The No-Stress Holiday Tradition That Saved Our Christmas

Let it be noted that my love language is not gift-giving. If you are the gift-giver extraordinaire and/or like nothing more than to receive the perfect something, then this tradition might not be for you. But it saved our Christmas and our bank account and for us, it’s the gift that really keeps on giving.

For years we operated under the standard gift-giving and gift-receiving protocol. I paid much less attention to this before I was married of course, giving little to no thought on presents, because when you are young, say before 25, you are the present. Your mere presence is a treat enough, or so you think. My gifts in those years looked suspiciously like things you would buy in airport gift shops – hoodies and paperback bestsellers and fudge of every flavor.

But marriage changed the rules on holidays. Suddenly, I was one-half of a couple and had received china and a roasting pan and hand-blown glass vases for my wedding. Per decorum, I should know what good gift-giving looks like.

And of course there were two Christmases now, one with my family and one with the in-laws, and I wanted to get it right. So, over the years, I developed this debilitating pattern: In the moleskin journal I keep in my purse for grocery lists, I had a second list of the names of immediate family. This was a running list that lasted all year. If say, my mom mentioned that Pandora opened up a store in the nearest mall and then jangled her charm bracelet at me, I surreptitiously noted it in the book. If my brother’s kids switched schools, I wrote down the new colors of allegiance and kept an eye out for this color scheme in all athletic and academic apparel.

I got good at gifts, great even, over the years. But … it was killing me and breaking the bank and sucking the life out of the holidays. Come November a fog of anxiety drifted into our house and didn’t leave until New Year’s.

This is not a way to live. And I must not have been the only one sinking under the pressure, because not too long ago my sister-in-law looked at me over a bowl of pad thai during my birthday dinner in the first week of December and said, “why don’t we just do Secret Santa for the adults?” I could have kissed her.

You do it for work parties all the time, so why not family? It would turn gifts into a kind of game and who doesn’t like games? It was genius. We set the ground rules:

1 | Everyone draws a name out of a hat.

2 | If you get your spouse, you draw again.

3 | There’s a maximum spending limit so not one outdoes anyone else.

4 | No one leaks the name of who they got. (This last one never stands. I have managed to figure out every single person every single year.)

Christmas day has turned magical again. It begins with a brunch that lasts all day until someone in early evening looks at the hardening cinnamon rolls and pigs-in-a-blanket and decides we need to order pizza. And we drink mimosas and toast each other and one-by-one step forward bearing the single gift we have brought. It’s a single moment that doesn’t get swallowed in the chaos of the day.

While the kids tear through reams of paper until all the adults are yelling “slow down!” so we don’t actually lose the gifts under the debris, we have our one gift to hold on to and enjoy. It has saved our Christmas so we can pay attention to the things that matter: the crazy kids hopped up on sugar cookies and monkey bread, the family all together in one place for a day, Elvis singing his “Blue Christmas” in the background. We have ever so slowly taken back the day and focused it on the people, not the things.

If you or your family are on the fence about giving up the gift extravaganza, take in through the four psychological checkpoints (mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health) and see if the Secret Santa trade-off doesn’t make you feel like a better human.

*This article originally appeared on Parent.com

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