A Simple Christmas?

By Regina Doman

When I was little, one of my favorite book series was the “Little House on the Prairie” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and my favorite chapters invariably involved Christmas. Looking back as an adult, it’s astonishing to realize how bare and stripped-down those Christmases were: Mary and Laura only got a tin cup, a coin, and a stick of candy one Christmas, but you’d never know it by their joyful gratitude. In search of that simplicity, I’ve thought long and hard about Christmas presents and why they work, and why they don’t.

Many times with very young children, less really is more. A baby with too many presents is an overstimulated and unhappy baby!  It was challenging when we only had a few children because grandparents and other relatives were eager to load them down with toys. But a child with too many toys is a child who has to take care of too many toys — and that’s a bit of a burden for most children.  Our solution was to ask relatives for good picture books, which are usually expensive but are easier to store and manage.

One year, my spouse laid down an ultimatum: ALL the toys would have to go unless we could come up with a system of taking care of them. In frustration, I told the children to bring every single toy downstairs. We piled them all on our huge kitchen table, and as the pile mounted higher, I realized the reality: our children really did have too many toys.

I believe it was a moment of inspiration from the Holy Spirit. I knelt down before my tearful children, who were sure the entire pile was about to go out the door to the dump. I said, “See all these toys? Please forgive me for asking you to take care of them. There are clearly too many toys here for any of you to take care of.”

And then I got out our laundry baskets of various sizes. I gave the smallest one to the smallest child, and I asked, “Do you think you could take care of this many toys?” He said yes. So I told him to pick out as many toys as he wanted to take care of, only as many as could fit in the basket. In the end, he had to be able to pick up the basket and carry it upstairs: if he couldn’t do that, he clearly couldn’t be expected to take care of them.

I did the same with each child in turn, giving them a basket that they could comfortably hold.

They caught on to what I was doing and started trying to help each other out. One older girl with a bigger basket said, “I don’t really play much with toys, but I’ll take the large elephant in mine since I know the babies like to play with it.” “Will you take care of it?” I asked. “Sure,” she shrugged. Two other children of similar ages agreed to each take half of a set they both liked to play with. Others divided up toys among themselves so that everyone had what they wanted.

Once each child had taken a basket and could hold it, we brought the toys back upstairs and put them away. What about the toys that were left on the table? We all agreed that we should give them away since no one had wanted them badly enough to put them in their basket.

This solution changed our approach to toys. The idea of child-sized limits on toys worked well for a large family of ten children.

During Advent, we try to find time to go through the toys to make more room in each child’s “basket.” It’s a time for children who’ve outgrown a toy to pass it on to a younger sibling or give it to charity. A nice toy might be given to a younger cousin or friend.

For some time, we’ve strived to stick to the rule of only three presents per person at Christmas. Each family member is only allowed to ask for one present, knowing that they may or may not receive what they ask for. But on Christmas morning, they will only receive three presents, plus a stocking. If extra presents show up from relatives or godparents, we give those on Epiphany.

Our reasoning is that Baby Jesus Himself only received three presents. However, those presents were pretty nice: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. So I try to make the three presents as precious as possible: a really good outfit, quality tools, a hardcover book, and so on. Generally, we try to find something the person needs, something they want, and a surprise. One of these is usually a good book: illustrated fairy tales, for both children and adults, have become the signature gift in our family.

On Christmas Day, we follow the custom set down by my parents: Mass first, then presents.  When the family gets up, everyone can take down their stockings, but the wrapped presents have to wait until after we have received our Greatest Present: Baby Jesus in the Holy Eucharist!

Sometimes between Christmas Mass, Christmas brunch and other things, it’s almost noon by the time we gather around the tree for presents. For us, the Christmas Tree reminds us of the Tree of Life, Christ, “Who descended from Heaven to give gifts to mankind.”

Then we open the gifts one at a time, starting with the youngest. We watch and enjoy the surprises of opening each gift, many of which are labeled, “From Baby Jesus” so there’s no one else to thank. Toys are played with, books are read aloud, merriment is had by all. And at the end of the present-opening, each child has to collect their presents and bring them upstairs to their room or the playroom, as it’s now their job to take care of them.

I like to think it’s a way of making peace with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas. Our children do receive gifts but they really appreciate them and they can actually take care of cleaning them up. It’s helped bring a bit of poetry back into the Gospel poverty of Christmas, and for that I am grateful.

Regina Doman writes and edits for the Messy Family Project.