Tuesday, December 29, 2015

My home this season: December 2015

I thought I would share a few snaps* from around the house while it is still decked out in holiday finery.

(*And yes, they are snaps, quickly captured with my phone -- imperfectly focused and somewhat underexposed, but hopefully they get the point across.)

I love putting out treasured Christmas decorations each year (some pieces treasured because they are beautiful -- like that white-and-gold Lucia figurine below that I have admired since I was small, and that my mother passed down to me a few years ago -- and others because they are silly -- like the Santa I made from a toilet paper roll and red construction paper when I was about five, n.p.).


But each year I am also confronted with the realization that we have about three times as many decorations and ornaments as we have room to display, and quite a bit of the excess does not fall into the category of "treasured." Does holiday time in the Marie Kondo era leave anyone else with a feeling of ambivalence?

A lot of our Christmas stuff originally belonged to my husband's grandmother and has been passed down to us by my mother-in-law. My husband's grandmother loved Christmas, and went all-out with decorating. So it's wonderful to have some of her things. I love the little wooden Santas from Germany and the roly-poly tomtar from Sweden.

But she also tended to overbuy Christmas stuff, and had multiples of many items that she never even used. A number of ornaments and other decorations came to us with their original tags from the 1980s still attached.

So these are not sentimental things. And some of them are, um, not exactly my taste, aesthetically speaking. (I don't really think they're my husband's taste, either; if I knew they were, I would feel very differently about them.) Sometimes I look at our Christmas tree and feel a bit burdened by someone else's overconsumption.

And yet, I can't quite bring myself to sort through and cull the Christmas stuff. To do so seems, well, Grinchy. Contrary to the spirit of the season.

Funnily enough, as I was pondering all this my mother-in-law wrote me an email in which she informed me, "I'm just finishing lunch and reading an article in Yes magazine on the KonMari method** and I quote: 'Kondo says that gifting friends and family with our unwanted crap is unfair and actually prevents us from moving on.'  Oh my!  I must stop bringing you Christmas ornaments!"

(**She knows I am a semi-devotee, but, although she has been dedicated to winnowing down her own possessions over the last several years, has not read the book herself.)

And I found myself telling her that I didn't quite think this was the answer. One of the ornaments she passed along to us this year, with instructions to give it to her granddaughter, was her own favorite Christmas ornament: a small, golden Japanese fan that closes and opens, etched with a scene of cranes on one side and a dragon on the other. It's very pretty and delicate, and I think my daughter felt quite grown-up to be entrusted with it. There's a lot of meaning in having physical objects to connect us with our ancestors.

(Looking through my photos I realize I didn't capture a shot of the fan ornament, but it has a prominent place on this little white tree that belongs to my daughter, currently topped with the extravagant purple glass bird that Sinterklaas left in her shoe this year.)

The current craze for decluttering has a lot of upsides (as I notice each time I open one of our newly spacious kitchen cabinets, or marvel at the entirely empty half of one of our kitchen drawers). But one of the downsides is the way that minimalism can actually make us more focused on material things. 

And I suspect this decluttering business is also tied up with some of the other instigators of controlled perfectionism that currently prevail in our culture: the helicopter parenting and Tiger Mom-ing, the snowstorm of closely cropped images that is Pinterest, the relentless "curation" of social media. 

Probably some of us are more susceptible to this sort of thing than others. I find that it's easy for me to get a little too fussy about needing things to be just so, rather than letting them just be.

For example, I felt pleased with myself for not rearranging the ornaments that my daughter had clumped all into a small section of the Christmas tree, and for letting her pick out a selection of cutesy wrapping paper rather than the austere and coordinated grouping that I would have fancied to be sophisticated. And then realized that this tiny bit of letting go was not exactly a reason to get all self-congratulatory. 

I mean, regardless of whether you celebrate Christmas in a religious or secular sense (or forgo anything Christmas-adjacent altogether), I think we can all agree that getting too focused on the trappings*** of the holiday season isn't really the point of the exercise.

(***that's an interesting idiom, isn't it?)

I'm not sure I have a tidy wrap-up to these thoughts. I suspect that there's just a fundamental tension (or maybe, an unexpected kinship) between minimalism and materialism, and I'll probably keep on wiggling at these ideas like a loose tooth of sorts. In the meantime, yes, I'll continue to work on clearing away the crap and the clutter -- but I'll try a little harder to remember that this is not an end but a means.

P.S.: If your Kondo fascination is not yet sated, I thought this was an interesting take on the phenomenon and investigation of the myth and reality behind it.


  1. This is such a lovely post, Sarah --- thank you for sharing your holiday home with us :) .

    I too (despite the fact that I seem to be becoming more and more of a Grinchy minimalist with each passing year) like to set out a few treasured items in December. For me, though, the key is the "treasured" part. So, to me, this sentence in your post --- "Sometimes I look at our Christmas tree and feel a bit burdened by someone else's overconsumption." --- speaks volumes. I don't think it's at ALL Grinchy (not in the LEAST!!) to get rid of non-treasured and excess Christmas items ... but of course, I have to allow for the fact that a Grinch's advice on what constitutes Grinch-like behaviour may just be a bit slanted ;) .

    What is it about MILs and passing along stuff?! My MIL has been VERY fond of passing along stuff to my husband and me --- items which originated from her household, as well as items which came from HER MIL's household (my husband's grandmother passed away many years ago and my MIL and FIL are unfortunately still dealing with her stuff). In some instances, I've been very glad to have been passed the items and have kept them; in other instances, I've let them go (but not always easily, because there tends to be guilt involved in that action). (Fortunately, our last move has put us into "plane-trip" range and they no longer have the luxury of packing the trunk of their car when coming to visit us).

    You say "minimalism can actually make us more focused on material things" ... and oh my gosh, yes, this is so true, or at least, it certainly is the case with me! (Although it may be a chicken and egg thing for me, because of my OCD). I also struggle with the need to have things "just so", and for the sake of my family have had to really work hard to fight that propensity. Your story of your daughter clumping all the ornaments into one section of the tree put a smile on my face. It reminded me that when my older two were quite a bit younger they LOVED to play with the ornaments and rearrange them. They would give them names and make up stories about them and have them visit each other, and it was so cute, and imaginative, and they loved doing it ... and yet, and yet ... it WAS a really hard thing for me, to simply let them do it (and that admission paints a picture of me which I really don't like, but there it is), so, yes, to "[I] realized that this tiny bit of letting go was not exactly a reason to get all self-congratulatory" ... but also, NO!, it IS actually a reason for (quiet) self-congratulation, because as small as something like this may seem to onlookers who don't *get it*, I have to say that letting my kids play like that with the ornaments WAS, at the time, a huge win for me.

    I am just very curious ... was Sinterklaas and the shoe-filling on December 5th a childhood tradition from your own childhood, or is it one you yourself have purposefully embarked upon with your daughter? I ask because my mother's Dutch traditions were completely lost in her marriage, and this --- the passing down or loss of traditions --- is something I've given a lot of thought to as I've raised my own kids.

    On Kondo ... I *finally* read the book, in November. And I've been sitting and sitting and sitting on a post about it... (Between perfectionism, not wanting to admit to Grinchiness, and suffering from paralyzing indecision which has so far led to 42 revisions, I'm not sure that post will ever see the light of day ... )

    Happy New Year, Sarah :)

    1. Thank you for understanding, Marian! Yes, I think for me the key is not just "treasured" but "few." Both because when there are fewer objects, they are more treasured, and also because it's practical! (I like the idea of having a home that changes with the seasons, but I've sort of decided that I'm willing to spend about 1 hour a month on that, max!)

      Your story about your kids making up narratives with the ornaments is so, so charming! I can almost picture it, and I wish I could witness it. Wonderful. (Our tree also contains an ornament "story" but I think it's an unintentional one: my daughter hung a knitted Santa Claus right next to a similarly sized porcelain doll in an old-fashioned calico dress. Except, she hung the doll facing inwards. So it looks like for some reason Ma Ingalls is REALLY pissed off at Santa!)

      We didn't celebrate Sinterklaas when I was growing up, it was something we started when my daughter was maybe 5? (She is pretty much willing to roll with anything that involves more presents.) We didn't really have any Dutch (my dad's side) traditions when I was growing up, and on my mom's (Swedish) side there were just a few -- meatballs, brown beans, and rice pudding on Christmas eve (but, in the pre-IKEA era, served with a cranberry-based sauce rather than lingonberries), and a cardamom-scented Christmas bread (that actually is a Danish or Norwegian recipe I think, and came from an issue of Sunset magazine ca. 1978). So I've just sort of picked up some additional things that seemed meaningful to me along the way, although I am not always totally consistent about them (it's been a couple years since I've managed to make Swedish Lucia buns). Sinterklaas is rather fun and a good excuse to give my daughter her yearly Christmas ornament at a time when she can actually enjoy seeing it on the tree that year. I am not a purist by any means. I sure haven't mentioned anything about Zwarte Piet! I would love to hear more about what traditions you've (re)introduced and how you thought them through.

      Also, I am officially *desperate* to know your thoughts on the Marie Kondo book!

  2. Your thoughts on Christmas things sort of reflect my current frustrations with the whole 'simplify/ reclaim the holidays' zeitgeist. I've heard a lot of push for that in both secular and religious circles (especially with regard to Advent in the more religious circles). I think it's a good thing to resist the over-commercialization and pressure for perfection, but that in and of itself does not help us rediscover the joy of the season, and in fact it can suck some of the joy out of it. I don't think it's grinchy to get rid of things that feel like a burden. But Christmas is after all a celebration of abundance (new life in the dark of winter and all that) so there's really no need to feel overly guilty about having too much of it either.

    1. "I think it's a good thing to resist the over-commercialization and pressure for perfection, but that in and of itself does not help us rediscover the joy of the season, and in fact it can suck some of the joy out of it." -- Yes, you are so right on! (And, the push for "simplicity" is sometimes mainly about a certain aesthetic or *appearance* of simplicity, which can be anything but simple to carry out, and becomes a different kind of pressure for perfection.) I agree with you, too, about Christmas being a celebration of abundance. That's why it's uncomfortable to feel like I'm rejecting abundance. Or being a person who can't accept a gift.

  3. So much to say on this topic and in response to this thoughtful post. I know all the pains you name. (Yes, I, too, have wanted lovely coordinated wrappings under the tree. I suspect that the year I get them will be the very same year I am longing for children who will be absent.)

    A solution that has worked for me, with regard to Christmas and minimalism and grinchiness and guilt: A few years ago I did get rid of some things I knew I didn't want, and I (mostly) haven't missed them. (There are a few items I wish I'd kept in case one of the kids might have wanted them someday. But that day is so far off, I don't really regret letting go of them. I would not want to store them that long for a maybe.)

    There are some things I've kept but I don't put them out. I have room to store them, so I'm OK with that. I'd say I began experimenting with decluttering and minimalism about 4 years ago. In general, I prefer having less--but I also really enjoy some things. I am a sentimental person, and things can evoke feelings for me. And--most important--I can see that how I feel one year might not be the same way I feel the next. I don't want to get rid of things that do have value to me, even if I'm not using them right now.

    Still, when I took down the tree a few days ago, I did cull out a few ornaments. (Starting with the ones I didn't feel compelled to use when we were decorating.) Doing it after Christmas is much easier than before--the grinchiness thing doesn't get in the way so much then.

    Hope you had a lovely holiday. It was nice to see the pictures of your home and the special things in it.

    1. "Yes, I, too, have wanted lovely coordinated wrappings under the tree. I suspect that the year I get them will be the very same year I am longing for children who will be absent." -- Yup, my daughter is only 8 but I'm already keenly aware of that. I am sentimental, too, and I like having my things. That is a good point about some things having value even if I'm not using them right now. I'll keep that in mind if we do manage to pull off a post-holiday decoration cull (our tree is still up, actually -- trying to decide if we'll take it down tomorrow or next weekend, I suspect laziness will win out!). Hope 2016 is starting off well for you. Here's to better, lighter days ahead.