The best Christmas ever? Often it was pared down.
In tough times, people discover that simple holidays can be the most satisfying.
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"Rarely did I get what I asked for on my list," she says. "There just wasn't the money." Even so, she adds, "Every Christmas was lovely. I learned the value of sitting in front of a lighted tree and drinking hot chocolate."
In this recessionary year, as many families face tight budgets and pared-down holidays, experiences like Ms. Allen-Niesen's ring with special resonance. In varied circumstances, she and others have learned that making do with less elaborate celebrations doesn't mean having to settle for a less satisfying Christmas. They offer reassurance to parents and others that downsized gift-giving can bring its own rewards.
"Parents should view this poor economy as an opportunity to show their children that simple gifts, home-based activities, and laughter go a long way," says Charles Sophy, a child and family psychiatrist in Los Angeles.
Allen-Niesen, now a writer in Los Angeles, recalls fondly the year her mother bought an ornament-painting kit at the drugstore because they could not afford tree decorations.
"We spent hours painting wood cutout ornaments outlined like coloring book pictures," she says. "Some were well done, some were awful, but each year when we hung them, I had the same warm feeling. I have no idea what presents I received during the lean years. But I've never forgotten our hand-painted ornaments."
As a boy, William Elliott Hazelgrove remembers his father often telling him that Christmas was going to be lean.
"He was a salesman, so his income fluctuated," says Mr. Hazelgrove, of St. Charles, Ill. "As a writer, my income has always fluctuated, too. But I never give the 'It's going to be a lean Christmas' speech. The kids seem to be happy with the gifts they receive, as long as traditions are kept. That is really what children value. Putting up the tree, drinking eggnog, going to see the lights in downtown Chicago – that is what I always remembered. Even when times are lean, Christmas can be enjoyed as if there were many gifts."
That was also Jenn Savedge's discovery one pared-down holiday when she and her husband were first married. She was in graduate school, and he was working seasonally as a park ranger. They lived far from friends and family and had no money to go home for the holiday.
"We couldn't even afford a tree," says Ms. Savedge, of Luray, Va. "So we had what we called 'the $5 Christmas.' I thought it was going to be difficult to find a meaningful gift for my husband for $5, but I found a lot of things that didn't cost a cent. We even 'made' a Christmas tree and decorations out of painted newspaper. It was a fantastic holiday. I've never forgotten the lesson I learned that year – that you don't have to spend a cent to enjoy Christmas with the people you love."
For Lynda McDaniel, a business writing coach in Seattle, her leanest Christmas ranks as one of her best holidays. She had moved to the mountains of North Carolina as part of the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s. "My husband and I had virtually no money to spare, but I was determined that wasn't going to stop my Christmas celebration," she says. "I bought him warm socks and an apothecary jar full of M&Ms. He got me socks, a little labelmaker, and some candy. It was all about the spirit of Christmas."