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“Family traditions are more than arguments with the dead, more than collections of family letters you try to decipher. A tradition is also a channel of memory through which fierce and unrequited longings surge, longings that define and shape a whole life.” Michael Ignatieff

More and more people are coming to terms with their need to break with family tradition and create new ones that are more in line with their individual lifestyles and values. If you’re shifting into a holistic minimalist mode of being you’re definitely going to come up against some holiday rituals that go against your grain. For a lot of people, holidays have become synonymous with consumption, be it gifts, hallmark cards or expensive outings. Caring has become confused with spending.

The traditions surrounding mainstream holidays have in large part lost any connection to their original meanings.People who can’t offer gifts to their families feel guilt and shame due to social pressure. Kids compare gifts and rank themselves based on how expensive what they received was in comparison to others. Entire neighborhoods compete to see who can put up the most outlandish decorations. Not very minimalist, when you think about it. The good news is, there are lots of ways to get out of the holiday-overconsumption trap and still a) have a good time and b) demonstrate your caring for the people you love. Here’s how….

28.1 Free Yourself From Conditioned Thinking

“Tradition, long conditioned thinking, can bring about a fixation, a concept that one readily accepts, perhaps not with a great deal of thought.” Jiddu Krishnamurti

It’s all well and good to say you’re going to live in alignment with your fundamental values and be an all-out minimalist. It’s not always that simple. When you’re immersed in advertisements promoting an excess-oriented model of happiness it’s almost impossible not to be influenced by them. That’s why when you’re preparing to implement new traditions around whatever holidays you celebrate it’s important to try and reduce the amount of advertisements you’re taking in every day. As Pulitzer prize winning journalist Ellen Goodman puts it, “traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. The most powerful ones are those we can’t even describe, aren’t even aware of.” If you’ve been living in a society where buying a lot of stuff for the holidays is the norm, you may not even be fully aware of how it’s affecting your behaviour.

Be it radio, TV or specials in the shopping mall, you need to be hyper-aware of how much your brain is being pummeled with the message that holidays = consumption and try and reduce your exposure. Try doing a TV purge for a few weeks before christmas. Don’t go shopping for anything you don’t absolutely need around valentine’s day. Basically, avoid being in whatever spaces make you feel the most pressured to buy stuff you don’t need!

Minimalist blogger Allison Fallon speaks to the feelings of failure one can experience when choosing to not “buy in” to the consumption-oriented holiday spirit. “If you grew up in a family or neighborhood (like I did) that went all out for Christmas, maybe scaling back for your own holiday celebration makes you feel a little bit like I felt when my husband reminded me we have never bought each other presents—like a failure. Or, like you’re doing it wrong.”[1]

It’s essential to pinpoint and deconstruct this feeling in order to joyfully shift into something new. If you don’t already have a vision for what an ideal holiday celebration would look like for you, take the time to sit with the question and meditate or journal about it. If you have a family or partner you’re probably going to want to involve them in the details, but we’ll get to that later. The first step is filtering out the stuff that has nothing to do with your true desires and values and getting a clear reading on how you want to share time, space and caring with your loved ones.

28.2 Gift-Giving Psychology, The Languages of Love & Why You Might Not Want to Just Kick Gift-Giving to the Curb…

Studies show that more and more people consider holidays to be too materialistic and are scaling down on their gift-giving as a result. However, psychologists say this may not be the best solution as gift-giving is, and has been throughout human evolution, an important aspect of social bonding and relationship building.[2] You may also have heard of the languages of love theory that divides people into five categories according to the ways they best express and receive love. Receiving gifts is one of the five.[3]

What this means is that for about a fifth of the population, receiving a gift is the way in which they will most deeply understand that you love and care for them (so yes, if you’re a minimalist who guiltily loves receiving gifts, you can let go of the stigma and step out into the light!). Just as different learning styles need to be taken into consideration in changing educational practices, so different ways of expressing and receiving love need to be respected and considered when making radical changes to our family traditions. Even if you’re a hardcore minimalist (who isn’t one of the fifth of the population who is deeply moved by receiving gifts!) there are ways of giving gifts without a) buying anything new b) spending a lot of money or c) causing the buildup of clutter. And if someone you deeply care about is someone whose “language of love” is receiving gifts, you’ll probably want to figure out how to meet their need if you want a lasting positive relationship!

Here are some really simple ideas to avoid the trap of buying new, expensive or clutter-making gifts.

  1. Re-gifting, i.e. giving away something you previously received (You know that scarf your sister has been ogling for months? I’m sure she’d love to receive it as a gift! You get the gist…)
  2. Upcycling. This is when you reuse something used or discarded to create something else, usually of greater value. Get creative! There are TONNES of ideas out there on brilliant ways to reuse everything from old machinery to old clothes to make amazing gifts!
  3. Gift an experience. This could mean tickets to see your loved ones favorite band, an spa-day, or baking them some homemade tiramisu. Either way, experiences don’t cause lasting clutter!
  4. Plain old making something! Have you got some crafting skills? Know how to knit, make bracelets or do woodworking? People will usually appreciate something handmade way more then something bought in a store!

28.3 Shifting Focus: How To Make Your Holidays Truly Worthwhile!

“We don’t have to continue holiday traditions that leave us broke, overwhelmed, and tired.” Rachel Jonat

In an article entitled “Choosing Holiday Traditions That Serve You,” Becoming Minimalist blogger Joshua Becker rattles off an impressive number of sourced research suggesting that the majority of Americans feel pressured to spend more than they can afford and go into debt during the holidays and would purportedly “spend more time with friends and family if they didn’t have to worry about gifts.”[4] We’ve already addressed that completely cutting out gift-giving may not be the be-all and end all solution and looked at ways you can give gifts without it causing financial stress. But where do we put the focus if not on the gift-giving frenzy that has become the centrifugal force of most of today’s holiday celebrations?

The simple answer is one of the most basic pillars of the minimalist lifestyle: focus on experiences and relationships over objects. This means prioritizing activities and traditions that are centered around actually spending time together…spending time and, if necessary, money, “with”, rather than “on” the people we care about. There are any number of relationship-building things you can turn into significant and fun holiday traditions other than gift-shopping and gift giving. For example:

  1. Food. Every family has their traditional holiday meal(s) or delicacies. Why not make it a participatory event that everyone pitches into, either in terms of getting ingredients, setting up the space or actual cooking?
  2. Games. From board and card games to charades and karaoke to scavenger hunts, for the game-lovers amongst you this can be a great relationship-building holiday tradition to instill (just keep monopoly out of the mix).
  3. Music. Either listening to it or making it! Even if nobody plays music in your group, sharing your musical discoveries of the year can be a great way of connecting with friends or family you don’t see that often.
  4. Outings. Make a ritual out of going to a specific place with your family or friends during the holidays, be it a cottage on the lake, ice-skating or your favorite local restaurant.
  5. Crafts. A great way of spending time together over the holidays, be it with kids or adults, and can also result in gifts to give!
  6. Gratitude rituals. Even if you don’t identify as spiritual or religious, coming up with a way of sharing feelings of gratitude with your loved ones can be an incredibly meaningful experience…and really, gratitude is at the root of all the holidays celebrated worldwide anyways! If you or others are uncomfortable sharing your deeper thoughts you can always do something anonymous and make a game out of it, like everyone writing some things they’re grateful for on a piece of paper and putting it in a hat and then reading each others out, or miming them…so many options!
  7. Appreciation exchanges. Instead of your typical gift exchange where everyone gives a gift to one person in the family or friend group, why not do an appreciation exchange? Everyone draws a name and then either speaks or writes to the person they picked about what qualities they appreciate about them. This can seriously be a very uplifting and moving experience for people who aren’t used to receiving positive reflections about themselves.

28.4 Co-Creating Traditions

There’s no magical secret to creating new traditions within a family. You basically just have sit down and talk about it! Of course there are a lot of subtleties involved. Most importantly, you’ll need to be prepared to compromise. There’s nothing helpful or productive about going into the discussion with the idea that you are “right” and everyone involved “should” do what you think is best. If you know anything about non-violent communication, you know that one of the central ideas is that of letting go of the need or desire to control others actions and reactions. If you want your new holiday traditions to be truly co-created you need to remain open to your family, children and friends thoughts and feelings on the matter.

The easiest place to start is probably within your closest relationships with say your partner, children or best friend. Whoever you celebrate holidays with and share a close relationship with! Make an intentional time to sit down and discuss your desire to change the way you celebrate holidays. Anyone you’re super close with will likely already know you’re shifting to a minimalist lifestyle and want to support you as much as they can in the process! Focusing on what you want to create, what you want to put into practice rather than what you don’t want to do anymore will likely get a much better response. The best thing that could possibly happen is for you both (or all) to get excited about ways they’d really like to spend time together over the holidays and figure out ways you can make that the central focus of your celebration together!

Again, it’s important to remember that for some people receiving gifts is always going to be important if that’s their “language of love.” If you’re dealing with kids you may need to explain that you’re not planning on cutting out the gift aspect entirely, but that you want to shift the focus, or that you think it would be fun to make gifts together, etc. The main thing is to make the decision-making process a collaboration and not an imposition of your or your partners will. Remember, this is about co-creation, i.e. coming up with a new form of celebration that meets the needs of everyone involved.

If you feel there will be a lot of resistance to shifting away from consumption-oriented traditions right of the bat you can try gearing the discussion towards what you and they find most important about the holidays. It’s likely that when it comes down to it spending quality time together will be among the top runners in which case you should be able to gently guide the process towards shared experiences and away from…well, shopping! You may need several conversations to get something decided, but the process will be well worth the lasting satisfaction of traditions that reflect your and your close ones true values.

28.5 Action Point Summary – Here’s What You Need to Do Now!

“The most beautiful things are not associated with money; they are memories and moments. If you don’t celebrate those, they can pass you by.” Alek Wek

  1. Purge your brain of conditioned thinking by avoiding advertisements during the holidays. Give your mind space to breathe into new ideas about how to celebrate in your own way!
  2. Remember receiving gifts might be the “languages of love” of someone you care about! Don’t just stop all together without considering or asking if this is the case for those people!
  3. Check out the list of simple ways to give gifts while avoiding buying new, expensive or things destined to be clutter.
  4. Make relationships the focus of all your holiday activities and traditions.
  5. Talk about how to create new traditions that reflect what’s really important to you and your family with them. Then, make it so!
  1. A Lighter, Simpler, More Beautiful Holiday, Allison Fallon, becomingminimalist.com
  2. A Gift That Gives Right Back? The Giving Itself, Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times, nytimes.com
  3. Understanding the Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman, focusonthefamily.com
  4. Choosing Holiday Traditions That Serve You,” Joshua Becker, becomingminimalist.com

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