The modern holiday spirit: Stories of families who have downsized from the craziness

By the time you read this, Black Friday will have come and gone -- hopefully with no fatalities.

Some Pittsburghers have resisted the need to camp overnight outside big-box stores or risk serious injury hanging Christmas lights from the roof or cut themselves trying to make Martha Stewart's homemade tree ornaments from 38-gauge aluminum foil.

Instead, more than a few readers told us they have learned to relax, take a deep breath and downsize the holiday, and in doing so, have preserved both their sanity and the spirit of Christmas.

To learn how they did it and why, read on:


The need to downsize the holidays in our family began over 40 years ago. Both of our children were December babies, one of them born on Christmas Eve. By year-end, our house looked like it had been hit by a tsunami of toys.

We staged an intervention. Doting grandparents, aunts and uncles gratefully switched to gifts of cash for each occasion. My husband and I held those gift envelopes until after the last day of school the following June. Then we took the kids to their favorite toy store (Children's Palace back then) where they could pick out and buy whatever they wanted with their cash. They loved their Christmas in June. Finally, after both children were adults on their own and managing on modest budgets, we adopted the grab bag tradition. Each person picked a name of one family member to buy for, limited by a gift ceiling of $50. This embraced tradition has made the most difference.

Christmas Day is more serene not just because of less stuff kicking around but also because we're headed into the new year without overtaxed credit cards.

-- Bea Carter, Downtown

▪ ▪

Fuzzy footed pajamas. Bubble lights on the tree. Parents who look like they have been dragged out of bed. Surprised looks and beaming faces. Homemade ornaments from preschool. Those days are gone.

Christmas grew into large piles of toys. Time spent with cousins. Always a big meal. Fire in the fireplace. Family all around. Sometimes we even had guests we didn't know were coming. Mom liked to make everyone feel loved. Now those days have changed.

All the cousins are grown and don't live near each other. My mother lives in an apartment now. My granddaughter lives in North Carolina and takes turns visiting her grandparents in Florida and Pennsylvania. This year she comes to Mt. Lebanon. Family is scattered around the country.

Christmas is now a lighted tree sitting in the bay window. My snowman collection and my Nativity sets spread around the house. A traditional meal of fish, boiled cabbage and pasta on Christmas Eve. Services at church. No gifts to each other because we give them all year long. We would rather travel someplace new than give a new shirt or an appliance.

Time spent together is more important. Family is Christmas now.

-- LuAnn Mudrak, Mt. Lebanon

▪ ▪

We used to have eight crazy nights of Hanukkah celebrations. Some nights were for family parties, some for friends and some for theme night celebrations. We always included a traditional Hanukkah meal, dreidel game, menorah lighting and presents for every night. It was a tradition I loved and my children looked forward to but it was a tremendous amount of work. Now that the kids are in high school, college and working, we do away with all the presents and parties and go on a family vacation over winter break. It is a great way to make sure everyone is together and we love to relax in a warm climate during winter.

I used to be crazy pre-holiday, shopping, wrapping, cooking and cleaning. This year, we rented a big house for two families. We will light our menorah and toast the holiday at sunset on our deck overlooking the ocean.

-- Marcy Nord, Point Breeze

▪ ▪

After many years of spending too much, doing too much and being stressed out, I made the decision to simplify the holiday. When I informed friends and family members that I did not want to exchange gifts anymore, I found that they were relieved. Adults in my family do not get gifts. Children get small gifts until they graduate from high school. Secret Santa exchanges and cookie exchanges are also out. When asked to participate, smile and say, "I'm sorry, I don't want to be formally involved, but I will enjoy watching the rest of you open your presents" (or exchange cookies).

Every year my family watches others go crazy shopping, fighting the crowds and worrying about expenses. We unanimously agree, "We're glad we don't do that anymore!" We can sit back and enjoy the season, and we do.

-- Bethany Kramer, Houston, Washington County

▪ ▪

When I went on disability, my gift giving was cut way back. Now at 65, I buy a limited number of gifts. One person likes the scratch-off lottery tickets so they get some of those. I then go to the QVC Channel, which offers a variety of nice gifts that come in multiple sets. Some are fun and some are practical. I will buy one or two sets of different items and I have all my shopping done for less than $100. The people who receive these gifts are very happy with them and wait each year to see what their gift will be. These gifts look much more expensive than the actual cost. It is a win-win for all.

-- Linda Simmen, Dravosburg

▪ ▪

After years of laboriously opening piles of "stuff," my family decided to stop the gift madness and started a new tradition. We get one another one or two smaller, nicer things and then plan a long weekend getaway sometime in the new year. My wife and I pay for the rooms and our "kids" pay for the meals and tips. This not only gets us away for a relaxing and fun weekend but also provides another opportunity to get together as a family. We try to find something fairly convenient for us Pittsburghers and our son's family in Virginia.

We enjoyed the Bedford antique shops and outdoor activities in the summer the first year and a historical site and lake in Ohio the second year. Last January, Lancaster featured a small indoor water park for the kids and antiquing by the Stoudt Brewery for the adults. This January, we plan to enjoy a nice hotel in Bedford with a large indoor pool and at least one dinner with a winter beer or two at the Jean Bonnet Tavern. (Thank goodness we have designated drivers!)

Our grandchildren still get plenty of gifts, of course. But the six adults are ever thankful for this extended Christmas experience and never miss the "stuff."

-- Mike Woshner, Carrick

▪ ▪

Children excited and not being able to sleep on Christmas Eve are long gone. Our married children have their own traditions of which we are a part.

Dinner is at our oldest son's home and we always enjoy the time together. This started years ago when the adult children said, "Your home is too small." I liked the idea then and appreciate it more since we have gotten older! Everyone brings something. My strawberry pretzel salad is a hit among the granddaughters.

The decorations at our home have grown smaller over the years. The huge tree was replaced by a much smaller one that my mother had. We put a lighted Nativity scene outside to remind people of the true meaning of Christmas. My husband and I don't exchange presents since he says "We have Christmas every day." We have the important things -- good health, and after being married almost 50 years, happiness, too.

We "downsized" Christmas and all the commercialism that goes with it. However, the true meaning of Christmas is something we will never downsize.

-- Carol Primm, Lincoln Place

▪ ▪

Instead of us all exchanging presents, our Christmas gift to each other is to go together on the rental of a large house (there are 21 of us) for three days during Christmas week. No one has to assume the responsibility of being the host and we all share in the meal preparation. Grandma and Grandpa still enjoy giving small gifts to the grandchildren but a much larger emphasis is on being and playing together. Golfing when it was warm, sledding when we had snow, hiking, skating, bowling and card games were some of the activities we've enjoyed together.

Because our family travels from California, Massachusetts, Ohio and western and eastern Pennsylvania, we only are all together once a year, which is why our times together at Christmas are such an important and special tradition to us.

-- Betsy & Dick Monheim, Edgewood

▪ ▪

Several years ago, my adult children and I decided not to give each other "things" each Christmas. Instead, we chose to contribute to our local food banks or donate to the ALS Association in honor of their Dad. However, last year my daughter called to say: "Mom, I got you a present. I got you a pair of gloves." I said, "Well, that's nice, sweetie, but I already have gloves."

She said, "Yes, I know, but here's the story: It was really cold here, and the Salvation Army bell ringer didn't have gloves. She told me someone stole them. So I went into a store and got her a pair of warm gloves. So that's my present to you."

What great Christmas treasures -- the gloves, the story and the compassionate daughter!

-- Bernice Born, North Side

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