Catholic Spirituality,  liturgical living,  Marriage,  motherhood

Silver linings of a small budget Christmas

All around us there is a rushing, frenetic, pulsing energy that seems to gather steam as the weekends roll by. In kid-time, 3.5 weeks out from Christmas is basically an eternity, still. In parent-time, however, it might as well be December 23rd.

Last night I cooked dinner in my beloved cast iron skillet, now the single pan I own. The other two were finally scrapped the week of Thanksgiving in a perhaps ill-considered fit of sadominimalism. (n. the practice of getting rid of something that is objectively awful, ill-fitting, or broken only to find that actually, you were kind of stuck with it until you replaced it.) I had to time things so that I could cook both the sweet potatoes and the salmon cakes (would you believe my pickiest eaters will gobble these happily, with ketchup? Cheap, too.) since both wanted a pan. I suppose I could have roasted the sweet potatoes in the oven, were the oven still performing its required domestic duties.

I told Dave later that evening that I felt very Ma Ingalls about the whole thing, cooking my dinner over an open fire electric range (thankfully still functional) in a single pan, taking 35 minutes to accomplish what could have been done in 10.

The thing is, we’re extraordinarily wealthy by almost any measure. We have a house with 4 toilets in it, which makes us literally royalty according to some cultural standards. I know this because last week I spent 20 minutes at a cell phone recycling kiosk recycling some of my growing collection of outdated smartphones for pennies on the dollar, and was forced to enjoy such mental stimulation flashing across the screen as “did you know more people in the world own a smartphone than have a toilet?” to which I had to confess, no. No I did not.

And the reason we’re having a tighter than usual end to the fiscal year in the first place is precisely because we purchased a toilet-encrusted castle of our very own, which is an extravagant privilege in and of itself. Broken ovens, leaking showers, rotted sheetrock, and all.

I’ve felt a little frustration watching the contents of my Amazon cart appreciate in value, waiting for a forthcoming payday to be liberated, but surprisingly, I think it’s helped keep the focus on Advent laser sharp. Removing the possibility of getting all the shopping done ahead of time or throwing in last minute impulse buys has been a freeing mental experience. And in lieu of expensive outings and dinners out, we’re having simpler, slower nights at home. Candles, books, board games, Netflix episodes. I don’t want to give the false impression it was all bottle service and velvet ropes in years past, but certainly, life is different now. Fuller in some ways, leaner in others.

advent candles

The leanness has filled out Advent beautifully, though. Because I’m such a planner and anticipator by nature, it has been a hard stop for the cycle of buying, wrapping, hiding, preparing, impulsing, indulging, etc. etc. And I guess I’m grateful for that. Last night I slipped away at bedtime (St. David of Denver: coming soon to a liturgy near you in 2087) and ended up dropping by our parish’s perpetual adoration chapel for a half hour. The snow was just starting to flurry around the darkened windows but the chapel was warm and bathed in light, heated by the radiators and a half dozen or so of my fellow parishioners. As I was walking to my car I dug around for my keys and counted out the quarters in the bottom of my purse, collecting enough for a hot chocolate from the coffee shop on the way home. A luxury! And I don’t know that I would have seen it that way a year or two ago.

We’re incredibly blessed, even in tighter financial times. And praise God the times are tight because of blessings, not because of the burden of a job lost, a medical battle fought, or a relationship broken. But the tightness is showing me areas of real flab that were kind of perpetually being glossed over or taken for granted as “normal,” when in fact it isn’t normal to be so frantic, so caught up in planning and executing and getting it just right (and on time) that the holidays go off without a hitch.

christmas mantle

We don’t do Christmas. Christmas comes to us, whether we’re ready or not. Whether we bought a single gift, or have to work an overnight shift, or can’t imagine facing the day alone without the person whose absence is a gaping hole in our heart. Whether our kids are getting 4 presents based on a rhyme we saw on Pinterest, or 42 because their grandparents all live out of state and have a Fisher Price addiction. Or no presents at all, but maybe an extra nice dinner with enough for everyone to have seconds, because that’s what’s realistic this year, and thank God there’s enough.

And maybe Christmas comes and there isn’t enough. Maybe it doesn’t wrap up poetically like a Dicken’s novel or a Hallmark movie, and there are still broken hearts and empty cupboards, or a pile of wrapping paper mounted to the ceiling but cold, cheerless revelers dissatisfied with their loot.

He comes to us at Christmas. Whether we are ready to receive Him or not. Whether we’re open or not. Whether we’re tired or busy or angry or broken or deaf to His newborn cries. He comes. And for the next 3 and a half weeks, I can choose to focus on that imminent deadline and continually redirect my distractible nature to the reality of the season. He is coming. Gifts are great and giving is beautiful, but gifts are periphery to the bigger event at hand: He is coming. I forgot to buy something for my son’s teacher and I need a Starbucks gift card. He is coming. We haven’t bought a tree yet. He is coming. I haven’t been to Confession in X months. He is coming. We can’t swing the plane tickets to visit X in X. He is coming.

There is still time to prepare. There is time to do what is essential. And when the essentials are covered, the peripheral seems to fall more gracefully into place. I have to constantly remind myself of this. That my sweet, round-faced children will neither know nor care (thankfully, still so true at tender ages) whether they get the hottest new toys or have an impeccably decorated house to relax in wearing coordinating Christmas outfits. They squealed with delight over their Dollar Tree ornaments and the candy canes they found in their shoes yesterday morning. They fight over who gets to light the advent candle every night at dinnertime. It is enough. It is enough. It is more than enough.

christmas manger

And if I can present to them a well-prepared and spiritually nourished mother come Christmas morning, how much more powerful will their experience of the deep, true meaning of Christmas be?

But, you know, no pressure.

(Also, let this be a lesson to us all to temper our KonMari-ing to a reasonable pace, lest you too end up with salmon-scented sweet potatoes.)



  • Chris

    Love love love love Jenny~
    Love the sentiment and your style of putting it out there for us.

    My boys are sitting on the couch next to me reading while I was perusing your post and are positively LOVING your advent wreath. Ours is traditional and wow….they’re all about how they will have one JUST LIKE The Uebbings’ ” when they grow up! (They’re 16 and 14!)

    Awesome, as usual, Jenny.


  • Sarah

    Charming. Christmas does come to us whether house or presents are ready or not. I have said somewhere this very year that I am ready in my heart.

  • jeanette

    Our enormous family used to have an avalanche of gifts to distribute when we gathered on Christmas eve. As some of my siblings began experiencing greater and greater economic strains, we reached a point of not exchanging gifts so as not to burden anyone. So, getting to the non-gift point was just fine and focused on other, better things. Family and music and goodies and faith all rolled together in a joyful gathering, because there were so many of us that we just relished the opportunity to be all together at once. That was our gift.

    So I hope you all enjoy your home as your gift this year. It will be your FIRST of many Christmas celebrations there. And play lots and lots of music and create memories of shared times together that they will look back on with fondness. And realize that you already gave your children the best Christmas gift they will ever get in their entire life: baptism to prepare them for a life in Christ. Maybe when the get older they will realize it, too.

  • Brittany Austin

    This made me cry because we are there too, new home and financial struggles, the whole nine yards. It has been especially hard on me because I want to badly to give my kids everything, stemming from strong feeling surrounding my childhood, but I keep having to remind myself that this season is about Christ and preparing our hearts to celebrate His birth. Anyways, thank you for sharing this, it helps to know that I am not alone. Happy Advent and many Blessing on your family this year.

  • Brigitte

    Thank you! Beautiful! I am impressed you are learning these lessons so young. As a grandmother I still go back and forth between too much and too little. But you have the focus right. Thanks. Happy advent and Merry Christmas.

  • Natalie

    Jenny, we may never agree on politics, but your Ma Ingalls comment literally made me burst out laughing at work. Your posts continue to challenge my assumptions and inspire me to be a better listener. I’d like to think that, if we met in person, we could share coffee and share a laugh, even though we might find ourselves respectfully disagreeing on certain worldly happenings.

    One thing we’ll agree on, for now, is that cast-iron cooking is not for the faint of heart. Once, I made fish (for fish tacos) in a cast-iron skillet, and forgot to properly clean it afterwards. So, the apple crisp I made in the same skillet (shortly thereafter) tasted a little…let’s say…BAD.

    Also, I am adding “toilet-encrusted” to my vernacular. 😉

    Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  • Katy J.

    Yes, yes, YES, thank you for this post. I really needed to read this – I could feel myself slipping into frantic mode, but you have so poignantly reminded me of what is really important and that we.have.enough… that Christ IS enough.

    Also, I did not know that “sadominimalism” was the term for what I, too, seem to do to myself (far too frequently) when I get rid of things I actually needed before I can replace them! 😝

    Have a blessed rest of your Advent and a very Merry Christmas!

  • MK

    Thank you Jenny! I think God brought me to your piece today for a reason, as I worry about making Christmas “just so” with an almost 3 and almost 1 year old, and working outside the home. The little time I spend on social media can compound my tendency to slip into negativity, feeling like “I should be able to accomplish []” also. But this season is not about that; and with more kids and less time, simplicity is becoming necessary (and more beautiful and compelling) to me these days. Keeping Christ at the center of the season and our lives can be challenging. I really think the Devil can be in these persistent and material distractions of the secularization of Christmas. I therefore appreciate your reflections all the more! God Bless and Merry Christmas (in advance)!

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