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It's Not Just about the Gifts: Spirit of Christmas on a Shoestring Budget and Fighting Christmas DepressionBy Vicki McClure Davidson
Index of ContentsThe Christmas Fantasy
Free Yourself: Discard the Lavish Fantasy of Christmas
What Are Your Fondest Christmas Memories?
How to Re-capture Christmas Joy on a Shoestring Budget
Christmas and Spontaneity: Ways to Have Free Fun with Your Family
If it is suppose to be "the most wonderful time of the year," as the song claims, why do so many people feel so miserable at Christmas?
How many times have we said, "Christmas is not just about the gifts," but deep down, believed that to be a crock of lies?
Despite our heartfelt wishes to make Christmas more about the birth of the Christ Child, about spending more quality time with our loved ones, to be stress-free, happy, joyous, and reflective during this most holy of Christian holidays, do we, in fact, have minor meltdowns during December? Are our desires for a happier Christmas out of touch... quaint... comically old-fashioned?
Your list of "Christmas must-do's" grows lengthier by the year. There simply aren't enough days between Thanksgiving and December 24 to carry out all that you want to do to make the holiday "special" for your family unless you stay up late for weeks, trying to get everything done, or spend money you can't afford to buy everything that you believe should make everyone happy.
This is not the way it should be. There are so many things you can do to make this Christmas wonderful, without losing your patience, going without sleep, or overspending. You need to streamline your expectations and focus more on family and loved ones.
Truth be told (and we know you already know this), we've been brainwashed for decades by the media, retailers, home decor companies, high-end DIY fashion mavens, and advertisers. Movies and TV shows showing lavish Christmas home displays and huge, gaily wrapped Christmas gifts, non-stop Yuletide advertisements, catalogues with outlandish items displayed with smiling families, shopping malls stuffed to the gills with every conceivable gadget and gizmo that is purported to show our love if we buy them. The message of materialism bombards us from every direction.
We're led to believe that a perfect Christmas can only be ours if we spend oodles of precious time and cash on "all the trimmings" and of course, gifts. And before you can say "Bah, humbug!", we're whipping out the charge card and having a frustrating, terrible time. As a consequence, we ignore or forget or just don't have time for the true meaning of Christmas.
The old Elvis Presley song, "Blue Christmas," takes on a personal meaning for us.
The Christmas Fantasy
It's not real. So, take a deep breath and stop trying to capture a fantasy.
The visual Christmas delights of lights and baubles that are on TV and in movies were created by a team of set designers. They likely started planning, building, and designing months ahead. The budget they have is far greater than any sane person would spend. And, all this is done for less than an hour of filmed storyline. And, we're suppose to naively believe that the sitcom family whipped it all up themselves in matter of hours, without any complications.
Naturally, you may think having an elaborate Christmas set-up at your home would be wonderful for your family. Then again, would it be? Maybe not. Think about it.
Unless you live in a huge home (or mansion), most Christmas indoor/outdoor home displays on TV, films, and magazines are far too big for you to set up over the Thanksgiving weekend unless you have a team of willing helpers. Even Martha Stewart does not operate solely. You can hire someone to do this, but again, that's an expense that no frugally minded person would undertake. And these over-the-top Christmas displays are even more difficult for you to live with for a month.
Square footage is ample in entertainment settings, not so in real life. You'll be crowded inside your house or apartment with Christmas clutter; that can elevate stress levels, for you and everyone else who lives there. Countless hours will need to be devoted after Christmas to take down and pack away all the knick-knacks, ornaments, and lights. The cost of electricity to light your front yard can be astronomical if you string a few thousand lights and have other mechanical whimsies. It's totally unrealistic.
Depression is a growing problem during the Christmas holidays. Numerous studies, as well as anecdotal evidence from distress centers and crisis workers, confirm that there is an increase in both the numbers and severity of calls from depressed people during the holiday season.
A deep sense of loneliness can set in for those who are away from loved ones, or who don't have any strong family ties. Christmas is associated with spending time with loved ones, and if there aren't any, this can deeply affect people, some to the extreme point of suicide. Also, a lack of funds, especially for those who were living comfortably but are now in financial distress, adds to their depression. So many people who have been accustomed to being able to spend freely at Christmas but can't anymore—layoffs, mortgage foreclosures, and other new cash-flow crises—are often thrust into a depressed funk. Rather than embracing the holidays, they dread or loathe them. Not being able to give a "good Christmas" to their family because they are struggling to keep from losing their house or car makes breadwinners feel like losers. If your feelings are severe, you should seek medical help or counseling from a medical professional or from your spiritual leader. Even talking with a trusted friend can be of help.
If you've operated for years with a "shop until you drop" and "spend, spend, spend" mentality at Christmas, suddenly being without the extra money will probably throw you into a panic. How on earth will you make Christmas joyous and special this year if you don't have any money to accomplish it? You've never had to be frugal at Christmas before, so the prospect of it now is dismal and depressing.
You aren't alone if you're feeling depressed. The expectations are too high. They're too much. However, Christmas on a manageable, shoestring budget can be much more meaningful and fun than it ever was before, if you just try to change your mind set. To do that, you must first figure out WHAT is your expectation.
Free Yourself: Discard the Lavish Fantasy of Christmas
You can free yourself from these Yuletide shackles. Analyze your expectations of the holidays. Discard anything that is lavish or costly or conspicuously materialistic. Also, evaluate any expectation that has to do with your fantasies of Christmas from your childhood. I know this may seem easier to say than to actually do. But, unless you understand why your feelings about Christmas are tied up with so much negative energy, you won't be able to change it.
First of all, why do you think you feel let-down or stressed or disappointed by Christmas? Did you feel that you didn't measure up, or that Christmas itself didn't measure up? Did all the money you spend not fill the emptiness you feel, or was the recipient of the gift not as appreciative as you thought they would be? Did you think if you that if only you had more money to spend that the holiday would be better? Be brutally honest with yourself. Only you know why Christmas is not what you expected it to be. Write it down. No one but you will see the list. Once you're done, put it aside for a day or two, then read it again. It should be an eye-opener for you and help you in reversing your "blue Christmas."
Christmas is not a competition and it shouldn't be about "buying love." It isn't about the expensive gifts or the elaborate trimmings... those are extra, and while they're fun to have, they REALLY aren't needed. A wonderful chocolate sundae is delicious even if it doesn't have chocolate sprinkles and whipped cream and chopped nuts and a cherry on top. Simple is good and being frugal is not anti-Christmas. In fact, frugality embraces the pure essence of Christmas and is pro-environment.
The newest iPod or SmartPhone or chart-topping music CD or designer what-evers are not Christmas. Advertisers desperately want you to think they are so that they can sell more. But, they aren't. They are merely THINGS.
Things are not Christmas nor do they represent love. Sure, there is a warm, temporary feeling of joy when your child or spouse or significant other unwraps that giant, pricey gift and you see the look of joy on his or her face. It's realistic that upon receiving an expensive gift that person will be thrilled, following the moments of frantic anticipation as the wrapping paper is being torn away.
But that feeling of joy could be short-lived. Within a few days, the expensive toys will often be forgotten or broken or misplaced by children. The price tag to charge them has only begun. And adults may feel compelled to return your gift for something else. Suddenly, your expectations of love and happiness evaporate when your expensive gifts don't accomplish what you had hoped they would. Another potentially perfect Christmas ruined, you may think. Being "in vogue" with what "everyone else" thinks is perfect for Christmas may be the very thing that is robbing you of the Christmas spirit.
Remember, too, that you will need to deal with the clutter of so many more things (especially with children's toys) in your home (where will we store them all???). This can elevate your stress levels through the next year, especially thorugh January.
For many parts of the country, January is one of the dreariest, snowiest, sunless times of the year. The gloomy weather influences what is called Seasonal Affective Disorder. Because the days are shorter and there is less sunlight, many people experience symptoms of depressive feelings, carbohydrate cravings, lethargy, and difficulty concentrating. Coping with these feelings of depression can be overwhelming. Particularly if you have not had the Christmas of your dreams.
And then, the cycle begins all over again next December.
What Are Your Fondest Christmas Memories?
Think back to when you were a child. Do you remember every single gift you received? Of course not. You may remember a few choice ones, but overall, the memories of 99 percent of the presents are dim. What you will remember is the feeling of Christmas. The snowball fights, the decorating of the family tree, the fabulous dinner at Grandma's, the rambunctious hayride with your cousins, the fun you had making fudge with Mom and your siblings, the driving around at night to look at other people's Christmas lights, being in or watching the Christmas pageant at church.
This list of memories is unique and special to each of us.
You can have it again. And this feeling of joy and wonder and love will be there if the deep-down spirit or atmosphere of the season is present. Not the gifts.
If your childhood was not happy, likewise, you will remember those sad feelings with intensity. Christmas memories are hugely about feelings, both joyous and sad. How we deal with those old feelings now influences the way we feel now about the holidays.
How to Re-capture Christmas Joy on a Shoestring Budget
Family togetherness (and the togetherness of friends and co-workers) and helping others who are in need are the biggest parts of the Christmas message. Money doesn't need to be a major part of it. It could have no part in it.
When you're a child, you're rather two-dimensional and self-absorbed. The smallest of things during Christmas fill you with wonder and anticipation. It's all so new. And you get presents! Lots of presents! It's an overload of new experiences and STUFF. You never worried about the money that was spent because you didn't spend any. It was magical. Pure childlike fantasy.
As we got older, though, the newness and "magic" of Christmas we experienced at ages 5 or 6 or 7 has begun to wear off. If we believed in Santa Claus, we usually stopped by the time we were 9 or 10. We often ended up wanting more at Christmas, but now, as adults, we've matured past those early years. However, we may try to re-capture that magical feeling from when we were young. Everything has changed now that we're adults, and we're setting ourselves up for inevitable disappointment by trying to relive the euphoria of our childhood days.
That isn't to say we can't be joyous. Once we're past childhood, the spirit of joy at Christmas comes about from not focusing on ourselves, but on others. Too often, these are overlooked or forgotten as we plunge ourselves into the material trappings of Christmas. Sometimes we may even equate how much others love us with how much they spend on us for Christmas. More gifts = more love. Again, setup for disappointment. If we've lost a cherished loved one, the gaping hole in our hearts may grow bigger during the holidays. Loss of a job increases the anxiety and depression.
You may be thinking, "But, I'm NOT thinking about myself when I want to decorate the house and buy lots of gifts for others. I'm thinking about others, not myself. I'm being totally selfless."
But, are you? Are you doing these things because a tiny, insecure voice in you says you MUST, says that for Christmas to be magical you need to do all these things, whether or not you have time or money for it? Is the same voice telling you that unless your Christmas is like a Victorian picture postcard, it isn't a good Christmas? And if it isn't perfect, somehow you're to blame for it? Family togetherness and fun cannot be bought from a store. It must be nurtured and permitted to take its own course, to become real, to capture the joy that Christmas can bring.
Togetherness can't be accomplished if you or your spouse are hitting the malls after work and on the weekends, battling crowds for parking spaces or cashiers to ring up your purchases. If your children are tied up with countless activities at school or in sports and are hardly home, "togetherness" is a rare animal.
Christmas togetherness should not be demanded. It should instead reinforce the love the family has for each other, and if it is forced, its mission is sabotaged.
Attempts to "guilt" a teenage child into spending more time with parents will indeed backfire and you'll have a surly, anti-Christmas youth on your hands. And that's to be expected: you need to respect your older child's needs to have Christmas experiences with friends. What you need to do is balance your needs with your teen's needs, which can be tricky.
Christmas togetherness isn't about worrying about finding the time and money to buy and wrap 25 gifts in a week. It can't be accomplished if your schedule is jam-packed with other obligations. The time spent shopping and preparing a zillion different "Christmas visuals" and festive meals drains your energy, your cash, and your peace of mind.
Talk with your significant other, and let him or her know how you're feeling about Christmas and how you want to change it. You may be surprised at the support you get. Your significant other may not realize how much time and energy and money you've been putting into the holidays. Don't be judgmental or hard on yourself. You may discover that a frugal Christmas will be more than welcomed.
It can be more challenging with children, particularly if they're older and have become accustomed to previously "gift-glutton" Christmases. Getting fewer gifts may not initially be what they have in mind for the holidays. You should discuss this with them your plans on having a "shoestring Christmas" at least a month before Thanksgiving, and then again just before the Christmas season unleashes itself, to let them adjust.
Christmas and Spontaneity: Ways to Have Free Fun with Your Family
Sometimes it takes a bit of planning to kindle the spontaneous spirit of Christmas. I guess this means it isn't all together spontaneous (at least, as far as you're concerned), but it can be for the others in the family. Privately, pick a time/date for the family time that to the best of your knowledge doesn't have any conflicts (like a pageant rehearsal, night before a big exam, Christmas activity with Scouts), and casually bring it up a few days ahead. Be upbeat, be open to compromise, but be firm that this IS going to happen (younger children will warm up immediately to it, while older children may not because of plans they've already made). Make whatever it is that you've planned sound like fun, but don't go overboard selling it. It needs to spark and grow unforced.
Also, in today's economy, keep your money woes in check and in perspective. Don't let the diminished cash flow ruin your attitude or rob you of your sense of humor. It's only money. Money comes and goes through out everyone's life, but time is the most precious commodity we can expend on loved ones, especially during Christmas.
Above all else, laughter is the best medicine for what ails you, as the old saying goes. One sure-fire way to create new, fun Christmas memories is to simply HAVE FUN. And laughing is one of those ways. Do not expect perfection right off the bat. Just get the ball rolling.
Here are some ideas:
Pull out old family photos from previous Christmases. Pop a Christmas music CD into the family CD player. Turn off the TV and invite your significant other and children to look through the photos with you. Set up in the most comfortable room in the home so everyone is at ease. As they look through the pictures, encourage them to remember something unusual about that particular Christmas. Comment on the look on their faces in the photo, or the background, or the other people in the photo. Make some mugs of hot cocoa or hot apple cider, and before long, memories and laughter will begin to pour out.
Same idea as above, but instead, have an evening of playing old family Christmas videos or home movies. It really is joyous to see adults and children when they were younger, and the feelings of love from previous Yuletide events will spark more memories, captured or not on video.Be sure that any unhappy memories from sad Christmases in the past are not included.
No Christmas photos? A great many people no longer have their Christmas photos. Home fires, disasters such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, family relocation, or bitter divorce could rip away your photos or videos of Christmas. Not having old photos or videos doesn't mean you can't still do this. Don't let this be a painful sense of loss. You still have those memories in your brain. Instead, have a fun evening of storytelling about previous Christmases that had special meaning to each of you. And you can start taking new photos now of a happy Christmas to replenish the photos that you no longer have.
If you don't have family near by or loved ones in your life. For many people, the loss of a significant other (divorce, separation, death, military deployment) or children who have moved away can magnify your sadness at Christmas. Feeling disconnected is bad enough, but when Christmas songs and holiday TV specials keep telling you how happy you should be, you feel even more disconnected. Even a dating relationship that ended a few months before Christmas can become depressing all over again once the holidays are here. To combat these feelings, read the other points below about how to give back to the community and help others in greater need. Often, shifting the focus from the source of your sadness to someone who is homeless or physically impaired can help you prioritize the things in your life and help you start to heal. Spending Christmas with friends can also help. If the depression or grief continues, seek medical help.
Scale way back on Christmas entertaining. So much of the expense of Christmas is tied up in preparing large, elegant meals and having at least one big Christmas party. Having a large prime rib roast or stuffed goose or ribeye steaks is more extravagent than ever, with the rising costs of food. Eliminating these meals would be prudent and frugal if you are in financial crisis. However, if it means a lot to you and your family to have a festive gathering at your home, you can still entertain if you scale back on the cost and the work involved.
Give back at Christmas. Sit down with your significant other and/or children a few weeks before Thanksgiving and discuss how they would like to help out in the community during the holidays. While giving unto others is the most precious gift of all, they really need to want to do whatever it is you have in mind, whether its volunteering for your community parade, serving dinners at the homeless shelter, signing up for evening child care during Christmas Eve church services, or packing Christmas care packages to send to the war zone for soldiers and Marines. Make a list of all the things you could do, with everyone participating with ideas. Come up with fun, wacky ideas, like making Christmas doggie biscuits to take to the local animal shelter (check to be sure they will accept homemade food donations, as many don't). Just brainstorm for a while, and be sure that everyone is in a good frame of mind. From that list, whittle it down to a few things that you have time to do and can afford to do. You and your family can be of great service, but be realistic. Remember, it doesn't cost money to show others you care during the holidays and to spread Christmas joy.
Plan, IN ADVANCE, on giving back. You may decide to undertake more responsibilities this year with charitable efforts through your church or local community centers. Be aware that many of them have been planning their efforts since September or October, so a few months before Christmas, look into what you can do and what is actually needed. For instance, helping out at the homeless shelter or the VA hospital during the holidays may not be needed, because so many other people have already volunteered to help on Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve or Day. If you find out they are already well-staffed with voluneteers during the holidays, plan instead then to help out in January when there are only a fraction of the volunteers.
Watch old Christmas movies together. Try to avoid the more jaded, gift-focusing films. Christmas movies from fifty years ago are less about gifts and more about loved ones and spirit of the holiday. Several excellent ones to consider renting or borrowing from friends or the library (and most of these are in black and white, which may take convincing some cynical teens to watch) are It's a Wonderful Life, The Bishop's Wife, A Christmas in Connecticut, Miracle on 42nd Street, The Bells of St. Mary's, or Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. For additional choices, do a search for movies on the Internet Movie Database. You could coordinate with a few friends a Christmas video exchange to save time and money.
Have a Christmas Family Game Night. No TV, no phone interruptions, just the family having an old-fashioned-style evening of games and camaraderie. Suggestions include any popular board games you have on hand or can borrow, or you can spend a few hours earlier in the week devising your own holiday-inspired games, such as Christmas Charades or Christmas Mad Libs. Have some striped candy canes displayed in a festive vase for munching.
Spend time together outside of the house. Take a day trip to the mountains or the beach, or find out where the best Christmas displays are (these are usually listed in your local newspaper or online version) and make an evening of driving around looking at holiday lights. In all communities, there are cheap or free Christmas-inspired activities offered by the Parks and Recreation department, museums, historical societies, and civic groups. You just need to seek them out, as many may not be advertised on TV or radio. Go online to your community events website to find out what is scheduled. Ask other friends and relatives what special, inexpensive things they do with their families. You'll be sure to get a lot of great ideas. Whatever you choose to do, consider making it an annual Christmas event for your family.
There are many unique themes that you use to support your shoestring budget. Consider themes such as "A Patriotic Christmas," "Old-Fashioned Christmas," "A Charles Dickens Christmas," "A Pioneer Christmas," "Christmas in Bethlehem," "Hawaiian Christmas," "Christmas Around the World," and many other possibilities. From these choices, research a bit about how Christmas was celebrated by common folks in the days of yore or in the country of choice, and then implement some of those activities. What your party lacks in lavish decorations or food can be replaced by group games, video montages from photos that you've created (or had someone else in the family make who is more computer-oriented), listening to themed Christmas music (such as old folk music, cathedral music, WWII Christmas music, or anything else you can find at your local library that isn't played constantly on the radio). Consider making it a buffet and have everyone bring a small dish that goes with the theme.
These kind of Christmas parties can be great fun and involve everyone who is in attendance. If you can borrow a karaoke machine from someone's teen, you could have a fun, lighthearted "American Idol-type" competition using familiar Christmas songs. You could conduct a trivia competition with questions about the holiday. Be creative! There can be an inexpensive prize for the winner: a certificate you printed out on the computer, something you made, recycled, or found at the dollar store or thrift store. Children who attend can be involved, and this is more fun for them than sitting quietly in a corner. Key here is INVOLVEMENT with the guests. More fun for much less money, and an entertaining event that won't leave you frazzled and broke. Other ideas include old-fashioned party games, such as bobbing for apples or musical chairs. And make sure the older folks join in! You don't need to be as "hands-on" with cooking for and hosting the gathering (for each game, you can talk with and delegate in advance someone else to spearhead the game, like a college-age neighbor or nephew), and by shifting the attention to activities, you free yourself to happily mingle with guests.
It does, however, cost you time, and for this, you need to decide before you commit to how much time can realistically be given. Otherwise, your charitable intentions may again make your Christmas stressful.
If you play an instrument, or have a talent or skill like singing or dancing (even a marital arts demonstration, with Christmas music playing in the background, would be wonderful), that could be used in a Christmas program or an afternoon Christmas party, volunteer. Talk to the event planner, even offering to audition to have them consider enlisting your talent.
Use your imagination on how you and your family can make someone else's Christmas more joyous.
Volunteer to sew angel costumes for the church Christmas program, make Christmas stockings for the local homeless shelter, have a Beanie Baby drive or fix up old dolls from the thrift store to give to an orphanage. The sky's the limit to have a joyous Christmas when you do it selflessly for others and spend your time with loved ones and those less fortunate.
And it can be your merriest Christmas of all Christmases—and dirt-cheap to accomplish.
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Carchrae, Michael, Suite 101 website, "Christmas Depression: Common Reasons for Seeking Counseling During the Holidays,", (http://counseling.suite101.com/article.cfm/christmas_depression) November 26, 2007.
Medical News Today website, "Christmas Holiday Depression," (www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/35124.php), December 18, 2005.
The Professor's House website, "Christmas Depression," (www.professorshouse.com/family/holidays/christmas-depression.aspx)