired to spend more time actually enjoying this wonderful holiday season without the rampant spending.

Guest's picture
Heidi Brandenburg

I resemble your article! 2 years ago we signed up for Advent Conspiracy. Which has made a huge difference not only in our lives but our families. We still get something for the grandkids, but we no longer feel obligated to provide a gift for every aunt, uncle and cousin Suzy Who. Last year the gifts I did give to close family members like my sister were gift certificates to KIVA, where she was able to choose a stuggling company in a third world country to give a business loan to, or the Heiffer project where we gave everything from Music lessons, to fresh water. Everyone loved it.

Guest's picture

I love Heidi's idea of Kiva and Heifer. There are many great organizations. I bought tshirts for Unicef to provide mosquito nets.

We are finally getting a handle on Christmas. I used to buy my kids at least thirty gifts each, not including all the gifts from dozens of relatives and friends. It would stress the kids out to open all the packages! Now it is three for each. One each for body, mind and soul. So much easier, in every way. Time, money and introspection.

Max Wong's picture

One of my friends, who is a professional organizer, told me this statistic: Americans have 3.2% of the children on planet Earth but buy 40% of the toys!

I can't explain why, but that statistic makes me feel so sad.