Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
~William Morris

I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts lately and it’s the holiday season, so I’ve also been getting more gifts, and giving a few.

My relationship to stuff is changing as I get older. I still want too much compared to what I need, but it’s less than it used to be. I don’t know that I’ll ever reach William Morris levels of minimalism, but I would at least like to rid myself of the obvious excess.

There’s nothing like cleaning out your dead mom’s house and paying a storage company $42 / month for 7 years to make you reevaluate how much the stuff in your life is really worth.

We moved this year, so I finally got to clean out the storage space. My sister and I spent a day splitting up the remnants of our childhood (and posting a lot of embarrassing photos to Facebook).

My wife and I spent the months before the move purging old clothes, sports equipment, books and anything we could bear to part with before the moving trucks came.

And still our new garage is filled with boxes of stuff.

I generally try to avoid collecting anything new that isn’t going to make me ridiculously happy. For years I’d been eyeing these silly looking onion goggles that I’d see at the grocery store. A couple of years ago, I finally took them home. And every time I chop an onion, which is about once a week, I think, man, I love these things. They totally improve my life.

Me in my onion googles, making dinner
I looove these goggles.

Being a full time bike commuter taught me the value of spending more on one well made thing than buying something more ‘affordable’ that wouldn’t last. So even 15 years ago on a barista’s income, I saved up to buy expensive rain pants to get me through my winter commute. My hard earned $150 dollars gave me dry legs for 7 years. And it only took one day of dry legs, but cold, wet feet, to understand the value of shoe covers. Arriving at my destination on a damp December day warm and dry–at least on the inside–this is something that makes me happy.

I don’t take home pamphlets from networking events. At conferences, I raid the schwag bag for anything I can use and give back the rest. I’m still working on resisting the lure of the free t-shirt, but I at least try to get rid of one for every new one I bring home.

But keeping new stuff out of your life is tricky when it comes to gifts. Something in the social contract makes it virtually impossible to turn down a gift. It’s the thought that counts right? So we accept things we don’t like, don’t need, don’t have room for, can’t eat…all to keep from hurting someone’s feelings. Knowing we won’t put it up on our walls, or we’ll take it to work to see if our office mates will eat it.

Of course there are exceptions. But few people in the outer circles of my life will end up giving me something that makes me ridiculously happy. The majority of the time a gift becomes an item on my to-do list, something for which I need to find a home: the wine our realtors gave us, without bothering to find out if we drank; the scented shower gel I took from a friend at the Christmas eve party even though we don’t use scented products, because she looked so devastated when I tried to refuse.

A few years before my mom died, we stopped trying to do mass gift giving at Christmas. One thing between my mom, my sister and I, and that was it.

It was amazing how relaxing the holidays got after that. We enjoyed time with family, we decorated, we cooked, we baked…but we didn’t stress about THE COUNTDOWN. Some years when I was feeling ambitious, I would write holiday letters and/or bake cookies and actually mail them to people.

My grandmother had a hard time with the idea that I didn’t want anything for Christmas. She pretty much insisted that I name something so for a few years I conceded. Then I started telling her to save the money and use it on a plane ticket to come see me or for me to visit her.

These days Grammy’s short term memory is fading away. When I’m able to get her on the phone, the only thing she wants to know is when am I coming to see her–even if I was just there the week before. She doesn’t remember. I still get the gift of memories, but she only has the gift of now.

Now that my view of things has changed, I try to be more thoughtful about the gifts I give as well. Nothing annoys me more than vacuous gifts to satisfy social graces. May as well give someone a card telling them you’ve chucked something into a landfill in their name. At least the card could be recycled.

A few years ago, I shared some molasses cookies I had made with my cousins. They all went bonkers over them and started fighting about how many they each could take home. Because I know they love them, one of my only Christmas traditions is making molasses cookies every year and delivering them to my cousins. This year, one cousin moved away so I went to the post office on the busiest hour of the busiest day of the year to ship them across the country.

It was last minute, and I didn’t have time to get a real Christmas card, but none of that mattered. She had thought, because she was far away, that she wouldn’t get cookies this year, and then they showed up on Christmas eve. She was ridiculously happy.

My cousin Tierra posting pics of the cookies I sentI know that my take on the holidays is not likely to become popular anytime soon. I’ll keep smiling in amusement as I watch most of the world around me go into the holiday frenzy each December. I’ll smile and nod when checkers at the grocery store ask, “Are you ready for Christmas!?!”

I’ll find homes for the things that make their way into my space despite my best efforts. I’ll appreciate the thought and rejoice when someone figures out what makes me ridiculously happy.

I’ll keep working on my William Morris dream and work towards less quantity, more quality, but most importantly, more good memories with people.

Because those are the best gifts.

This post was originally published via my Tiny Letter weekly newsletter, which only goes out to my favorite people. You can sign up below.

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  1. I’m so, so, so very sad that this cousin does not get molasses cookies at Christmas. We were playing together before Bae’s kids were born, and I’ve never even heard of the molasses cookies. They sound amazing. Maybe next year? : )


    1. Oh no! That’s what happens when you move away too soon. I didn’t know you were such a cookie monster! I will definitely make cookies happen for you next year. 🙂


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