Flamethrower or donation box? Cut through the post-holiday clutter

One mom compares her post-holiday clutter to invasive foliage that smothers everything in its path. While a flamethrower might be the quickest solution for killer weeds, there are easier ways to cut clutter when gifts take over.

Sammy Dallal/AP/FILE
A room (not belonging to the author or her son) overflows with clutter, in Boulder, Colorado.

For most families who partake in the tradition of gifts, gifts, and more gifts around the holiday season, the inevitable moment comes during the post-season glow where I look around and realize with a rising sense of weighty anxiety that my things are quickly on their way to owning me, rather than being owned by me. 

When my son spent thirty minutes playing with the ribbon he just untied (while the present remained wrapped), I realized there’s no need to keep a roomful of fancy gadgets in order to maintain his natural state of joy.

Parents are especially susceptible to this familiar phenomenon of clutter, as most of us with children know that toys, baby gear, and childhood paraphernalia have a way of oozing out of the playroom walls like unkempt kudzu. Add on gifts received at Christmas time, and the accumulation of extraneous stuff can encourage even the most sentimental to make a loaded trip to the local thrift store. 

According to a report from the Jackson Sun, Brian Martin, a regional donations supervisor for Goodwill in Tennessee, says that many places have increased staff after the holidays in anticipation of the sudden influx of donations.

In my own thought process for how best to stave off some of the weight that too many things so often brings, I came up with a list to help formulate a plan. (It may also help keep me off the next season of “Hoarders” on A&E. Remember, it doesn’t happen overnight - just one Internet purchase at a time…)

1) Organize, decide, act

Peter Walsh, author of the New York Times bestseller, “It’s All Too Much,” recommends that the first step in clearing the air is to organize things into three simple piles: keep, give away, trash.  

Trash should be explanatory. If it’s no longer useful to you or useful to anyone else, it is trash. No cheating here – a sock with a hole is only good for a cleaning rag if you’re suffering from a particular shortage of cleaning rags. A 2-blade fan that’s been in the basement since the 50s because it just needs a new motor…or electrical cord…or…wait, what did it need again? Nothing! It’s trash. 

What denotes a “keep” from a “give away”? This is a trickier one, and gets into more sentimental territory. I often refer to a mantra found on Chris Guillebeau’s blog titled Art of Non-Conformity – “Does it spark joy?”

Does that bag of infant clothes bring you an extraordinary amount of joy? What about the jumping gym that your little one outgrew two years ago? Does the rooster dishtowel from Aunt Beatrice truly make you smile every time you see it hanging in the kitchen? If the answer is yes, then put them in a place where you can see them and enjoy them on a daily basis. If they’re simply taking up mental and physical space in your life, it might be time for them to find a new home.

2) Finding a new home

Not only can you find creative ways to donate things or find new and better places for them to live, but what a perfect venue to teach children the valuable lesson of giving to those who have less. 

I realized looking at my own son’s stuff that if my child associates having 4 walls and a roof, plus 19 bins, and 2 closets full of things as normal, he may begin to associate comfort and stability with being surrounded by things, and also may not realize that every child is not in the same situation. 
A few years ago, I was perusing a site of “free things” for myself, and came across a post from a young single mother who was in desperate straits for the holidays.  She wrote about how she could not afford to give her children gifts or even decorate the house with anything festive. She also said she had a need for practical things like diapers and other baby items.  

I didn’t really need 4 strands of Christmas lights, so I put 2 in a box. Now that my son was three, he certainly didn’t need his infant toys anymore, so in the box they went. Since he had recently been potty trained and I buy in bulk, I had over 100 extra diapers just sitting in my closet. He helped me top the box off with some baby clothes, I emailed her for her street address, and we left the box on her front porch the next day. Of all the things I’ve gotten for Christmas, her thank you email to me after that ranks on the top 10 best gifts I’ve received, and it could not have been any simpler.  

3) If it doesn’t fit in the bin, do not buy another bin

The bedrock mantra of keeping your clutter to a minimum – one item in, one item out – also applies to containers, no matter how pretty or upscale they look. If you find that you are running out of room in your seventh bin of Halloween decorations, or your paper wrapping caddy needs a back up, it might be time to reevaluate.

Like most 1st graders, my son is sentimentally attached to every recycled sheet he draws a monster on, every paper plane he engineers, and every cotton-ball craft he creates at school.  Of course your child’s artwork and the tokens of their educational journey is important. But when his locker at school starts to look like a construction paper tornado swept through, I tell him he can keep his two most cherished items, and the rest must make the solemn death march to the industrial-sized recycling bin ten feet away. Some days meet more resistance than others, but he learns the value of not accumulating what’s not necessary as well as learning to make choices about what he values and wants to keep in his experience. 

4) Beating the holiday rush 

What’s even better than a post-season purge? A pre-season purge!  

This past December, I set aside a whole day to roam through the house with reckless abandon to make room for the new. I was grateful in advance for the clothes, toys, and Legos that I knew were coming, and I was happy to express that gratitude by making space for their arrival. What toys hadn’t been played with in over 6 months? What clothes were constantly at the bottom of the drawer, even if they were the right size? Which items were constantly being shoved aside so that I could get to what I really wanted in the closet? Did they bring me joy?  

If they created more weight than joy or utility, they went in one of 5 lined up boxes, which I then listed online as a curb alert, and it was all gone in less than an hour.  When the tidal wave of gifts came, I was able to breathe easy, and gratefully welcome them with open, unburdened arms and shelves.  

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