Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How to avoid the holiday shopping frenzy: 7 strategies for a simpler, calmer holiday season

It all started three years ago. I was pregnant with little brother and we had just signed the contract for our house to be built. Just looking at those figures and thinking about having to eventually move all the stuff I'd bring into the old house made shopping quite unattractive. Even more so when you're pregnant and have a toddler in tow. Malls? Nah. Online shopping? Fell asleep on the couch before I even hit the checkout button.

It was a wonderful Christmas. I started giving homemade gifts. Big brother got the wooden shop I played with when I was little. All it needed was some fresh paint, which we had left over from another project, a new fancy cash register (with sound of course) and some products to sell (that one I pretty much delegated to my mother in law who happily bought all sorts of goodies). It was one of the best gifts he ever got. It was just like you want Christmas Eve to be: his eyes lit up when he came into the room and saw the shop standing next to the brightly lit Christmas tree. I'll never forget that expression on his face. He played with the shop for hours. It's now in his room and still gets played with almost every day.

Ever since, I have been trying to make things simpler, quieter and more authentic around here for the holidays. I don't always succeed, but here is what works for me:

1) Make things
I make gifts myself as long as I enjoy it and it doesn't become a chore. I've done anise liquor and Spekulatiuslikör. I bake lots of cookies and some of them make Christmas gifts for neighbors, kindergarten teachers or coworkers. I made felt fortune cookies. The grandparents get our annual family photobook (I ordered this years edition last weekend. It has 172 pages, and this is the second book for 2011. Can you tell I like taking pictures?). Last year I made skillet toffee and chocolate bark with almond brittle. This year I'm planning to try my hand at yarn wreaths followingthis tutorial from Dani at klitzeklein. And if it doesn't work out because I lack the time or, ahem, talent? Well, then I:

2) Buy handmade things
When I do buy gifts, I try to buy handmade things from sellers on Dawanda and Etsy. I love these online marketplaces. Things are made with love. They're unique and many can be personalized. They offer a lot of great ideas for small money. And it's a fun and rewarding process to be in contact with the sellers, quite unlike a checkout line at a big box store. I avoid mass-produced wherever possible. Ha, you say: What about kids?

3) Focus on quality
Truth is, I don't always have the chance to give something like that play shop. My kids have wish lists, too. And they don't really include Etsy listings. So when I do buy what is essentially a mass-produced item, I try to focus on quality. Especially when it comes to toys. I prefer toys that last, brands that are known for making sure their products don't contain harmful chemicals. You know, the classic stuff like Playmobil, Lego, Haba or, in Germany, Siku and Bruder, who make the most awesome cars and trucks.  I don't like those plastic, blinking monsters that are supposed to be "learning toys" just because they feature an extremely annoying voice singing some sort of alphabet tune supposed to "educate" one year olds. I prefer the sort of stuff I can box up for my future grandkids when my kids are done with it. The sort of toy that leaves room for their vivid imagination. Unfortunately the grandparents don't always agree with that concept.

4) Limit the amount of stuff
It's not just stuff I buy. It's also DIY projects. Last year I made chai mix, a subway print, a printed handkerchief, a felt fortune cookie, skillet toffee and cookies for my friends. Plus something for their kids. And a small gift I had bought. And you know what? Half of that would probably have been more than enough. Why do we give gifts in the first place? Because I want to bring a smile to someone's face, show that I care and that I've taken the time to pick out or make something special. Most of us have enough stuff and the means to buy more stuff. Regardless of whether we need it. I don't want to add to that. I want to add some joy and some smiles. Often, that doesn't take a lot.

The same goes for the kids. They have plenty of toys. This year I'm limiting the wish list to three items per kid. And I've got a helper for that: Findus. Do you know Findus? He's a cat who lives with an old man, Pettson, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Sweden, constantly getting into mischief and brightening every day. The books are a favorite at our house. In the Christmas one Findus only gets to have three things on his list. The little cat can only think of two: a second skier (he only has one) and that Santa Claus will come to his house, too. He saves the third wish for something really important, that turns out to be - but go read the story for yourself. You'll love it. And it will leave you with a sense of calm and no need at all to go buy anything.

You can also apply this to decorations. Last year, due to an overstuffed basement with a still not fully dried cement floor (I am told this can take years. Yikes) and decorations stored in moisture-attracting cardboard boxes, I ended up throwing a lot of my Christmas decorations out on the day before the first Advent Sunday. At first I thought I'd need to replace them, but I never did. Instead, we went outside and got pinecones and larch cones. Add some small ornaments and votives and voila, done. This year I added to my collection of simple, wooden pinetrees in all sizes. They're inexpensive and don't break easily, plus they can be used in every room and I simply adore them. So rather than buying more and more different things every year, I'm slowly building a collection of things I love and know I will use.

5) Use filters
While my kids are young and aren't influenced by any peer group or TV commercials yet, they do occasionally come across catalogs or magazine ads. And they like what they see. So I try to make sure I bring only the ones home that show things I wouldn't mind buying for my kids - see above.
That's fairly easy. Filters for myself are much harder to implement. Rachel from Small Notebook has written a great article about filters. Over here, it's not so much about incoming catalogs, it's more incoming electronic newsletters, special offers and such. The tricky part here is that these obviously come from stores or sites I like. So likely going to find something if I chose to look at it. I'm trying to read only the ones where I know I will likely be getting something at anyway, like the photo book, which saved me 30% on my order, and delete everything else without looking at it.

6) Resist the urge for more
Even though I make things myself, use filters and limit the amount of stuff I'm getting, there's still the temptation to get one more thing. Ordering craft supplies? Oh, maybe I should get another stamp, it looks cute. Buying toys online? I might as well check the sales section to see if they have any cute things/winter clothes marked down. Even with all the strategies above, I still end up buying more than I normally would, just because gifts, decorations, craft supplies, extra food and all that add up to more than my regular shopping. I'm learning to resist that first impulse to get even more. And more. I leave virtual shopping carts alone for a while, sometimes just a few minutes, sometimes a few days. I ask myself if I really, really need this. Most of it is just nice to have. How much will something really contribute to having a wonderful Christmas? For most things, the anwer is not a whole lot.

7) Use what you have
This one is obvious and closely related to the ones above. Since I'm planning on giving cookies and/or toffee as small gifts, I knew I needed cute packaging. I saw these really, really great boxes and labels, tags, stamps plus coordinating ribbon and tissue paper. That would look lovely. Imagine, personalized, professionally printed bottle labels for the Spekulatiuslikör. Well, it also gets quite expensive. And my home office drawers are already stuffed with way too much gift wrap and way too many craft supplies for someone who can't cut a straight line. So I will simply get creative and use what I have: red and white twine, kraft paper, a round scalloped and a large star punch, stamps.

With all of this, I am trying to achieve a sense of calm, thoughtfulness and gifts that come from the heart and not a big wallet or large credit card limit. The projects that I do I want to look forward to, I want to be excited about making them and not feel like I have another chore on my to do list. The things I buy I want to be really, truly excited about, too. And then I want to leave it at that, relax and enjoy. 

What is your strategy this holiday season?
Would love to hear.


  1. so many great ideas! i have been thinking a lot about this lately.

    merry simple christmas!! :)


  2. Thank you :) now I only have to stick to all my strategies....



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