Our family has entirely too much stuff.
This fact comes to my attention a few times a year, usually prompting yet another trip to Ikea, looking for storage, “for now, until we can figure out what to get rid of.”
My current assessment of our overflowing household was prompted by the fact that Christmas is coming.
And there will be presents, lots of presents.
Presents that, strictly speaking, we don’t need.
Each of these presents will take up more space. Space that we don’t have, which will inevitably result in another trip to Ikea.
Around Christmas time, I feel pulled in two directions.
On one hand, as my children, whom we’ll call ‘Erik’ and ‘Gabrielle’, carefully write their Christmas lists, I get caught up in their excitement and want (I’ll admit it) to give them what they want.
On the other hand, our kids really don’t need any more Ninjago toys. Or dinosaurs. Or, my personal favorite, “an owl with a leaf in a tree.”
Our kids don’t need anything. Or, rather, anything they need won’t come wrapped under the Christmas tree.
I want our family to be part of something more meaningful around Christmas; however, I struggle with finding a balance now that we’re in Sweden.
It doesn’t seem like people spend more than a day or two with their extended families during the holidays around here.
I don’t know of anywhere our family can go together to donate presents or canned food to local families in need. We’re not particularly religious, so we don’t spend time at church.
We used to go to the San Francisco Zoo to meet Santa’s reindeer, but the only reindeer I’ve seen around Stockholm come in sausage form. In other words, moving to Sweden has meant that we’ve lost a lot of the traditions that make Christmas more than presents.
And it’s hard to get the kids’ little minds off of presents when the subject of Christmas comes up.
Especially when Erik writes his Christmas list at school. In a country where getting a large pile of Christmas gifts seems to be a birthright. In a country where we’re all supposed to be doing things the same way.
Take, for example, December 1st at Erik’s school. We hadn’t even made it through the door to Erik’s class before the Advent calendar talk started.
“I got a robber in my Lego calendar. What did you get?”
“The football card calendars were sold out, so I got the Star Wars one.”
Another girl says with a funny smile, “My parents tried to find an Advent calendar for me last night, but they were all sold out. Even the TV one.”
All sold out?
“They cost so much money,” a mom quietly laments to me.
“One for each kid plus the TV calendar.”
“’Well, kids,’” I quip, “’no more presents this year.’”
We both laugh.
Because we both know this would never happen. And we both know that, despite complaints, we’ll buy Advent calendars next year as well.
After all, it’s tradition.
I’ll admit this: we have four advent calendars at our house. For two kids.
Two years ago in the US, the kids didn’t even know what an Advent calendar was.
Not that this problem of Christmas consumption is uniquely Swedish. Not that Christmas isn’t all about buying in the US—it is.
We even have a special day dedicated to buying that makes headlines around the world, almost a national holiday for Christmas shopping: Black Friday.
Despite this, back in the US it just felt like there was less cultural pressure around Christmas buying, especially since a chunk of our kids’ friends didn’t even celebrate it.
Of course, it takes only one news program on rural Afghanistan or a day at my old job in a New York City public school to render all these quandaries ridiculous and absurd. What a disgustingly privileged problem to have too much stuff.
But how do I instill that kind of awareness into my kids without sucking the joy out of Christmas?
My brother Robert has made more progress in this area than I have, I’ll admit.
Robert, a relentless opponent of wasteful consumerism, read and lived by a study that found that, for maximum pleasure and enjoyment each gift, a person should receive no more than… three gifts.
Just pause to imagine explaining this one to the grandparents.
He also refused to buy a trucked-in tree or Christmas decorations. However, even he broke down after a few years of pleas from his two kids.
My mom came and filled up the kids’ stockings with fun, completely unnecessary toys, and he got a tree. The tree was small and potted, and I don’t think it survived the intended transplant.
Still, both kids and adults seemed happy with the compromise.
So even Robert, a person who sticks to his principles, living in a community relatively free from the usual pressures of conformity and consumerism—he lives in Berkeley, California, an alternate universe where the only thing looked down upon is being a part of mainstream culture—even he has relaxed some of his standards and let consumerism into his front door.
Now, just imagine my brother moving into our storybook neighborhood here in Sweden, where every house, every single one, has Advent lights or stars glowing in the windows.
Imagine the confusion when his kids explained to their classmates that they celebrate Christmas but won’t have a Christmas tree.
Because we don’t live in Berkeley. We live in Stockholm, where, last year, Erik’s friend and her three-year-old brother each got, among their many gifts (more than three each, I assure you), their own iPads.
Now, we’re not contemplating twin iPad purchases, but the standards are out there. Kids talk about these things.
Our family can make its own choices. And we do.
It’s just that I get a little tired of always being the one that does things differently. The only family in the entire lower elementary school that doesn’t attend the “fritids” after-school programmes.
The only family that dresses up as, say, Yoda or a crocodile instead of a skeleton or a witch for Halloween.
It would be nice to blend in, at least some of the time.
But I do have hope for reconciling Swedish and US Christmas traditions. I know we have more in common than just presents.
A nation that watches Karl-Bertil Jonssons Julafton every year must include other everyday parents that feel pulled by Christmas like I do.
So can we keep the flood of Christmas stuff at bay this year?
Can we find a niche that’s right for us, a comfortable blend of our family’s two identities?
Robert and his family are flying in from California to celebrate with us. I’m sure he will have some tips for me.
Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American ex-pat writer, translator and editor currently based in Stockholm.