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Posted by on Oct 30, 2013 in Elevate, Empower, Family, Inspiration | 0 comments

Walking the Line: A Minimalist’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays

Walking the Line: A Minimalist’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays

by Anne Riley, Author 

As the eleventh of twelve children growing up in the 1960’s, I lived a low-frills life. My Dad was a scientist and had a  good job, but his salary had to really stretch to cover the needs of six boys and six girls.  I am not sure how my Mom managed to feed and clothe us and make us feel that we were completely normal, except for the fact that we woke up each morning surrounded by a family the size of a football team.

Low-frills does not mean no-frills.  Every once in a while we would get a treat.  Ice cream for dessert.  A handful of peanuts neatly placed on a quarter of a paper towel. A bag of M&Ms that I had to share with my sisters.  By today’s standards, this might sound like a sorry existence.  But when I was a kid, I didn’t know any different, and these small treats, rather than being a respite from deprivation, were a joy. Clearly, after all these years, I still remember them.

As I grew older and my siblings left for college and pursued their own lives, our family grew smaller and smaller. As a consequence, the financial pressures lessened.  There were far more opportunities given to us younger children than the older ones just a few years earlier.  To this day, reunions always include a session in which the older siblings exclaim in disbelief at how easy the younger ones had it. They were right, of course.  I can remember in high school that there were vending machines in the lunchroom that contained hundreds of candy bars.  I could have one every day! When I was little, I would have gotten a fraction of one every other month. For a while I did succumb to the freedom of having a sweet treat every day.  Here is the interesting thing that happened: as soon as I started eating a treat every day, it no longer became special. It seemed like the more available the treat was, the less it meant to me.

Later on, I read about this phenomenon in a Psychology class.  It seems that our brains are wired to note change.  Change can be a sign of danger, so we are programmed to pay attention to it.  Once the change becomes commonplace, our brains ignore it, so that we can be ready for the next change.  Think about it.  Have you ever had a rock in your shoe?  At first it drives you crazy.  But if you don’t stop and remove it, your body will actually adjust to having that rock in your shoe and after awhile you won’t feel it anymore.

I think this phenomenon applies to the holidays. And it’s one of the reasons that this time of the year can be particularly difficult to handle

As I see it, the holidays have two major challenges. First, they are required to be ‘special.’ As I have noted above, ‘special’ means different. This is a perfectly reasonable expectation for the holidays and, I would say, is challenging enough. But then comes along requirement number two.  This is the one that requires that holidays not only be special, but that they be the best thing EVER!  Every single year.  You can’t just give a gift to your loved one. You have to give a CAR to your loved one. Oh, wait, you can’t just give them a car, you have to give them TWO cars! No, scratch that. You can’t just give them two cars, you must give them two PORSCHES! Do you see what I mean?  How do you draw the line between Expectation number one, which is a perfectly reasonable expectation, and Expectation number two, which will destroy your holiday joy faster than a kid on cupcake if you don’t think you can measure up, or if your pocketbook can’t measure up. Two Porsches are expensive!

I am not sure where Expectation number two came from, but it is my opinion that it permeates the air during the season just like the sound of Christmas carols and the smell of peppermint lattes. I wouldn’t be so crass as to suggest it is just a ploy by huge corporations for you to buy more of their products and therefore should be rejected out of hand, but… wait, I just did. Oops.

Here is the other issue with these expectations that seems to draw the joy out of the holidays.  Remember that rock in your shoe? Well, the same applies to the holidays.  The more activities we try to squeeze into the holiday season, the less special they become.  It’s just the way our brains work.  The more we do, the more we take for granted.

So how do you proceed in the holiday minefield of dangerous expectations?  First and foremost, make a decision.  Decide where you want to be on the ‘specialness’ scale.  Do you want to do a few things and make them really special and memorable?  Or do you want to do as many things as possible and let special take care of itself?  Or do you want to be somewhere in the middle? There is no wrong answer here.  But whatever you decide, go for it.  Don’t worry about what other people think, or what the commercials say, or that look Aunt Bertha gives you when you tell her you didn’t make homemade pumpkin filled croissants this year. Just make your decision and follow it through and leave worry in the dust.

The holidays are a unique challenge for me. I am a minimalist. Not a complete freaktoid minimalist like my husband, but I am probably a two on a scale where zero is ‘try to live on nothing forever”’ and ten is ‘honey, we can’t possibly survive without ten million dollars in the petty cash fund.’ I would just as soon ignore the holidays.  But I can’t.  It was even more challenging when our children were little.  I didn’t want to psychologically scar them forever over something like the holidays.  I reserved that for other more important battles.

I am happy to say that after all these years, I have wrestled the holidays to a draw.  We coexist in an environment of mutual wariness. For minimalist, it’s not half bad.  Here are some of the things that I learned that helped me cope along the way.

Don’t Worry About What Others Think

Believe me, do not waste time in this department. Everyone around you is busy.  And furthermore, they are worried about what everyone is thinking about them. They do not have time, not even one extra minute, to judge you or what you are doing.

Don’t Worry About What Your Kids Think

If your children are small, less is actually more. Small children cannot take too much stimulation before they snap. If they get too many toys, they get overwhelmed and frustrated because they don’t know which one to play with first. If they have too much rich food, they get sick.  If they don’t stay on a reasonable schedule, they get cranky.  A few well-chosen activities go a long way for small children.  Choose wisely and they will follow your lead.

If your children are teenagers, don’t worry.  They are going to question everything you do anyway, so engage them in selecting some activities that they would like to do. Or give them the chance to do some things on their own or with their friends.  Their world is getting bigger and a parent’s job is to help them widen that world.  They will probably complain when you drag them along to the few activities you insist they attend.  That’s okay. It’s not all that bad to make your teenagers do a few things they hate.

Make A List Of Everything You Have To Do During The Holidays

Make sure you get everything on there.  Then ask yourself this question. Which of these things could I throw out if someone held a gun to my head and forced me to get rid of all the unnecessary activities? Ha!  This was a great way for me to look at things. Everything immediately came off the list.  See, if you just change your perspective, you will find that obligations are not all that obligatory!

Now, Start Over And Make A List Of Everything You Like About The Holidays

This was much more fun. Even a minimalist like me likes some things about the holidays. The smell of evergreens.  Christmas lights.  The light in my children’s eyes on Christmas morning. Christmas cards. Turkey and mashed potatoes.  I started over and built my schedule around these things that I liked. And because I wanted  my husband and children to enjoy the holidays too, I sought their input when making that list and included some of their additions as well.

As you can imagine, this list was much more fun to complete. Everything on it had at least an element of joy for me.  I have to admit that I always did sneak a peak at my earlier ‘obligatory’ list. I made an effort to convert my obligations into something I liked where I could.  But if I just couldn’t find anything I liked in an obligation, I did my best to get rid of it.

Leave Some Space

As a minimalist, this was easy.  I do not like to have my time filled up, so it was easy to schedule unscheduled time.  But what I didn’t anticipate was the unexpected magic that filled those times. There is a certain magic in spontaneity.  Sometimes we played games. Sometimes we took a walk to see the Christmas lights.  Sometimes we watched ‘Wonderful Life’ together.  One year, we spent the entire Christmas vacation figuring out a computer game named ‘Myst’.  There we were, the five of us, trying to solve strange puzzles in a mythical world, while all the time we were building a new and richer understanding of each other. Our children are now grown, but that remains a special memory for all of us.

Like you, I am once again gearing up to do battle with the holidays, or as I affectionately call them, the ‘cultural juggernaut.’ I always start the battle by reliving my favorite Christmas memory. It puts the whole season in perspective for me.

It was sometime in the 1990’s, I don’t even remember the year. The kids were in their tween years, probably between 9 and 13. It was nearly midnight on Christmas Eve. The kids were in bed and finally asleep. We had finished putting the presents under the tree and I was exhausted. I was ready to go to bed, but Tim said, “Come on, let’s go out for a walk.” It was a rare December evening. In Portland, in December, if it isn’t raining, it’s cloudy.  But not that evening.  It was clear and cold. The moon was shining down so brightly we could see our shadows.  So out we went.  It was cold. We could see our breath when we exhaled.  Tim took my hand and we wandered through the quiet neighborhoods. The Christmas lights were on.  The frost sparkled on the ground. At one point, Tim led me through a path that led through a grove of trees.  He stopped in the middle of the grove, leaned down and kissed me.  I can still remember it, the moon peeking through the  trees. The trees, hulking and leafless and black. The frost sparkling on the sidewalk. Tim’s breath warm against my face. Here we were , in our mid-thirties, the parents of three growing children, as normal and non-extraordinary as we could be. But in that moment, we were lost in a fairyland of moonlight and shimmering ice and whispering trees.

In all of the moments of Christmas I have experienced since then, none has compared to that one. There were no presents. No expectations. Definitely no Porsches. And yet, it remains my single most wonderful Christmas moment ever. I do not know what awaits you this holiday season.  Or the ones to follow. But I do wish for you that you have a moment like this, a moment that speaks to you across the years.  A moment that you will treasure forever.  Merry Christmas!

{Editor’s Note: Anne Riley, Author of Elusive Little Sucker,  is a Featured Contributor for Women Who RISE. You can read more of Anne’s work, and learn more about this tenacious author, on her website, www.annerileyauthor.com}