a peek inside the fishbowl

19 Nov, 2008

Keeping it small

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Yaktivism

Keeping it small

I’ve been thinking a lot about shopping, holidays, consumer goods, and our messed up economy since my Wal-Mart post. A reader also recently reminded me of The Story of Stuff.

This Christmas I’m going to try my best to do it up big, but keep it small. It’s my new motto:

Do it big, but keep it small.

How many times have the girls totally forgotten about gifts they’ve received … i.e. “lost” them under their bed, never to remember having received them in the first place? How many things is too many?

How many times have I realized that the thing the girls like best is when we do something fun as a family? Happy memories stay with us for always.

This Christmas, I’m going to do my best to do the following:

  • Buy fewer gifts, and take the time to ensure that what I do buy is (a) meaningful/special in some way (b) of good/lasting quality.
  • Avoid big box, go small box. I’m going to do my best to shop locally… and whatever I can’t find I’ll considering buy at smaller outfits online.
  • Handmade is good. Etsy rocks in this regard. I bought the girls some prints last year. I might to the same this year. I have a few handmade gifts in mind to make too.
  • There’s always eBay!

AND (and this is going to be a tough one for me) I am also not going to succumb (or let Mark guilt me) into a last minute panic that I haven’t bought enough. It happens almost every year.

I know defining my Big Box rule is going to be a tough one for me. What about the sweater I want to buy Mark at Banana Republic? Or the chocolate coins I get at Shopper’s Drug Mart? What about the craft supplies I buy at Michael’s? Or the four-seater toboggan (made in Canada!) I saw at Canadian Tire? Ok. Maybe I’ll keep the toboggan on the list. But I am going to try my best are pare it down the list itself.

It’s best to spend my money on fewer, perhaps more expensive items, than on cheapie stuff that might not even get played with, isn’t it?

What do you do? Do you have a budget, say $150 per kid, and shop until you hit the limit? Do you prefer to buy two things which add up to the $150, or ten? In other words, does quantity trump everything else because it looks “good” to have a full complement of boxes under the tree?

I’d really be interested to know how many gifts Canadian (and U.S. kids) get at Christmas.

I love beautiful things as much as the next person (I might even argue that I love beautiful things even more than the next person!) but don’t you think less is more?

I don’t want to give the impression that we’re all going to be sitting around on Christmas Day, eating day-old bread while unwrapping second-hand underwear bundled up in old newspapers tied with kitchen string. But I do know we can have a joyful and pleasant Christmas without so much stuff.

That’s where the “do it big” part comes in. We can have a happy Christmas without all the gifting. Baking, decorating, skating, tobogganing, hot chocolate with marshmallows, reading Christmas stories while tucked cosily in bed … these are things that can play a major role in our holidays.

My reasons for entertaining this challenge (and I hope you think about doing the same!) are numerous:

  • Environmental (less shopping means fewer resources are used, fewer things are imported, less energy is expended, more space in the landfill)
  • Financial (less shopping means more money saved)
  • Logistical (where in my home am I going to put new things?)
  • Familial (I’d also like to teach my children that happiness does not come from the amount of things we own.)

I’d like to turn it over to you with a couple of questions:

Is Christmas going to be different for your family this year? And are you willing to pare it down and see what happens? Or maybe you’ve already done your shopping? I’d love to hear what you think.

20 Responses to "Keeping it small"

1 | Mark

November 19th, 2008 at 12:54 pm


…I’m not going to get a sweater from Banana Republic ?

2 | mrsgryphon

November 19th, 2008 at 1:51 pm


We got a little carried away last year with Bean’s first ‘real’ Christmas… this year, she’s almost 3 and it will make a bigger impression, so we decided to shop together and get all her gifts in one afternoon. I shopped for months last year, and often had forgotten what I’d already gotten for her – by the time Christmas arrived, it was way overboard! This year’s shopping trip ended up being much more reasonable, and they are all things that we both agreed she will enjoy and appreciate. There are 2 “big gifts” (a Leapster Click-Start and a slot-car track… not sure if that’s more for her or hubby?!) and then puzzles, books, dress up clothes and doll accessories to round out the package-opening. To my dismay, we did end up at the big toy store, but to get it all done in the 2 hours that we had together (without her!) that’s what we decided to do. I think it’s somewhat balanced by the fact that I am very small-shop-minded the rest of the year and am trying to buy everyone else’s gifts online or donating to charities on their behalf.

My husband and I also decided not to buy each other much this year – just one “big” gift each (I’m really hoping for a flash for my D80!) and a few things to help Santa out with our stockings… that’s it. We’re thrilled to have family here visiting over the holidays this year, and we know it will be a “BIG” holiday, without mountains under the tree.

3 | AlisonG

November 19th, 2008 at 2:41 pm


Last year (Lia was 18 months) we didn’t even bother putting our Christmas decorations up. We got her one gift: I think it was a Signing Time video, I can barely remember! She got six or eight other things from relatives.

We’re in a small downtown condo, so we don’t have a lot of storage space for toys. We try to keep things simple. I think of it as outsourcing our toys–she has lots to play with at daycare, or friends’ houses, or indoor and outdoor playgrounds.

This year Lia knows who Santa is, so we’re going to put up a tree and have more holiday celebration. She’ll get one gift from Santa (a set of wooden blocks) and one from us (maybe some Thomas the Tank Engine or a doctor kit), plus a stocking with little treats. I figure if we keep the gifts limited now, then later on it will just seem natural not to be opening scads of gifts.

My husband and I usually only buy one gift for each other, and we do exchanges with our extended family, with a limit of $50. It’s pretty manageable.

4 | Tali

November 19th, 2008 at 4:47 pm


My budget this year is $100 for everyone, including shipping…I am not even sure if I’m getting the kids anything, because I can’t think of one thing they need, and they won’t notice any presents after the first few. I’ve asked everyone else to get them art supplies, or other things that get used up, since we don’t have alot of room. It’s really better for kids to have simple toys that they can be imaginative with – the latest electronic goo-ga will just be forgotten in a couple months, break down, and end up in a landfill.

I’d really like their takeaway from christmas to be that we got to spend alot of time with family, do cool stuff (ie, we’ll be in Boston and go to the Aquarium there, and some christmas displays), ate some nice food, made nice things for people – the presents they got should be secondary.

The thought of someone going into debt to buy me something I don’t need that was made by slave labour in a sweatshop and shipped from thousands of miles away is really too depressing to bear.

Of course, I’m often accused of being the grinch… :)

5 | Ginger

November 19th, 2008 at 6:07 pm


I wrote a post about this not long ago on October 17th. The boys will have Christmas this year, even if they are only 4 months old! I haven’t decided yet what is appropriate. I think we have to set it low because I am not going to buy two of everything! Can you imagine! I think they will get 2 or 3 presents from Santa and 1 or 2 from us and then they will have their stockings. I plan for stockings to hold a couple of small inexpensive presents and some treats and a pair of socks. Nathan and I have always given socks in our stockings since our first Christmas together. We will keep our portion at home small because the boys have 3 sets of grandparents and numerous aunts and uncles who all want to buy things. I have been to some of our friends’ homes and the number of toys scares me. We have a modest home and I cringe when I imagine the amount of toys we could possibly have. I have plans to handle that…but that is another post altogether!

6 | Miss Vicky

November 19th, 2008 at 6:19 pm


We’re going relatively small, mostly since we’re short one income. One big present for G (Plan Toys train table, purchased at local store, NOT ToysRUs), family presents for the nieces and nephews (museum memberships), drawing names for sibling exchange (gift to be purchased at craft fair or small shop on Wellington West, as per usual). Since the Webgeek is sans income, we’re not exchanging gifts, although I may pick up something for the household that we have been wanting to get (like Wii Fit)

We’ll do stockings as well, probably spending about $40 on each

7 | Lynn

November 19th, 2008 at 6:31 pm


Ooh, Miss Vicky, I love the museum membership idea. I’m going to file that one away for next year!

This year we are going a little bit smaller than years past, just because we feel like the kids have a lot and get a lot (from all their many many aunts, uncles, and grandparents), so we can go small here. They are all sharing one “big” Santa gift (a $40 value) and then they get little things in their stockings (I admit I abuse the stocking idea to pick up things that I find that are “so cute” and “irresistible.”). Then they each get one bigger present from us (around $50), and a small present from their siblings (I really like the idea of them giving to each other, and they get excited about it).

For each other, we don’t get anything for under the tree but we do do the stockings, just for appearances’ sake. I always fill our own stockings with socks and candy.

I guess we have pared down a bit this year (we used to give the kids one gift from each sibling, and they each got a Santa gift) but having done my shopping now, it still feels like a big ol’ pile of stuff in the closet upstairs. I love your idea of making it more about the things we do together than the stuff we get — I’ll try to do that too!

8 | Soire

November 19th, 2008 at 7:02 pm


My ex-husband and I came from totally different worlds regarding xmas.. When Lily was born (This is her 6th xmas) we decided that it would be no more than 3 small things.

It lasted until he and I separated 4 years later (in the autumn) and I found myself VERY budget restricted so now xmas rolls like this for me and my girls:

1 new pair of jammies. Home-made if I have time.
1 Toy. Usually something they’re fixated on – last year one got a pony set, and one got a shiny new barbie with vet set (she wants to be a zoo-keeper!)
1 Book – This year the oldest is starting small books (about the size of 2 adult chapters)
1 Movie

This year the jammies got bought, and the movie got substituted for a board game. We’re expecting in late December, and I’ve run out of time for pretty much everything it seems.

I let the grannies do what they want and keep to my list for us. It works, they each get the same amount of gifts (and are too young to notice any price discrepancy) and they’re not over the top.

9 | LO

November 19th, 2008 at 8:04 pm


This is THE year! For the past few years we have tried to pare it down and are slowly getting there. Call it a 3 year plan…This year the kids are really on board (Ages 8 and 14). Both lists are shorter-as kids get older i find the list shorter but the items more sophisticated/expensive. We have totally embraced the ‘World Vision’ catalogue as our charity this year. Will some relatives be surprised and perhaps even mad or indignant to have a goat bought in their honour for a family in some third world? Will my sis in law say WTF when she receives a card saying that we have immunized an entire community in her name? Yeah, she will. I almost want to send a disposal camera along with her ‘gift’ and have someone take her pic when she reads about her gift:)
AS this is a three year plan, we are still easing into it with family gift obligations. The World Vision donation will be made and a small, thoughtful and mindful gift will be included.
It’s just all too much like you say in your post Andrea. Do we need it? And who decided that at this time of year we have to buy all these gifts for people at this time????
Best moment throughout this adventure so far has been the comment my son made (the grade 10 14 year old with surfer hair that seniors often scowl at and cut off in line) “Mommy, my list only has three things on it-i have everything-i’m lucky and it leaves more money for goats.” Priceless:)
I would love if you do a follow up about how all this ‘went down’ with those that tried!
BTW one of my fave stores in the Westboro (recently located down the road a bit on the edge of Hintonburg) is Heavens to Betsy. The two women who own the store buy a lot of Canadian and support artists. Go there and tell them Laurel sent you:)

10 | Kim

November 19th, 2008 at 8:14 pm


I’m definitely buying less for my son. The last two years he has so many presents under the tree that he gets tired of opening them. They aren’t just from me either, but from friends and family. I don’t think he’ll even notice. But then again, he’s only five! Like you I have no idea where to put all the new crap I’m expecting to come into the house. I need to do a big clean up and charity drop waaaaaay before December 25.

11 | smothermother

November 19th, 2008 at 9:49 pm


It’s interesting that everyone is talking about how much or how little people are buying, buying new. No ones seems to be mentioning how many wonderful things you can by second hand. All of the things I bought for my little guy are used. Either from consignment stores or from list serves like Kijiji or Craig’s List.

My husband and I have been doing very minimal Christmas’ for almost 4 years now, since he went back to school and we became a one income house. Even with little gifts, we still put up all the decorations and really enjoy the holiday season, try not to focus on the commercial aspect. With my family, we make gifts (this year was Crispix mix in fun boxes) and with my husband’s we only buy for the kids, with a limit of $20 each. Even as my husband starts to work, we both believe in little is more and make sure that Christmas is about family and friends.

12 | Jennifer

November 20th, 2008 at 6:29 am


My change this year is to not buy any wrapping paper, ribbons, gift tags, and such for wrapping up gifts. I am going to be buying Xmas designed cloth bags and telling the kids that Santa is going green this year and filling our (reusable year after year) cloth bags just like when we go to the grocery store and bring our own reusable bins. We have extra ribbon and bows saved from last year and for gift tags, they’re always made from cutting pictures from last years Xmas cards. On Xmas morn we won’t have to take out the giant trash bag to stuff all our wrapping paper in, we’ll just fold up the cloth bags and store for next year.

13 | Miche

November 20th, 2008 at 10:29 am


We’re similar to AlisonG. Kiddo gets one gift from Santa (plus some small stalking stuffers) and one gift from us. Parents get one gift from Santa and one gift from Kiddo/Other Parent. No exchanges with adult extended family.

This gives the adults the gift of time (no shopping, wrapping, shipping hassles) and keeps the kid clutter to a minimum.

14 | BeachMama

November 20th, 2008 at 11:58 am


I think I mentioned this in another post a while back, but I am doing ‘Handmade Christmas #2’. It was a hit last year, so this year we are even going further into Handmade. The only ones getting store bought are the kids, and a few for Hubs and I at home here. But, all of my extended family is getting Handmade. On the list so far: soap, pj pants, hand warmers, hats and framed photos. I am sure I will have more to add as the season wears on, but I am enjoying being so creative.

And as for the stuff we are buying it will be very little, just because we all get so much stuff as the year goes on anyway, there is no need. Hubs and I do a list of 20 things under $20 and we have to pick stuff off that list.

15 | lacoop

November 20th, 2008 at 12:28 pm


Each year we try to not get too caught up. I think this year we will actually manage that. We’ll get a few targeted gifts for the kids (budget of $100 per child), something small for each other (also $100) , and then plan to give to others who need it (people we know and also through organizations like Plan Canada). We have started buying, but still have lots left to do. We will focus on buying Canadian, and shopping at the smaller , local stores.

16 | Randa

November 20th, 2008 at 3:03 pm


We celebrate the Winter Solstice (we don’t celebrate Christmas) but the principle we employ still applies: we make one handmake gift for each person in our family. Some items made and given last year: candles, earrings, Zen calendar (he hasn’t filled in a single item all year – how Zen is THAT?!!), cooking apron, origami star mobile, a painting…

We really enjoy the creative process, and the thought that goes into what the recipient will enjoy/use. Our kids are older (18 and 20 this year), but a child of any age can make age-appropriate gifts which are meaningful. I can you, the excitement we feel at watching our family members open the gifts we made from our hearts is the most heartwarming feeling…

17 | kate

November 20th, 2008 at 10:37 pm


we are toning it down this year. we’re in the process of simplifying…purging…getting rid of the unnecessary junk in our lives. we’re doing an advent calendar similar to yours…the one you used decorative paper to make envelopes…to help us re-focus on what is important. we’re cutting down on spending. Christmas isn’t about buying and spending money that we may or may not have. i want our kids to know that now, while they’re young…before they’re jaded for life.
thanks for all of your awesome ideas!


18 | alison

November 21st, 2008 at 11:00 am


I’m definitely paring down this Christmas. The girls will get a few gifts from me, and one larger gift from Santa. I’m thinking this is the last year Leah is going to believe in Santa, she’s already questioning it. Damn those other kids at school.

One thing that I started a couple of years ago that everyone likes is baking for Christmas. I bake about 5 or 6 different kinds of cookies (starting around now and freezing them til needed), and then buy inexpensive tins from Zellers, and decorated cellophane bags from the dollar store to put them in. Teachers, school bus drivers, neighbours and the babysitter get cookies for Christmas. Everyone has liked the gifts, they are hand made and thoughtful, and relatively inexpensive. And the girls get to help. Win-win-win. Win.

19 | Amy

November 22nd, 2008 at 12:16 am


My parents have been giving tickets to events for a while now, such as the opera/symphony, Imax, etc. It’s nicer to do things as a family than get things anyways.

My sister-in-law dictated a few years ago that she didn’t want anyone giving her kids “junk”, so my nieces and nephews only get books, clothes, movies, chocolate, or craft supplies now – things that will get used up or can be given away once they’re done with them.

I’ve heard a lot of teachers complain about the number of gifts they receive from students, I know they appreciate edible gifts, especially homemade cookies.

20 | Scattered Mom

November 22nd, 2008 at 3:45 pm


My son’s teachers always get cookies or preserves, and they love them.

My response to this was long and ended up as a post on my blog!


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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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