less was more


This year, we finally got it right. Materially speaking we gave and received the least we have in recent memory. And yet, I have never felt so full.

We skipped the machinations of ‘catching’ Santa on Christmas morning or sometime in the ‘middle of the night’ (usually around 11pm).  Gone was Mama yelling down the stairs to say that I could no longer contain the excitement of a certain little person, only to hear a hearty “HO HO HO! HOLD ON PLEASE!’ as Luau scrambled into the red suit. Gone was Luau running in carrying a gallon of milk just moments after Santa’s departure. Gone was Katie lamenting that Daddy NEVER got to see Santa. Gone was the friend from down the street who played the role the following year with relish, along with a hearty dose of Christmas ‘cheer’ that left Santa lilting a bit to the right and steadying himself on the door jam before warning us not to let the kids get too close. Yeah, Santa, we’d gathered as much.

Imagination ran wild and Katie seemed perfectly satisfied, insisting that she heard Santa on the rooftop in the early hours of the morning. Brooke was content to follow along for the ride.

Gone was the appalling overabundance of boxes from years past that had taken us straight through breakfast and onto third and fourth cups of coffee. Gone was the endless string of gifts from relatives far and wide reeking of the scent of seasonal quid pro quo. Gone were the twenty parcels from each of the four sets of grandparents, lavish and loving, but out of control.

Gone was the frenzy. Gone was the anxiety, the chaos. Gone was the infinite pile of paper and ribbon. Gone was Mama’s lament of  ‘far too much.’ This year, we decreed, would be different. And so it was.

We carried out traditions of our past and created new ones. We received an amazing early gift from the girls’ Nana Liz – a beautiful, old-fashioned wooden advent house with numbered drawers for each night. You can see it on the table in the photo above.

Upon receiving it, Katie and I went on a mission to fill it. We went to the local gag shop, the chocolatier, and a favorite local toy store together – one little drawer in hand to ensure that our finds would fit – and searched out tiny treasures. Of course I snuck in a few that she didn’t see. There have to be some surprises.

While out and about we stumbled on another advent calendar that I couldn’t resist. Rather than a piece of candy or a little toy, the treat each night was a tiny storybook. Each book told a small part of the Christmas story and once read, was hung by little hands on the tree by its small golden thread. Every night, the girls would take turns – one opening the advent drawer and sharing her find and then snuggling up together before the twinkling lights of the tree to hear the evening’s story. Then the other would take her turn hanging the little book on the tree. (Now those of you who have seen my tree understand why the decorations are fabulously bottom-heavy).

Of course there was Scouter and there were carefully written letters to Santa. There was the shopping and wrapping for an adopted family who needed a helping hand. There were stockings filled in the middle of the night and special gifts chosen with love. There was the traditional family late night wrapping party. There were cookies and milk and carrots for the reindeer, all gone by morning’s first light. There were the two things that Katie just HAD to have “I hope, Mama. I really hope.”

There were the couple of small things found last minute that turned out to bring the greatest delight. There was the four dollar Wonder Pets snow globe that I nearly jumped out of my skin when I discovered at the bookstore. The one that Brooke cuddled with on the sofa for hours on Christmas day, shaking periodically only to exclaim, “It’s snowing on them!” There was the foot high Toodee figurine that Katie and I found by accident on Christmas Eve and simply couldn’t leave the shop without. The one that I had to convince Brooke was not a suitable snuggle toy for bed the following night – twice. The very same one that made its way downstairs the next morning in the crook of a sleepy little arm. The one that got kisses and tickles before reluctantly being put down just long enough for a hug from Mama.

There was the generosity of all eight grandparents (each couple split up and married anew) agreeing to go in on one gift for each grandaughter and (mostly) sticking to it. There was the slightly sadistic joy of opening all the presents, calling it done and watching Katie take one last wistful look, thinking she hadn’t gotten the most coveted gift of only three things she’d asked for. There was the incredible sweetness of her words in that moment. “You know, Mama, it was a great Christmas. I have to admit, I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t get the Calico Critter Mansion, but I got to spend the day with my family and that’s what really matters.” There was the impish fun of saying, “Hmm, Luau, wasn’t there just one more gift upstairs for Katie? The one from all the grandparents?” There was the look on her face as she opened it that made it all worthwhile.

There was the decision to think outside of the box (and out from under the tree) for Brooke this year. We knew she would love the gifts that we had gotten for her. We knew we were right on the line of one or two too many (ex post facto I’d go so far as to say two or three too many). But the grandparents – what to get for her from the grandparents? What would MATTER to her? What would be special? More possibly lead painted plastic crap to add to the pile of last year’s possibly lead painted plastic crap? No. She’s already learned to read ‘Made in China’.

So, what would it be?

Last year, when Brooke was in pre-school, the PTO sponsored a visit from a group called Curious Critters. They showed up with an impressive menagerie of critters, all to be carefully handled by the kids. They had slithery animals, fuzzy cute animals, cuddly squirmy animals. A turtle, an iguana, a bird, a snake, a rabbit, a tarantula – all sorts of creepy crawly friends. Brooke’s teacher had called me at the end of the day. She could barely contain her excitement.

Brooke was the man’s ASSISTANT! She had stood next to him and allowed each and every animal to touch her. Every one. She even had a snake around her little shoulders. Had Miss Jennifer been able to catch her breath as she was describing all of this I’d likely not have believed it. My baby girl. The one with the desperate fear of dogs. The one who will touch a sleeping cat with one finger then run. Yup, that kid.

Jen called over the summer to tell us that the Critter guys were booked at her town’s library and suggested we all meet there. Who knew that the event would attract so many people? It was a mess. We lasted longer than we might have, but all in all, Brooke and I spent the afternoon on the library’s lawn while the show went on without us. Over and over again I tried to gently coax her into going back in. The din as she approached the door would send her reeling as if from a fire. We eventually played a game rolling on a small hill of the lawn and waited for our company to come out.

So, Brooke’s grandparents have all chipped in to bring the Critter guy to us. Have animals, will travel. We have invited four of Brooke’s kindergarten friends to join us, and next week she will be the guest of honor at her own (very small) Christmas party. It may not come in a box. She may not completely understand the connection to Christmas morning. But she will have an experience that MEANS something to her. That she will ENJOY. That was made possible by people that love her. What better gift – even if it can’t be found under a tree?

There was a softness, a lightness this year. The hurry gone, the frenzy abated. A feeling that less was far more. There was a poignant awareness that the gifts we cherished the most were the ones that we already had. It was a lot of fun to find some small things for one another, but what it all came down to for me was the simple Grace that we said before our Christmas dinner. The same one that we say together before every meal, every day.

“Thank you for the food we are about to receive and for the precious gift of each other. Amen.”



13 thoughts on “less was more

  1. Oh, LOOK at those smiles.

    You done good. What an amazing feat, persuading FOUR sets of grandparents to all go in together! And your precious Katie, working to convince herself through her (premature) disappointment that, after all, she got to spend the day with family, and that’s what matters… and what joy awaits Brooke, with the Curious Critters party coming up…

    Lessons to remember for next year too!

  2. Jess, I have to say again that I love your writing. You capture moments so well.
    What a creative and memorable gift for Brooke. Rhema loves the Curious Critters as well – no fear at all.

    Glad you all had a perfectly simple, simply perfect Christmas!

  3. I love your gingerbread/advent house!
    You know, less can be more – but you know, I rarely can do that.

    What I found is that it was the experiences leading up to Christmas – The Nutcracker, The Dicken’s Faire, all of the lovely things that we do as a family – that my children cherish and remember.

    The plastic stuff, not so much.

    I love your Critter idea. We will need pictures and a post, please.

  4. umm .. cat dragon? perhaps the ‘present’ on brooke’s cheek (the only unbruised part of her poor little mush)

    admittedly hard to see in the photo 😉

  5. We too did the “less is more” and found it much more enjoyable for everyone. Love Katie’s comment just before finding out she did, in fact, get the coveted gift – which just goes to show how deserving she was of it in the first place (and what great parents she has). And I can’t wait to hear all about Brooke’s amazing gift – thinking outside the box sounds like one of the best gifts ever.

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