Decluttering (and de-stressing) Christmas

Yes, we know it’s July 25! We’re choosing to publish this today — “Christmas in July” at many Christian summer camps— as a way of connecting other Christians with this wonderful piece well in advance of  Advent 2018, giving everyone time to plan!  

Author Kathryn Lewis is a member of the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields’ Climate Action Team.  She led the Decluttering Christmas event on Saturday, November 11, 2017.

Decluttering Christmas
I’m dreaming of a stress-free Christmas…

By Kathryn Lewis
So many of us are ready to simplify the way we celebrate Christmas with our families and friends. We’re ready to declutter our homes and our lives. We recognize that most of us have enough ‘stuff’- probably too much stuff – in a world where so many don’t have enough. Many feel anxiety and even dread as we contemplate shopping (and inevitably overspending) as we try to find gifts and things to make our loved ones happy. We’re also aware that the stuff we buy will probably soon be forgotten and eventually make its way to our overflowing landfills.

Since the Middle Ages, celebrations of Christmas outside the church have always had an element of abandon and “blowout”. But the Christmas of abundant gifts, decorated trees, and Santa Claus which most Americans associate with the holiday wasn’t part of our collective culture until right after the Civil War. The rise of department stores and advertising, the proliferation of catalogues and the availability of so many new manufactured goods in the early twentieth century ushered in a brand new era of consumerism in America.

In his book Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas renowned environmental advocate, Bill McKibben says that Christmas was always celebrated in a way that met the needs of people in the time they found themselves. In a country where many people were just starting to hope for a more comfortable and affluent way of life, the acquisition of things and the gift giving at Christmas could create a childlike happiness. Through the mid century, people who’d had nothing in the depression or barely survived the war were thrilled to be able to give their children what they’d never had and to give themselves what they’d never thought possible. But McKibben points out that we live now in very different times and lots of gift buying no longer meets our deepest needs and longings.

In our workshop we shared some of our favorite childhood Christmas memories. Almost all were activities and fun shared with family and neighbors: caroling, the maybe rare experience of a parent’s undivided attention, multiple generations baking and cooking together or telling stories or sharing the beauty of nature and the magic of church on Christmas Eve. We contemplated the lives we live now and explored what traditions and rituals we wanted to include in our celebration of Christmas even as we diminish the ritual of buying lots of presents

Some of the rituals are fun and create joy and connection with our families and friends. Others give us space for much needed quiet and time for reverence.

Lighting the Darkness

Everyone – especially kids – love candles this time of year. Candles are also important symbolic accessories to our Christian rituals.

In one Celtic solstice ritual, a holly twig is burned to symbolize the habits and sorrows one is ready to let go of. Then an oak twig is burned to symbolize the hope one has for the future.

Make or purchase an Advent Wreath. The four colored candles around the wreath symbolize hope, peace, joy and love. The ritual of lighting a new candle each week in Advent gives families an opportunity to reflect and respond together. For instance, lighting the peace candle could lead to talking about war and its impact on people’s lives. A family might then look for ways to help a local refugee family displaced by violence. What other ways can you and your families respond to each week’s theme?

Consider a candle and lantern-lit Solstice Walk on Thursday, December 21. Only a few days after a new moon, there should be very little light from the moon to block your view of the stars. This is also a great opportunity to perk up your ears and listen for any local owls.

Nature’s Bounty

Another beautiful ritual to share with family on Christmas Eve is to scatter seeds and crumbs outside. St. Francis started the tradition so that even the animals and birds would have time off from hunting to celebrate Jesus’ birth.

A nature walk in a park or preserve on Christmas day is an opportunity to experience gratitude for the beauty of our earth and say a prayer of protection for all living things.

The Five Senses

The best Christmas traditions awaken all of our senses. Baking cookies with family and friends or making favorite ethnic foods also produces wonderful gifts to share with others. Children will remember the fun of delivering food gifts to neighbors, those in need, or people who have made a difference throughout the year.

Christmas has been celebrated with music and instruments and traditional songs throughout the centuries. Children love to hear and sing carols and many people describe a caroling party as their favorite Christmas memory. The more bells and banjos and guitars played the better. Check in with your local churches and music organizations for seasonal offerings. Many, especially the church-sponsored events, are of charge and rife with opportunities to joyfully connect with our neighbors.

When the music is sung in hospitals and institutions where people are alone it is a true gift.

Rethinking Gifts

Everyone loves a present and there are so many alternative gift ideas that might be more appreciated than a store bought thing in the Age of Clutter.

Give family and friends coupons for your time and/or expertise: It could be the gift of a backrub, a few hours of babysitting, or a week worth of dinners prepared and delivered.

Give the offer to help them for an entire morning or afternoon. Don’t forget to wrap it up with ribbon, because presentation is important!

A collective longing new to our era is for some time that is device free and unplugged. When we play with our children or have a conversation with someone we give the gift of our full and undistracted presence.

Give a donation in their name to a cause that you know is important to them.

If your family wants to exchange objects, you can always suggest that that you all set a limit on how much to collectively spend. In his book, Bill McKibben describes how much fun his family has and how creative they can get with their $100 family limit.

You can also draw names so that everyone (even the little ones) has one person to find a gift for. And set a limit —maybe $10 or maybe $20— to be spent on the gift. This limit fuels real creativity. Thrift and second-hand stores have wonderful treasures and everything’s reused.


When we’re freed from the need to shop for lots of gifts, we have the time to share experiences. Cook a soup dinner with the family or friends and invite neighbors you don’t know very well to share your meal. Go to museums, take the train to the city to look at the lights, have lunch with a friend you’ve been missing, or visit someone you know is alone or is having a hard time.

Enrich the World Community

With the money you’ve saved by simplifying gift giving, you and your family can also experience the joy of talking about and giving generously to the charities you most want to support.

A Blessing for Simplicity

This traditional Celtic blessing captures the spirit of the simple (uncluttered) Christmas that so many of us are ready to make a new tradition.

The light of the Christmas star to you,
The warmth of home and hearth to you,
The cheer and good will of friends to you,
The hope of a childlike heart to you,
The joy of a thousand angels to you,
The love of the son, and God’s peace to you.    

(Traditional Celtic Blessing)