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Thursday, December 8, 2011

6 Steps to a Clutter-Free Xmas

I think I first realized how much clutter accumulates around Xmas the year we didn't finish opening our presents until the 26th...because we couldn't find them all amidst the general chaos.  Or maybe it was the year we found that poinsettia we'd lost still blooming in the basement...in February.  Or maybe it was the year...you get the picture.  One solution would be to unmask Santa Claus and cancel Xmas presents altogether, but I suspect no one would go for that, so here's some feng shui help with damage control for your space and your equally valuable time.

1) Think outside the box.  In England a "box room" is a storage space.  In my family home in New Jersey we had a "box room" in the basement that was literally full of empty boxes, the rationale being that they'd come in handy for wrapping and mailing Xmas presents--like if we suddenly owed the whole town Xmas presents.  If you're not a box collector, or you're not that into what comes in them, ask your friends and family to make a donation to the charity of your choice instead of buying you another tie you'll never wear.  Just make sure the charity you choose has aims you all share.  If you're considering making charitable donations instead of buying gifts for the folks on your list, you need to make doubly sure of this--and that they'll be OK with not receiving a physical gift from you this year.  Your sister's Xmas present is not an occasion to judge how materialistic she is or demonstrate how green or altruistic you can be by giving the kind of gift you approve of or would like to receive yourself.  Remember how well it went down when Homer gave Marge a bowling ball with "HOMER" engraved on it for her birthday?
2) This is where Amazon wish lists come in handy: they make it easy to give people what they really want.  If you don't have one already, make one now.  Better yet, make several: as well as your public wish list others can consult when buying gifts for you, you can make private wish lists of your gift ideas for Mom and Dad et al.  With most online retailers you can track your purchases so you don't repeat, and Amazon will even send you reminders of Uncle Joe's birthday a month, a week, and a day in advance.  Making it easier for your friends and family to find gifts for you is a gift in itself, so it's worth encouraging your computer-literate loved ones to start online wish lists too.  If you're worried this will take all the fun out of it (if by "fun" you mean stress), don't be: studies show that while givers are happier to give surprise gifts, recipients are happier to receive gifts they've requested.  The more gifts we all give and get that are keepers, the less post-Xmas clutter we'll have to dispose of.

3) Until that happens, remember the three Rs of gift disposal: Re-gift, Recycle, Re-purpose.  Did someone give you an otherwise lovely photo frame that clashes with your living room?  Now's the time to dig out that family photo you've been meaning to frame for your aunt.  Already read that book?  Pass it on to a friend who hasn't or donate it to your local library's next book sale.  Don't drink scotch?  Allergic to scented candles?  Now you've got host/hostess gifts for all those holiday parties you've been invited to.  I'll never forget the Xmas my family received, among us, not one, not two, but THREE hardcover copies of Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope.  Clearly our friends and relatives understood our political leanings (see #1); clearly they did not understand that we share books with each other.  But it was still a win-win, because now we had gifts on hand for other friends who wanted to read it too.  Even when Grandma gives you a hand-knit sweater with teddy bears on it, there's nothing like the challenge of writing a thank-you note for the gift from hell to hone your creative writing skills!

4) Streamline.  When I was growing up, my parents both sang in a madrigal group that went Xmas caroling at the local hospital, to shut-ins, and at holiday parties on Xmas Eve.  After a hard night's singing, the group gathered at the home of two of the members for a Boar's Head Dinner (the Boar's Head Carol was our entrance number) and gift exchange.  By the time I was old enough to sing along, this group had been around for almost fifty years, and they knew how to run a gift exchange.  Instead of dreading this one, everyone looked forward to it, because it was all food, mostly homemade.  What could come in more handy around the holidays, when everyone has more people to feed than usual and less time to cook?  And what could be simpler?  There was no figuring out what to get each person, no mixing up name tags on mystery gifts.  Everyone just made as many jars of tomato chutney or loaves of cranberry bread as there were families in the group, and those who didn't cook bought everyone boxes of toffee or Florida citrus.  (My mom wins the efficiency AND recycling prize for training everyone in the group to return their empty jars to her in order to receive more lemon curd next year.)  The assembly line worked for Henry Ford, and it can work for you too.

5) Experiences take up mental space, not closet space.  When you give someone a gift certificate to their favorite restaurant, or tickets to that show they've been dying to see, or a day at the spa, you also give them the psychological bonus of looking forward to the outing from the moment they open the envelope till the day they cash it in.  In my family we often enjoy the experience of opening our Xmas presents to each other more than the gifts themselves, because we all write the gift tags in code hinting at who they're to and from and what's inside.  Trying to figure out who each present under the tree is for is all part of the joke, as is thinking of a funny way to label each gift while wrapping it.  Time is worth as much as money, so invest in yourself by finding ways to enjoy the time you spend on gift-giving.  Or put the Theory of Relativity to work for you and save space by giving people good times.   

6) Why leave all your holiday shopping till holiday time when stores are at their most crowded and checkout lines are longest?  Instead, set aside a gift closet (or gift shelf or box or shopping bag, depending on the size of your living space), and to the extent your budget will allow, whenever you spot something that would make a good gift for someone on your list, buy it then and there, no matter what time of year it is.  This applies to birthdays too, and is especially good to keep in mind while traveling.  What if you have absolutely no space to do this and/or you're one of those people who hates to go shopping?  You can still give yourself a head start by making a Gift Ideas folder and adding ideas to it year-round as they occur to you.  You can use a physical file folder for things you come across in catalogues (just rip out and save the relevant pages; don't keep the whole catalogue) and/or a virtual file folder of websites you've bookmarked.  (If you use an online bookmarking service like Delicious rather than bookmarking with your browser, you'll be able to access your gift ideas from anywhere.)  That way, when December rolls around and life gets crazy and you have no time to figure out what to get everyone or go shopping...you won't have to.

Lastly, to stay sane this holiday season, keep in mind that the presents themselves are beside the point; what matters most is the love and laughter that went with them.  The best Xmas gift my family ever got was a package of Philadelphia Cream Cheese wrapped in tin foil, because when we finally got around to opening it--this was the year we didn't find all our presents till the 26th--we had absolutely no idea who it was from, who it was for, or how it came to be underneath our Xmas tree.  But we laughed longer and harder over it than over any other gift we've ever received--because of course by then it also had to be thrown away immediately.  At its most basic, feng shui is where form meets function, so if the Xmas present that functions best for you--by bringing you so much comfort and joy you roll about on the floor laughing--comes in the form of cream cheese, then for you that's good feng shui.

Do you have a Xmas clutter story to share?  If so, please post it here!