Christmas traditions absolutely do not have to be filled with stuff to be magical. They don’t even have to be about stuff at all.

In the five years since I originally published this post, my feelings on the matter haven’t changed. We still don’t do Santa. We still limit the kiddo’s presents to one “bigger” gift, plus little things (mostly consumables) in his stocking.

After the last almost three years of a global pandemic, the overturning of Roe v Wade, continued climate chaos, and the current state of politics around the globe, we’re all exhausted. Do we really need to put the pressure on ourselves to overdo it on the present front?

Plus, that whole inflation thing and how expensive it is to exist these days… Maybe we can give ourselves the gift of grace this year instead.

This post is specifically about our Christmas traditions, since that is what we celebrate, but it holds for all holidays, really.

Christmas Traditions Don’t Have to be Filled with Stuff (Revisited, 2022)

Christmas is less than a week away, and I don’t have a single large gift for my toddler (he’s almost eight now, which means his wish list is about a gazillion miles long…so apparently even if you raise a kid with limited Christmas present expectations, they’ll still come up with a whole bunch of stuff they want anyway).

Instead of lots of gifts under the tree, we have three stockings, one for each of us, and that’s where the presents stop. (This is still true, though my mom finally convinced me to do one “bigger” present for the kiddo beyond his stocking, but that’s where it stops).

When we were first married, my husband and I bought into the idea that lots of presents were a necessity in order to show your love at Christmas. So the first few years, even though we had a very small income, we made sure to have gifts to exchange.

While they were nice gifts, I honestly couldn’t tell you a specific one that I remember today. However, I can tell you exactly who we spent that day with since we were 3000 miles away from family. Those wonderful memories have stayed with me long past the glow of the presents themselves.

A few years later, we talked it through and decided that one present each was plenty, since we were more focused on buying a home and paying off my student loans. And then the next year we cut back to only what fit inside a stocking, and we’ve stuck to that rule since then. What started out as a way to save money has morphed into a special tradition that’s all our own.

Instead of spending time looking for that one special gift, we find little useful items throughout the year to put in our stockings. And then when Christmas comes, we spend our time making a special, fancy Christmas breakfast together. (All of these traditions still stand. I even picked up a few small things from Italy back in April. Nothing more fun than revisiting trips through the items in our stockings mo this later)

Once we’ve finished our leisurely meal, we open our stockings, one item at a time and really savor the process. The gifts may be small and limited, but they are purposely chosen and especially wanted. Usually, half the items consist of fancier foods we wouldn’t normally splurge on (like caviar for my husband and champagne for myself). We also tend to find little gifts during our travels as little stocking stuffers and a reminder of our fun adventures together. The time is what we really crave, not things.

After opening our presents, we go outside and enjoy a long walk in the woods behind our house. Only late afternoon do we leave our house and join the rest of our family and exchange other gifts. We have a large family and love our holiday gatherings, but there is something really nice about starting the day slow and focused on time together and nature. Holidays, after all, are about people and memories, not the fleeting stuff that enters our lives on that day.

Christmas Day, 2016

(Since COVID, we’ve shrunk these family gatherings even further. Both sides of our family get along very well, but we’ve split the time over multiple days instead. Having five or six people together is more fun than fifteen or twenty because you can actually sit and enjoy everyone’s company. That doesn’t mean we won’t ever have a large gathering with everyone all together, but the smaller, more intimate ones have been much more our speed these days.

Once we had our son, the pressure was on to expand our Christmas present giving. When I share that we aren’t filling the base of the Christmas tree full of presents, I get major disappointment and sadness that he won’t fully get to experience the magic of Christmas (plus he doesn’t get anything from Santa, which is a whole other story – here is a great explanation as to why if you’re interested).

Christmas to us isn’t about a huge stack of presents under the tree and the holiday isn’t any less magical for the absence of a massive toy haul. Just because it’s normal doesn’t mean we have to make traditions to fit that expectation; rather, we are focused on creating traditions that matter to our family.

Regardless, our son has two grandmothers, one great grandmother, two grandfathers, and numerous aunts, uncles, and family members who gift him more presents than he could ever need. A stack of presents under our tree won’t make or break his holiday.

I do try and curb those presents to a degree, but he is the only child in our family for now and they all love to get him things, and I won’t dictate what he can receive from others. (Five years later and he’s still the only kiddo on both sides of our family…. Now if only I could convince them all to contribute to his 529 instead of more stuff)

Christmas 2021 – interactive globe from Nana and Papa

I do tend to hold back a few gifts for his birthday six weeks later though, because there are only so many gifts a kid can appreciate in one day – and that number is much, much smaller than what is typical on Christmas morning.

I believe appreciating every gift he gets – not just wanting to open the next one – is important. He may get a number of presents from family, but each one is savored and enjoyed in its own right.

But at our home, he knows he gets one filled stocking, (and one bigger gift) and that’s it. And he is so excited for when that stocking will be filled and waiting for him on Christmas morning.

Just because there isn’t a huge pile of toys under the tree doesn’t mean the season is not a magical one. Our traditions just extend beyond toys – he gets to go on an adventure to pick the Christmas tree, make a gingerbread house, sing at Christmas Eve church service, bake cookies for his preschool teachers, open an advent calendar through December, read Christmas stories (from the library) every night, visit zoo lights, and have special Christmas morning traditions with mama and daddy.

When our son is a little older, we will expand these traditions to include sharing the spirit of the season with those who couldn’t otherwise afford to, but while he’s really young, our focus is on family and on what he can understand at this age.

(He’s now old enough that he really enjoys picking out presents for other kids who otherwise wouldn’t get anything for the holiday – we participate in the giving tree at church every year that supports the women and families shelter on the property, and this year we’ve expanded to one hosted through his school.

Since finding a church home, Advent has become part of our Christmas traditions in a bigger way as well – decorating an advent log and lighting the candles each Sunday of advent. This year, unlike the last couple because of COVID, we may even participate in person, albeit masked.

Christmas Eve, 2020

Christmas is more than just one day to get a bunch of toys but instead a season filled with love, laughter, and adventure. 

I hope that as he grows up, our son’s memories of Christmas and the holidays will center around the joy and magic of having time with his family doing special holiday things. If there’s one lasting gift I can give him, I want it to be that life is about people and not stuff. You can’t buy the things in life that really matter.

4 thoughts on “Christmas Traditions Don’t Have to be Filled with Stuff (Revisited)

  1. Thank you for the beautiful article, which perfectly articulated what I’ve been feeling about the holiday!

  2. A lovely article with excellent sentiment. I know it’s different for kids as the whole Christmas thing tends to revolve around gifts, but for adults a reduction on the consumption side is no bad thing when considering today’s environment. We gave up on gift giving some years back in favour of a more simple celebration. Ironically, we found this brought us a great deal closer to the true meaning of the festive season which, curiously, is more enjoyable as a result.

    1. I don’t think it really *has* to be different for kids, either. At least not entirely.

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