How to Get Less Stuff This Christmas

by | Oct 20, 2015 | Christmas, Mailbag, Sponsored | 21 comments

Mailbag time! 

I know, I know, it’s not even Halloween yet. But someone asked, and it’s a good question, and I’ve already gotten two versions of it, so I’m answering it here, now.


Hi Kendra!

I really enjoyed your post about being a missionary to extended family.
I wanted to ask your opinion on a similar topic. My husband is a convert
and his family does not practice any religion. They are Christian (I
believe) but they have little understanding of how I’m trying to raise
my children. When it comes time to celebrate Christmas,
our ideals and expectations are much different. My main goal is to
figure out how to make Christ the center of our celebrations, when it’s
not even a small priority to my in-laws. I guess I’m going to have to
ask them about buying less gifts. they’re wayyyy over the top, to the
point where I feel like maybe I shouldn’t even buy my kids anything because they are receiving
so much. I haven’t figured out a good way of communicating this with
They seem to think I’m worried about them spending too much, and continuously tell me “don’t worry about it.”
Do you have any suggestions for how I can speak frankly with them about wanting to have a simpler Christmas? And any suggestions for keeping Christ at the center of things when I’m not in control of the household?
I worry that my kid’s idea of Christmas will be spoiled by materialism and they’ll miss out on all the simple joys of the season.

Thanks for your time!


Hey Sarah,

I think this is an issue a lot of us have struggled with, from one side or another. There’s the Your Family Culture aspect, and the Too Much Stuff aspect.

For the first, both of our sides of the family are practicing Catholics, and both are awesome. But both are out of town. We spent the first five years or so of our marriage going between grandparents’ homes for Christmas. But as our family grew, I realized that I wanted to have OUR family traditions that our kids would remember. So, we decided to stay put for Christmas. There’s a standing invitation for anyone to join us, but when it’s at our house, we have a lot more control over the focus of our celebration. For us, that’s things like observing Advent, putting up and decorating our tree on Christmas Eve, going to Mass as a family on Christmas morning, putting on a family Nativity Play, etc.

We just decided to claim our family Christmas and do it our way at our house.

There’s more to juggle when you’ve got family in town. Especially if both sides of the family are vying for their slice of the celebration. If that were our situation, I think I’d relinquish either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but not both. That way, I’d know we could have our family’s focus on the “reason for the season” on one of the two days, at least. And that’s probably enough.

And I don’t worry about being “too religious” for our guests. Especially when kids are involved, Jesus-themed parties are super fun parties. We’ve had non-Catholic extended family members participate in our family nativity play, t-shirt turbans and all, and it’s hilarious. At the end of our tree trimming and simple family meal on Christmas Eve, we sing Away in a Manger, and Silent Night and put the baby Jesus in the manger of our nativity scene. It’s pretty much the sweetest thing ever to see the baby Jesus lovingly thudded into the manger by a very solemn two year old. You never know who might be touched by witnessing such a thing.

So, I’d really recommend trying to host the family celebration either on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day, and if that’s not possible, just opting out of the extended family celebration on one day or the other, so you can have some family traditions of your own.

But even if that isn’t possible, remember that Christmas is a whole SEASON, not just a day or two. If the right thing for your family is to give over control of Christmas Eve and Christmas, you can still make your Advent really meaningful. You can do a family novena leading up to Christmas Eve, you can have your kids fill baby Jesus’ manger with soft straw that they earn by their good deeds. You can read beautiful books every night. And you can keep your family celebration going for all twelve days of Christmas in your home, by doing little projects like crafts, or baking together, or watching Christmas movies together.

The second aspect is SO HARD. Because, of course, family members are only trying to express their love for our kids by giving them generous gifts. And we want our kids to get that thrill of an awesome Christmas. But I can tell you from personal experience that less stuff Christmases are WAY better. It might be hard to have that discussion with the grandparents, but it is worth it.

What worked for us was being really open about wanting to de-clutter our homes and our lives. Before the holidays, I did a big clean-out of all the kids’ clothing, toys, and junk, and I made sure that the family knew about it. Then, I used that as a jumping off point to ask for a simpler, less-stuff Christmas.

I’ve actually just been given the opportunity to try and review a website called SoKind, that lets you register for experiences and assistance rather than STUFF. It seems really cool so far. It allows you to ask family members to help you with things for the kids like sewing a quilt out of old baby clothes, or putting in a playset in the back yard, or putting together a family recipe book. But whether or not you use a registry to do it, you can tell grandparents that you would ask that they buy only one toy for each child, but if they want to give other gifts, you would be grateful for things like museum passes, or a zoo membership, or movie tickets. Certificates for taking a child out to lunch, or to play minigolf, one-on-one. They could give art classes, or sign the kids up for sports. Or they could give private lessons from THEM on something that that family member is good at, like cooking, or gardening, or car repair.

Things like that, that will be used at a later date, (or MANY later dates) throughout the year, go a long, long way to cutting down on clutter and distraction on Christmas. Just a few new things to play with on Christmas morning is fun and exciting. A mountain of new toys to play with is overwhelming and messy.

We had a specific and clear conversation with our family members to let them know that we appreciate their generosity, but it’s important for our family to not be swamped with stuff. We told them that we and the kids really value experiences and time with them more than things.

After that, of course, it’s not up to me. We accept gifts gratefully as we receive them, then, later, we decide what gets to stay in our house, and what gets donated.

Another part of this for me was learning to live it myself. I realized that part of my frustration was that *I* wanted to be the one to wow the kids with a super-amazing Christmas gift. But once we decided to really scale back our Christmas, it meant that I needed to pass along that idea for something that I knew a particular kid would really love, and let the grandparents be the ones to give it to him. And so my kids’ gifts from parents and from Santa have become much less spectacular. And that’s been totally fine. Usually now I give them books and something homemade, and leave the cool toy to family members, or Santa.

So, basically, I have totally been where you are. But we were able to make those adjustments and end up in a place where we have a really, fun, meaningful, and balanced Christmas. I really recommend it!



p.s. In case you missed them, here are a few related posts . . .

Seven Reasons My Kids Don’t Need Toys This Christmas

Advent: How We Try to Celebrate Things in Their Proper Season Without Feeling Like Total Jerks

Keeping Christmas: How we keep celebrating from the partridge all the way to the drummers

A little more about SoKind . . . I’ve been on the Simple Christmas bandwagon for a couple years now, so I was pumped to get a chance to take a look at the premium SoKind membership.

The idea behind SoKind is this: 
Your favorite gifts don’t always fit in a box. SoKind is the place for creative registries that promote fun, family, and friends—the possibilities are endless!

So cool. It’s a place where you can list all those “wouldn’t it be nice if . . . ” ideas like piano lessons and museum memberships and an evening of babysitting. And then your loving and generous friends and family members can give your kids that good stuff instead of a bunch of noisy toys. But you could put a noisy toy on there if you want.

I love this registry the most for weddings though. It kind of makes me want to get married all over again so I could set up this registry and get our friends to gift us in graphic design, and photography, and a rehearsal dinner venue. When we got married, I know my friends would have wanted to contribute, but there wasn’t an easy way to organize it all.

Anyway, SoKind. Check it out. Simple Christmas, let’s make it a thing.

You can use the code simplify2015 to get 15% off the $29.99 premium registry price. That code will expire on January 1, 2016.

And that’s my honest opinion (and an actual mailbag question) but this is a sponsored post. 

Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You’re thinking of this guy.)
If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching,
please consider it my error (and let me know!). I’m not a doctor or an
expert on anything in particular. I’m just one person with a lot of
experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in
marriage, mothering, and my faith.

If you’ve got a question,
please send it along to catholicallyear@gmail . com . Please let me
know if you prefer that I change your name if I use your question on the


  1. Tara Darnell

    I think a huge piece of this is to remember that gifts aren't something that you control. While you may mention to family members what your preferences are for gifts for your children, ultimately they're going to buy what they're going to buy. It's important to teach kids to be good gift receivers and not to show frustration in front of your kids for a way that your family is trying to show love.

    • Kendra

      This is a REALLY good point. We've taught our kids to gratefully accept whatever gifts they receive, even if it's not exactly what they hoped for, or we have one already. In the moment, we say "thank you." Later on, we decide what it makes sense to keep, and what it makes sense to donate.

    • Molly Walter

      Yep, I try to make suggestions – and it's take a few years for it to sink in, but if I had some relatives who just didn't get it I think I'd have to let them just show affection their way and limit what I'm giving in the "stuff" category to balance it out. One of the things we've been doing since our son was born was limiting our presents to 3 items (if it's enough for Baby Jesus, it's enough for us); it ends up stretching a bit with stocking items and a St. Nicholas Day gift. But at least I don't feel like a gift giving relative isn't adding even more to "already a lot". And now that my son is older (4 so not that old) we're focusing on fewer toys and more things to do – outdoor toys for good weather, games to share with the family or items that get used up (like sticker books or folded airplane books).

      I also try to put together an Amazon list for relatives around November/October with suggestions – over the last few years it's been things like blocks and now lego sets. I figure if I'm going to get something with a million pieces it will have a purpose and not just be the "it" toy of the year.

  2. Kate Weston

    Also, keep in mind how much joy the giver gets in giving the gift! There is grace in accepting gifts that you don't want, both material and immaterial (like offers of help during difficult times).

  3. Caroline

    Hi Kendra, I really like the idea, however, what about the Santa Clause aspect for the little ones? I know you had a post on it last year, but if you only give home made stuff and let the relatives give the other toys, does this mean there is no Santa excitement of toys under the tree when they wake up for the small kids? How do you deal with this?

    • Kendra

      No, you're right, we do Santa. My kids do get a toy from Santa, just not usually from Mom and Dad.

  4. Nicola

    You can also suggest that family members contribute to a larger gift like a backyard playset or bunkbed or whatever instead. That way they can buy something simpler for Christmas day.

  5. Ally

    We gave a new sandbox to our nieces and nephews last year- built by their wonderful uncle. =) That way, we had a "reason" to visit, and they'll use our gift for years to come.

  6. Amanda

    We've had success suggesting experience gifts as well. I've realized one reason some people are hesitant to give experience gifts (like swim lessons) is because then it feels like there's no object for the child to open and they don't get to 'see' the gift in action once the child has received it. So I will suggest things like "a gymnastics leotard with a month of Tiny Tot Gym Class" or "a soccer ball + soccer team registration" or whatever. Add a cute tag to the inexpensive object that symbolizes the gift and the child has something physical to open. Plus, I always make a point to take a picture of the gifted activity when it happens and send it to the gift-giver with a thank-you. Nowadays with iPhones and texting this is super simple! A short video or cute picture of the 3 year old somersaulting in the gymnastics class they paid for really brightens a grandparents' day and makes them feel more appreciated hopefully.

  7. Nanacamille

    I am part of one set of grandparents to this amazing set of eight kids. There is nothing in the way of gifts that I want or need so buying fir these and my other two grandkids is. my greatest jou. However that said I respect the wished if their parents and cut down on the giving. Family members who don't can be left out of the holiday. I wouldn't risk that for any amount of gifts

  8. Mary Wilkerson

    UGH, I hate all the stuff- but like the commentators above, I think it's so uncomfortable to put any requirements of gift giving on our friends/family. Even preferences seem weird. But the stuff has become overwhelming. I like some of these ideas, even casual mentions that we are trying to be better about clutter.

    • Kendra

      You bring up a good point that I didn't really address in the post. We have a really comfortable relationship with both sides of the family. If that weren't the case, probably this isn't the hill I'd want to die on. We'd say thank you, and gratefully accept everything, then after some time had gone by, I'd just do another round of cleanout and donate.

  9. Elizabeth

    When people ask, it's nice to have an answer (we tend to request gift cards for sports equipment, at supplies, science experiment kits, movie gift cards or "a book you loved as a child my kids might like, too"). If we're not asked, and we have plenty of well-intentioned somewhat distant, yet generous relatives who mail us gifts that I would really have preferred not to receive, thank everyone and let chaos ensue for a few days. By then, most of the truly junky toys break or become uninteresting, and they get put in a bin or cubby until we can give them away or toss them. Here's a question:how would you deal with your kids getting something you find objectionable (someone gave us a magic set, but I'm not sure how I feel about that. .. and we've been given some more dumb than mortally wrong kinds of books)?

    • Kendra

      There's a difference between sleight of hand magic tricks and occult stuff (like a Ouija Board). Unless it is a seance kit, I can't see anything wrong with it myself. But in general, we all receive stuff we'd rather not have in the house. For that stuff, if it's really objectionable, like immoral, I explain to the kids and we get rid of it right away. If it's just annoying but they like it, I plan to keep it around until our Lent purge. It's only a couple months!

  10. Unknown

    This might take a bit of explaining. I have a mother-in-law who is always over buying for our kids. My husband says she's been doing this since he was a boy. My husband doesn't remember his parents married (they divorced when he was very young) and my husband seems to think part of the reason she goes overboard with the gifts is to compete with my father-in-law, so she looks better than he does. I've been told she been that way for as long as my husband remembers. She also grew up poor so I think another factor into her extravagance is to make up for all those years she didn't have anything. We tried a few years ago to give her suggestions of experiences rather than items. We told her how much more our kids would love just having time with her. But she continues to buy ridiculous amounts of gifts that she really can't afford. So we decided to graciously accept the gits and then dispose of the clutter later. The problem now is that she comes over to our house and looks for the toys she bought. When she can't find them and asks, we tell her they were given away because we just had too many things. That causes much anger on her side (like not speaking to us for several months). What else can I do? I'm not sure how to handle this situation any more!

    • Kendra

      I'm so sorry. It sounds like you are doing the best you can with a difficult situation. I think I'd try to keep the most recent few gifts, as long as the kids like them. But you just CAN'T keep everything. I couldn't. I'd go crazy. I think I'd just keep doing what you're doing with love. And lots of prayers.

  11. Elizabeth

    So I was just asked this afternoon what our kids want for Christmas. .. very timely post! I was ready with: a family pass to the children's museum, Legos, art supplies, and a board game whose name I now forget. Also, I was able to list a few things that, I'm sure, will be shared with the Aunts. An ounce of prevention ..

  12. Suzi Whitford

    Kendra, what fantastic advice regarding the gifts! I am just starting out as a mommy with number two on the way and I am soaking up all your advice.

    Giving zoo memberships or 'play date coupons' are much more valuable than one.more.toy! And with zoo passes, grandpa and grandma can come along and we can make a whole day out of it! That is much more memorable anyway.

    I'm linking you to my article of 4 Gifts for Christmas. You have fantastic ideas that will help others struggling with scaling down their Christmas!

  13. Lissa

    This is a super late response but in case it's helpful, we accept whatever gifts from grandparents but then as we assess whether we want them in our home, we box the toys we don't and take them to grandparents' so our children can play with those toys at their house. So far that's been received well.

Submit a Comment

Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

If you’d like to learn more about what Catholics believe and why, and to be inspired by saints from every era all over the world, you’ve come to the right place. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with the prospect of how to teach your kids about the faith in a way that’s true, engaging, and lasts a lifetime, we can help!

➡️ Get my liturgical living checklist for free when you join my weekly newsletter. Sign up here.

This blog contains affiliate links and sponsored posts, for which I receive a commission. We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.