On Keeping It Simple This Christmas: The Benefits of “Something You Want and Something You Need”

I hate to admit it, but I’ve been having a really hard time getting into the Christmas spirit this year. We found out my oldest son, who just moved out and got his own place this fall, is being laid off on Christmas Eve. Our country’s government is a hot mess. And everything just seems so darn expensive. Things surely add up on you quickly when a bottle of vanilla costs $30, and you’re looking at $1200 a month for health care starting in January.

I sound pretty Grinchy, right?

Thankfully, I’m doing better this week as I’ve started to see my simple Christmas lists come to life, and I’m reminded of how wonderful our family’s Christmas was last year. It was the first year we just kept it simple, and it was lovely.

For years, I’ve been trying to learn to live more frugally (it really is a process), but I’ve seen the most progress in myself in the last year. I no longer have any urge at all toward “retail therapy,” not even at Christmas, and I’ve seen first hand how much happiness Christmas can bring when we keep it simple and keep it on a budget.

chad-madden-179301
Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash

I want to find balance, and even though I’m starting the Christmas season a little bit Grinchy, I’m finding some peace and hope in our Christmas tradition we began last year.

A few years ago, I read about a plan to keep Christmas simple and still make it special. I read a blog post about a family who kept a plan to give each person four gifts and four gifts only—something you want, something you need, something to share, and something to read.

I loved this idea and thought that we should try it last year, especially since we’re learning to be more frugal. But, honestly, the best thing about this plan was how special it made Christmas.

Last year, I made a little grid for our family of four and just stuck to it. The coolest thing was how hard I planned and researched and thought and budgeted to end up with some really special Christmas presents.

I ended up finding one Christmas treasure for my husband’s “something to share” that was probably the best Christmas gift I’ve ever given him. It was a small and, therefore, relatively affordable speaker from Bose, and it has brought music into our home now every day since last year. And we just listen to Tom Petty all the time now, which makes all of us happier.

So, this year, we’re doing it again. I have my little grid, and my favorite category is the “something to share.” It’s the best trying to figure out some fun gift that will be special to the recipient but will benefit all of us as well. For my husband, I’ve been tracking down every CD Tom Petty released in his 40 year career that my husband didn’t already own. To keep it frugal, I found most of them used and hit the jackpot at Bull Moose Music. Thank you, Bull Moose!

Even though I’ve been struggling with my Christmas spirit, I’m feeling more “Christmas-y” every day. Even though we’re not a religious family, I do believe in keeping Christmas special. Yet I totally understand how people can get Grinchy at Christmas. I mean, it’s a terribly commercialized holiday.

But, as I’ve written before, life can be a grind. It feels good to take a break from it and celebrate. I mean, that’s what holidays are for, right? Humans have been doing this a long time. We need a holiday break from the grind, and I believe holidays are necessary to overall happiness—whatever holiday we celebrate and however we celebrate it.

And I’ve learned in the last few years that I don’t want to be in debt for Christmas. I don’t want to stress. I don’t want to feel panic about how much Christmas is costing us. Last year, our “something you want, something you need” plan worked out well. Christmas was paid for at Christmas, and we had a blast. I highly recommend it!

What about you? Have you tired the “something you want, something you need” plan for Christmas? What other traditions do you and your family honor to keep Christmas simple but special?

On the Importance of Pie and Living Without Regret

When I was about 20 years old, I went to the movies and watched Michael. If you don’t remember the film, it’s about the angel, Michael, who visits Earth and helps humans learn to enjoy themselves a little more—at least that’s my takeaway.

In the film, Andie MacDowell’s character is a woman who loves animals, writes music, bakes pies, and falls in love with a grumpy man and helps him not be so grumpy. I loved her character. I wanted to be her and just didn’t know how. But the one concrete thing I thought I could maybe do was learn to bake pies.

In the film, pies made people happy, and, in my 20 year-old mind, I remember thinking that I would like to be an awesome pie maker and make people happy.

It would be about 15 years before I would set out on my quest to really learn how to make pies. Prior, I had been busy with graduate school, raising a little boy, and trying to fit in and survive the tenure track at work. I also was living a life that wasn’t good for me, and the depression of my 20s and early 30s kept me from making any pies. I just kind of gave up on pie.

But by my mid 30s, I was starting to figure out what was important, and I remembered Andie MacDowell and how much I wanted to be her in that movie. I wanted to make people happy and learn how to bake pies—not just any pies, I mean really good pies.

As with everything, it seems, making really good pies was easier said than done. But I practiced every summer with the Maine raspberries and blueberries and every fall with the pumpkin and the apple.

It was rough at first. My ex-husband had always made it very clear to me and everyone else that I was a terrible cook, so I was really starting from scratch. I tried so many pie recipes, and my poor second husband (who just so happens to be my soulmate) ate every one of those terrible pies. And he did something profound for me—instead of telling me what was wrong with my pies, he told me what he liked about them.

My husband encouraged me so much and ate some terrible pies. I think the worst were the ones where I was trying to figure out a way to make the pies without too many calories. I’ve come to realize that, if you’re going to have pie, you might as well go all out and make it good.

apple pie
Photo credit: Annie Spratt, Unsplash

And with practice and a whole lot of praise and support from my family, I got pretty good at making pies. I got so good at making pies that I started to make them for the neighbors, and I started to share my recipe. I couldn’t make them very pretty, but they were always good.

I think one of my proudest moments was when I was visiting my neighbor one day and met her sister for the first time.

“You’re the lady who makes those awesome pies!” she exclaimed.

I was in heaven.

Then, a couple of years ago, I heard about a pie contest at a local harvest festival here in Maine. I knew my pies were ugly, and appearance was 30 percent of the judging, but I knew I had to enter.

But I didn’t. I chickened out.

Then, the festival came again last year. It was time to enter the pie contest. I signed up, practiced, got help from a decorating genius of a friend, and chickened out again.

As an aside, I don’t think the phrase “chickened out” is very inaccurate. I have some brave and bad ass chickens, but you get the idea.

Anyway, when the festival came around again this year, I knew I was going to enter. Something had changed in me, and it started with Tom Petty’s death.

I love Tom Petty, but I had never once been to a concert because I have a fear of crowds that goes back to my childhood. I couldn’t handle the mall at Christmas and had a panic attack in a crowded store on more than one occasion growing up. My fear was pretty strong, so big concerts are just impossible to me.

But, when Tom Petty died, I was filled with regret that I had never overcome my fear and went to one of his concerts. I thought about my life. For the most part, I’ve done pretty well finding ways to live my life authentically. I mean, I left a big job with good pay, so I could work part time and become a chicken farmer. I’m a very, very cautious person, so I always proceed carefully, but I usually find some way of living in a manner makes me the most happy.

And there I was, facing this big regret about never seeing Tom Petty. I didn’t like that feeling.

So there was no way I wasn’t entering that pie contest this year.

I filled out the form, read the rules, and went to work. The contest required an apple pie made with apples grown in Maine. Apple is one of my weakest pies, but I figured I could practice and just make a good showing. I figured I couldn’t win, but that wasn’t the point at all. It, somehow, was never the point.

I just wanted to be the kind of person who enters a pie contest, and that’s what I did.

I worked all week the week before the contest—researching the best apples, researching people’s preferences for apple firmness, traveling to several towns trying to find the best apples. I even honed my filling recipe I had invented.

I was sharing apple pie with everyone. I shared pie with my oldest son and his roommate, my youngest son’s cello teacher, the music store owner, my neighbor. I took feedback from everyone and tried to make the next one better.

The night before the pie contest, I scoured the internet for tricks to make pie crusts pretty and decorative. I realized I was lacking in the tool department, but I got some ideas and ran with them.

When I pulled the pie out of the oven the morning of the contest, I knew I had done the best I could do. “It’s really pretty!” my husband said. I could tell he was impressed. It was a pretty pie—at least for me. I was pretty excited and really proud.

I was so proud that I didn’t even feel sad when I saw the enormous amount of beautiful pies that were already sitting on the tables waiting to be judged when I entered the room. There were at least 50 or more. I could quickly see at least 10 or 15 pies that completely put my humble little apple pie to shame, but, somehow, I didn’t care one bit.

I had met my goal; I had entered that pie contest. I felt really good about myself, and that’s big for me. It just is.

And what really matters is that my pies make my family happy, and they sure seem to. When I take pies to my oldest son, he’s grabbing a fork before I’ve even put the pie on his table. And, when my husband says, “I know I shouldn’t, but I’m going to have one more piece of that apple pie,” that’s the best stuff to me.

On Tragedy, Tom Petty, and a Chicken Named Mary Jane

I’ve tried many times in my life to be a vegetarian. I’ve failed every time. One time, I did make it about 9 months, but I gave into the best cheeseburger I’ve ever eaten.

But I don’t like the way our food industry treats animals, so my husband and I started our own little backyard homestead, where we raise the biggest vegetable garden we can manage, chickens for eggs, and, yes, chickens for meat. That last part is hard on our hearts–always.

October 2, 2017 was the biggest day of chicken processing we’ve ever had. It takes a lot to get ready for it, and you have get ready for it mentally as well. For me, it’s a day when I start thinking a whole lot about death, what it means to be human, the ethics of eating meat, and my own mortality.

So when we woke up early that morning to the news about the tragedy in Las Vegas, I wondered if I would be able to hold up. For me, the worst part of the mass shooting is I have no hope that our country is ever going to do anything to try to stop this, so that hopelessness, which hurts so badly, kicks in and wears me out.

But there’s so much prep that goes into chicken processing I knew we had to proceed and that I would have to suck it up and be tough. I feel everything so deeply (not something that I like about myself because life is not fun this way for sure), but I can be tough when I have to be. I knew I would need to be tough. It would be much worse to put off processing the chickens.

It always starts the same. It’s easier at first. My husband, Ron, is careful, quick, and kind, and the chickens don’t know what’s going on. But, as their numbers start to dwindle, the chickens get suspicious. It gets harder to catch them. They fight against being caught–and rightly so. And, so my mind turns to heavy thoughts, and I start wanting to keep some chickens, even though I completely understand that the chickens we’re processing are a type of chicken that may not have a long normal chicken life.

But, still, it’s always the same. I start hinting around about saving some of the last ones, keeping some, the ones who have made it. People can say what they want, but I know the chickens know what’s going on, at least on some level, even though we try to hide it from them. My husband always makes me be practical. We don’t have the room. Meat birds don’t live very long lives anyway, usually.

But October 2 would be different.

While my husband worked on the next chicken, I had a few minutes for a break, so I went to my computer and checked Facebook. It was then I discovered Tom Petty had passed away. I just stared for a long time, and then the tears came. It was too much for one day, I thought. I loved Tom Petty. My husband did too. I went out to tell him.

“Tom Petty died today,” I said.

“What?!” he asked.

“I just read online that Tom Petty died today.”

There was a long silence as my husband continued his work. I knew he was sad, and I felt heartbroken, but we continued our work. I can’t even tell you how much I loved my husband in that moment. My heart was so broken, and I could tell he was really sad too. He got it. He got how important Tom Petty was, and my husband would become even more awesome to me that afternoon.

After a while, the conversation came up. We had just a couple of chickens left, and the last one was a little girl. She had eluded capture all day, and she was worried for sure. I hinted that we could really use another layer, and, that day, my husband agreed. I heard him ask our son, should we save this last one to be a layer? He’s eight, so, of course, he said yes. I was happy. And I really needed some happy that day.

Mary Jane
This is our Mary Jane hanging out with our sweet rooster, Rooster. She’s doing a pretty good job of fitting into the flock, even though she’s still kind of an outsider. I think Rooster loves her though.

Her name is Mary Jane, and she’s a beautiful, wild, mistrustful little hen. It’s been a little over two weeks, and just this week, she started coming for treats with the rest of the chickens. I love her already, and I am so thankful for Mary Jane and that little bit of happiness that came at the end of such a tough day.

Mary Jane doesn’t know it (But maybe she does. After all, who am I to say?), but she’s going to have the best little chicken life a chicken can have. She doesn’t let me pet her yet, but I’ll keep working on that.

Mary Jane’s last dance will, hopefully, be many years from now. Tom Petty’s music touched so many people’s lives in so many ways, and on the day he died, he touched our family so much that Mary Jane lived.