Welcome to my Christmas rant …
Another Christmas is almost upon us and you are probably inundated with gift guides and gift ideas from every website and magazine around you. Most people are tripping over their own feet while trying to proffer gifts for their loved ones, and occasionally even for people they don’t care for at all. Shopping centres are filled with stressed out people. We have Black Friday sales, followed by Christmas sales, followed by January clearances to make room for the spring collections and so on. It’s a never ending madness that causes a vicious cycle of over-consumption, obesity, debt, depression, waste and pollution.
I did part of my growing up on the wrong side of the iron curtain. I remember receiving a small gift each December 6, the day of Saint Nicholas. The gift was whatever little thing my parents were able to get their hands on. Our toy stores were mostly empty, as were all other stores. But that one little gift held meaning for me for long after I had received it. I cherished it and valued it, knowing how hard it was to come by.
Our Christmas dinners were something else. We looked forward to the traditional delicious food, served only at this time of year, prepared lovingly by my mother and my grandmother. We looked forward to sitting down to this special dinner, with people we loved. No gifts were exchanged at this time. It was a time for being together.
Eventually, our family managed to leave this Dickensian-like world behind for the greener pastures on the other side of the iron curtain. There, things were brighter. Stores were full, people well-fed, colourful plastic things stared at us children from overstuffed toy store shelves. Coming to the West for me, was probably akin to going to Disney World. And I embraced this world of freedom and capitalism with open arms. For decades since, I happily partook in all the rituals of the free market. And then…
Then, slowly, I realized how unhappy I was. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Something wasn’t right. I didn’t know what. I couldn’t continue living on someone else’s terms and I felt like someone other than me was dictating my life. But who was it? Or what was it? It wasn’t obvious. It was just a feeling gnawing at me. Well, the answer finally came to me. Not all at once. It was a process. A process of reading, asking, learning, of introspection, of trying to figure out was bothering me so much. And eventually, I figured out what it was that was eating at my happiness.
To make a long story short, it finally came to me that my overabundance of physical possessions was making me miserable. #FirstWorldProblems. It was around this time that my husband and I decided we were going to drastically change our lives. The preparation for this drastic change was a few years in the making. We knew we needed to unburden ourselves of the mountain of things we were drowning under. Why? To make room for a new life. A life free of the thrall of too many unnecessary things that were preventing us from leading a deeper life that we were so craving. So we sold and donated most of our earthly possessions. The process was daunting and we were glad to have help from my husband’s parents during that time.
I have to say I was ashamed of the amount of things we had accumulated in a decade of living together in our house. We discovered that we owned things that we barely used or bought just because they were on sale and might one day come in handy. It was unnerving to realize what a mountain of unnecessary objects we were sitting on. How with our wallets we were contributing to pollution, human misery in the third world and our own misery of owning things we didn’t really need.
Bear with me, my Christmas rant keeps going …
Fast forward a few years, and we are now living a different life. There are a lot less things we are owners of, but the few things that do belong to us, are ones we actually need and use every day. And I know we definitely could do a lot better. But we’re not there yet.
People that inspire me to push further are many. Some I know personally in my life and they motivate me to change. You know who you are. Others, whose books I’ve read or whom I follow on social media, are Bea Johnson, from Zero Waste Home, an avid proponent of the zero waste movement; Anne Marie from the Zero Waste Chef. I also like Marie Kondo, the de-cluttering expert who asks an important question: “Does this item spark joy?” Let me tell you, most of the items in my previous life did not.
I am also fascinated by emerging concepts like the Library of Things. It’s an idea proposing that you do not need to own things you rarely use. That you can instead borrow them on the rare occasion that you might require them.
Today, we live a life that makes us happier. We own less and experience more. We travel a good deal, but despite what it might appear like on social media, we still lead somewhat of a normal life. One in which, Kas attends school and we work (albeit without commuting since we are digital nomads). We have not forsaken all things material, don’t get me wrong. We are not monks living in self-imposed poverty. However, having identified wants vs needs, and having removed the wants almost entirely from the equation (except for our guilty pleasure of travel), we feel more liberated and happy.
Yes, Kas still gets Christmas and birthday presents. We are not so cruel as to deny him that childhood pleasure. But in our gift giving, we attempt to teach him things like choice (can’t have it all) and materials that things are made of (why are most toys made of plastic??). We try to teach him to donate things he no longer likes playing with before purchasing new ones. We only give him gifts for his birthday and Christmas. If he happens to get money for any occasion, that money goes into an account and he’s been learning about budgeting and saving his money. The lack of instant gratification has taught our 10-year old that often, after having waited to save his money for something, his want has changed and he is glad he didn’t impulse buy something.
Are you still with me? My Christmas rant isn’t over yet …
So what is the purpose of my Christmas rant other than to unburden myself of my pre-holiday frustration I seem to experience yearly at this time? Well, it is to ask you, am I the only one who’s felt this unease about too many things? I know I am not. I see a movement out there, if not several, trying to get away from mindless consumption.
And I also want to encourage you to think about your own ways. Do you buy things just because you feel like you have to? Do you feel like it’s expected of you? Or do you shop because it gives you a temporary feeling of well-being? Do you feel the need to show on social media how many gifts you’ve placed under the tree? Are you in debt for a few months after Christmas? Does Christmas stress you out? Then you need to rethink things. Perhaps you need to have a conversation with your family about how you all feel.
I will never forget how in the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush encouraged people to just continue shopping as if nothing had happened. My jaw must have dropped to the ground. I understood the sentiment he was trying to project: one of normalcy in the face of terrorism. But the fact that normalcy was shopping and consumption was a real eye opener for me.
We live in a world, where our popular role models are vapid people who are only famous for being famous. They are the influencers (ugh) whose word carries more weight than that of intelligent people. How are Kardashians more popular than Stephen Hawking? We value shiny things over knowledge and rational thought. Our values are truly upside down.
So what am I trying to say? I am saying, if we are to have a healthy planet and feel truly happy as individuals, constant consumption of things is not doing anyone any good. Christmas and holidays like it are important for family and societal bonds but we have taken most of our holidays and converted them into shopping sprees. The result is a sick planet and a lot of unhappy people.
Sorry, guys. My Christmas rant is still going on …
Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to advocate a Christmas à la Scrooge. Gift giving is important and we should not do away with it but we don’t need to show our love or respect for others with how much money we spend on them. Instead there are other ways to give gifts. What are they?
1 – Give a gift of Time
We live a world where everyone is always in a rush: commuting, working, taking kids to extracurricular activities, or to the dentist, shopping, spending time on social media. That rushed life gives very little time to just be. And just like when you’re flying and they tell you to first put that oxygen mask on yourself before assisting others, I will give you the same advice here. Spend time with yourself first. My alone time is very important to me. It is when I am able to create (or write a Christmas rant much like this one).
But also, give time to others. Twenty years from now, your kids will not remember another toy they got from you. But they will remember the time you spent together and how it made them feel. We only get limited time in this life, with no do-overs, so let’s be generous with our time, with the right people.
Donate your time. Donating money is important and necessary and I encourage you to do it if you can. But nothing will make you feel as good deep down as actually being in the thick of things and helping someone in need. Maybe volunteering at a soup kitchen in your area? Maybe collecting donations for a local charity?
2 – Give a gift of Friendship
This goes hand in hand with time. Give your time and friendship to your family and people who make you happy and bring out the good in you. Be choosy with whom you spend your time. Time is a precious resource.
So don’t waste your time on meaningless relationships. Instead give your friendship to those who lift you up and inspire you to be a better person. The older I get, the more I realize who I like to be around. Don’t squander your time on people who make you feel miserable.
3 – Give a gift of Food
Don’t get me wrong, I love giving gifts in kind as well. But I prefer to make them myself. Usually, this something is in the form of food. I am normally not an avid chef or baker, but at Christmastime it makes me happy to bake a batch of cookies for a friend or neighbour.
And every year, we take off for Christmas (our parents and siblings live in two different countries). So we host a pre-Christmas get together for our closest friends before we leave. I love preparing food for them as a thank you for their continued friendship.
Food and sharing it with others is more meaningful than objects. Combined with time spent and a good conversation, your gift of food will help forge deep meaningful relationships.
4 – Give a gift of a Book
Everyone loves a good book. For an avid reader in your life, share the gift of reading. But remember, if the recipient of this gift is on a path of de-cluttering their life – perhaps an e-book would suit them better.
A book is not just a book. It opens up a whole new world in someone’s imagination. Books can teach you a new skill, give you an new outlook on life. Hey, in fact, sometimes books change lives. In our case, books by Tim Ferriss and Guy Gavriel Kay have drastically altered the course of our lives.
5 – Give a gift of an Experience
Receiving tickets to a great movie or show would make me a thousand times more happy than receiving an object (unless, of course, it was a book I wanted). Perhaps someone in your life has wanted to learn how to draw or how to make sushi? Why not give them a gift of a class where they can learn a new skill they’ve always wanted to try?
If you are still reading at this point, I want to thank you for having made it thus far. I do realize I am on a Christmas rant here but it needed to be said. Now you know a little bit more about our traveling family and what makes us tick. While we have taken drastic measures to change our lives – selling our family home and moving halfway across the world to live the life we wanted – it is not what I am asking you to do.
I do realize our ideal life is not your ideal life. All I am telling you is that, for me at least, too many possessions clouded my vision and stood in the way of accomplishing my ideal life. You might already be living your ideal life and kudos to you for following your path. But if you feel like you are not there yet, I encourage you to spend time with yourself to figure out what you need to do to get to where you want to be. And perhaps, it is true what they say. Less is More. I know it is for me.
Thanks for surviving my Christmas rant! Please share your thoughts below in the comments. I am curious about what you think.
Merry Christmas! Enjoy your Family & Friends!