Road Test Results – Our Saner Guide to Christmas

Christmas is often a time of excess. Excess food, excess drink, excess parties and presents and of course excess spending. In the lead-up to Christmas I started writing about ways to sensibly moderate the excesses of Christmas without feeling like a scrooge. Collecting and thinking through these ideas gave me time to reflect on how we ‘did Christmas’, and allowed us to make some changes before the big day hit.

TEN EXPERIMENTS IN BEING MORE SENSIBLE

1.       Limits on Father Christmas

We chatted to the ‘big kids’ age 7 & 9 (who know about who brings the presents). We decided to try out a Want, Need, Wear, Read approach. That is four presents each. They got a bit of a say in what they might like and a bit of a surprise. Same approach for the youngest (aged 3) but without the ‘consultation with Santa’. I am pleased to say this worked well, particularly as I wasn’t as tempted to buy item after item. The kids got stuff that they needed as well as stuff they wanted. The bonus was that after the presents had been unwrapped they had time to enjoy the presents they had rather than being overwhelmed with choice.

VERDICT = SUCCESS 

2.       One gift each

Hubby and I gave each other one gift, I got a decoration for my vege garden and he got a book. We already have what we need, we don’t need lots and lots of stuff. Santa also happened to also bring the family a board game we’d been hankering after and a box of Jelly Bellies. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about giving and receiving one small gift, I’m happy to report I didn’t feel any sense of deprivation, I felt love and appreciated, it was enough.

VERDICT = SUCCESS

 3.       The family Kris Kringle

Each adult who gathered together on Christmas day was in the Kris Kringle. There was one nice present each, and we didn’t have to madly shop for dozens of presents in the lead up to Christmas.

VERDICT = SUCCESS

4.       Limit the pre-Christmas baking and making

This one was the bit hard for me. I love doing things like making a Christmas cake, Christmas ice-cream, biscuits and truffles. I’ve been known to make a gingerbread house half a metre cubed complete with stained glass windows made from life savers. These are activities I love labouring over. It wasn’t a particularly deliberate choice for me this year, but I was so busy with work in the lead up to Christmas that I didn’t have the time to even contemplate one. As the holiday approached a started to become a little toey that I hadn’t done anything slightly festive. My good friend Anna came to the rescue with a batch of left over ginger bread dough. The girls rolled it, baked it an iced it. The house smelled like Christmas, appropriate messes were made and even though I didn’t really touch the baking, save the cleaning up, it felt like we had made our obligatory nod to the pagan midwinter gods and the feeling of Christmas Grinch abated.

VERDICT = SOMEWHAT SUCCESSFUL

5.       Limit the pre-Christmas cleaning

At the moment, our house is not too bad. We’d been getting the garden tidied up and for the most part it’s as tidy and clean as a house can be when it has two adults, three kids and two dogs in residence. However, in previous years we would have scrubbed and cleaned, washed the windows, polished the silver, dust the light fittings, removed the cobwebs, ironed the table cloths, swept the front step, the list went on and on, it was punishing. This year instead we just cleaned it the way we do on a normal weekend, the floor was clean, the bathroom was clean but we didn’t dust, or wash the windows and the shelves in the sunroom were a chaotic mix of the day-to-day detritus that we collect, board games, pruning shears, CDs, icy pole sticks, Lego, and nails. Sure, we tried to get the place clean-ish and tidy-ish but we didn’t kill ourselves in the process. Not only was it a lot easier to get through the list, but there was a lot less shouting, we had a lot more patience and energy and what do you know, no one commented on the smudge marks on the window.

VERDICT = SUCCESS

6.       Limit the decorations – home made and reuse

I’ve always been a bit of a fiend with the Christmas decorations. I love a nice and coordinated tree, I have mellowed a bit with age and don’t match the Christmas wrapping paper with the theme (I know, yes we can all laugh about it now). In previous years, I’ve bought additional top up decorations to match the theme of the Christmas table setting. This year however I just held a few back that looked like they went together and used them to decorate the mandarin tree outside and borrowed a few of the kids handmade Christmas tree decorations to adorn the table. With school holidays just starting we got the first ‘I’m bored’. So, the girls were dispatched outside to collect sticks to make a stick and string Christmas tree which they then created crafty ornaments for. Christmas decoration and school holiday entertainment all taken care of in the one sitting.

VERDICT = SUCCESS

7.       Truly sharing out the Christmas food preparation

In years past I have created ALL the food. Now, this is not because the rest of my family can’t or won’t cook. They are very good cooks and have always been ready and willing. But much like the desire to bake, I have found tremendous joy from planning and preparing an elaborate sit down meal for 15-20 people. I still like the idea, but priorities change and I just don’t have the time or the desire to spend the three days shopping and preparing the dishes. I’ve been experimenting with letting others into the kitchen over the past couple of years, but this year I fully committed. Each adult was allocated a category e.g. meat, desert, nibbles etc. They planned it, bought it, cooked it. I seriously didn’t have to do anything other than make my own dish (the salads) and occasionally locate a platter for someone to use.

VERDICT = BIG SUCCESS

8.       Moderating the food bill

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of the day when working out what’s going to be on the menu. This year I tried to remind myself that it didn’t have to be the world’s most exotic or expensive dish to be special. I chose three salads that look amazing, feel Christmassy, are tasty and don’t break the bank. A pumpkin & baby spinach salad with pine nut and honey balsamic dressing; a grilled asparagus and pea salad with lime, capsicum and red onion dressing; and a coleslaw with orange and poppy seed dressing. They looked great (even if I do say so myself), a mixture of flavours, colours and textures. Back of the envelope calculation – it cost $30 to feed 15 people, with enough left over to feed 5 for lunch and 13 for dinner the next day. That’s under $1 per serve for the vegetable side of the meal. I didn’t pay too much attention to the cost of the meal, it was a bit more luck than planning to be honest but for a modest sum and some staple pantry items it worked out well.

VERDICT = SUCCESS

9.       Limiting the washing up

This year I decided that we would use paper plates, cutlery and serviettes. Normally I prefer to get out the good china and napkins, lay the table, do it all ‘properly’. This year I experimented with the other end of the spectrum and I bought it all in. I found some reasonably priced and decent quality items at around $2 per packet. In total, it would have cost around $14. Every other day of the year our dinner table has proper plates and cutlery and cloth napkins, my environmental conscience was given one day off. At the end of the evening we just piled the plates into a bag and the only washing up was the serving dishes and glasses. Everyone got involved and the next morning the cleaning up was much more manageable than previous years.

VERDICT = SUCCESS

10.   Post-Christmas Left-overs

With all the talk about food safety in the lead up to Christmas this year we were pretty disciplined about getting things back into the fridge and binning things that didn’t quite make it there. We were left with the requisite fridge full of food and with the extra energy I had, not having killed myself in the lead up to Christmas, I decided to make the most of the food. We had bags of snow peas that forgot to make their way into the salad; many kilos of potatoes that didn’t get cooked because it was too hot and we opted for bread instead; a massive ham that was barely impacted. I got to work on the internet working out what to do with it all. Time is of the essence here, if I was going to save this food I had to do it early before I turned my nose up at the lot and threw it all out. Some things like bread freeze easily, others do not however where there is a will there is a way and I decided to experiment. I turned 3.5 kgs of potatoes into fries and wedges for the freezer by par boiling them for 5 minutes before dunking them in ice water, drying, snap freezing and packaging them up. I made minestrone soup including ham rind and the undressed left over cabbage from the coleslaw; I even found a method for freezing ham (by baking it to reduce the water content)- we’ll use the frozen cubed baked ham for pasta alfredo and on home-made pizzas. I’ve still got the ham bone to turn into pea and ham soup in the next day or two. We are yet to test out the frozen fruits of my labours, but after the excesses of Christmas these couple of hours of thrifty home economics felt virtuous.

VERDICT = TOO EARLY TO TELL

The angst – it never arrived (well only very briefly and then swiftly left)

As I have written before, for many of us the excess is driven (at least in part) by angst. Worry that we won’t have enough food, that someone doesn’t have enough presents, that people would be disappointed if it wasn’t special enough (whatever that means). This leads us to do more and more, buy more and more. Yes, I did have a couple of fleeting moments where I worried whether there would be enough food, or whether the kids would feel disappointed by receiving less stuff but I’m happy to report that it was fleeting and as I expected completely unfounded. In fact, by letting go of the need for everything to be perfect not only did I work less but I worried less.

What we gained – time, space, calm and few dollars more (in the bank)

Time – the biggest win for us. We saved time in gift shopping, supermarket shopping, cleaning and food preparation. We had time to take the kids down the beach on Christmas Eve and on Christmas day we played a couple of board games while we waited for people to arrive for the Christmas evening meal. In previous years there is no way I would have had that luxury.

Space – by limiting the presents the kids got, we can still move around out house. Now they did get more than the four presents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all do their bit so they ended up with quite a treasure trove. However, it is much more manageable that it would otherwise be.

Calm – less pressure, less anguish, more time to sit and enjoy the meal without needing to get back into the kitchen to prepare the next course.

Dollars – moderating the gift giving and better sharing the food costs means the January credit card bill won’t be any nearly as scary.

Learnings for next year.

·         Agreeing a limit for the kids’ gifts: The kids gift structure worked well for the kids, but next year we’d agree as parents how much was reasonable per child and make sure the total it came within budget. While I’m sure that we did better than we would have in previous years, the kids’ presents are quite a hefty sum. In fact, since the cost of the meal was well shared, the kids’ presents alone would have made up over half of our total Christmas spending this year. I think we can probably do a little better on that front without being accused of depriving the kids

·         Alternative for sweets in the stockings: We have three beautiful Christmas stockings that hang on the mantelpiece. Each year is the same I forget about them, buy the presents then panic a couple of days before Christmas, will the kids be devastated that there is nothing in them. This year we filled them with sweets because we were committed not to buying them more stuff just for the sake of this. However, this of course led to lots of sweets being consumed on Christmas day. I’ll be looking for something nice to go in the stockings that doesn’t break the bank and is not unhealthy. Suggestions anyone?  

·         Keep undressed salad in reserve: Rarely does all our salad get eaten on the day. It’s good to know it’s there and you can easily top it up if it’s all pre-prepared in a zip lock bag in the fridge, but keeping the dressing separate is probably the key. This year I held back some of the coleslaw undressed in the fridge because it wouldn’t fit in the bowl. It kept much better than the other left over salads and is probably better from a food safety perspective as well.

·         Substitute the bon bons: Family you are on notice! I’m not doing store bought bon bons next year. They aren’t particularly expensive but the jokes are terrible, the gifts are questionable and I really don’t want to wear a paper hat. I’ll consider getting the kids to make a home-made bon bon with a chocolate on the inside, a better joke, a logic puzzle and perhaps a charade to perform after dinner. I don’t know how we are going to do the bang but where there’s a will there’s a way.

Still in development – the tree

I’ve always had a real Christmas tree, at $90 it’s not cheap and is a bit of a luxury, but the money goes to Oxfam so my conscience is somewhat ameliorated. I’m not sure that I want to move to a plastic tree, the smell is not the same. I could do a planted tree in a pot, a Christmas branch from a tree or a recycled creation. I’m not sure I’m ready for that we’ll just have to see.

Final Result

We still have a way to go before we strike the right balance between sensible and special for Christmas. This year however we came a long way, stripping out much of the cost and pressure from the experience, gaining time without feeling like we were being deprived or miserly. The day was filled with good food and good company, and for the most part we took a lighter touch to the consumerist model, lighter on our wallets and the environment.

OVERALL MARK: B+ Has shown much improvement, great effort and has identified some opportunities for further improvement.

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