The Kindest Present in the Midst of Holiday Madness: Grant Loved Ones the Gift of Opting Out

As I compare and contrast me now and me way back then, I barely recognize my former self during the holidays, especially in my 20s, 30s and 40s. Back then, I started playing holiday music and decorating the day after Thanksgiving. I went into major debt to shop for gifts. I baked  and decorated cookies like a crazed woman. I made homemade English toffee and fudge and my father-in-law's penuche and full-cream caramels. I wrapped beautiful gifts, back before gift bags were born. When my kids were young, I let them invite friends over for cookie-decorating parties. I made homemade stockings and filled them with great care.

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Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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58 Responses

  1. Janet Stortz says:


  2. Doug Mudford says:

    Our Christmas-giving craziness has narrowed to two great nephews and one great niece, all out of state. Cherry and I decided long ago to gift each other throughout the year…the smaller the occasion the better the gift.

  3. Barbara Rice Barbara Rice says:

    A few years ago my husband and I decided to get off the Christmas merry-go-round and stopped giving gifts, (Birthday, yes, Christmas, no.) Best decision ever. Christmas is a LOT more fun without that pressure.

    I get fed up with people complaining about the commercialization of Christmas, as though they’re being forced to go to the mall and buy stuff people don’t need with money they don’t have. if you wish Christmas wasn’t so commercial – start at home.

  4. Darcie Gore says:

    We too have gone Christmas lite. Now it is spending time with family, playing games and doing for others. No gifts just experiences!

  5. Frank Treadway Frank Treadway says:

    I’m giving away long-held treasures to my grand kids, whether they want them or not. I’m tired of dusting.

  6. Beverly Stafford says:

    I used to decorate every surface in the house beginning the day after Thanksgiving, but a whole bunch of years ago, my sister and I decided we would visit my mother between Thanksgiving and Christmas – sister being from Washington State and mother on the Central Coast. What was the point of decorating if my husband was the only one enjoying (ignoring?) my efforts while I was 500 miles away – then coming home and taking it all down? So I stopped. And after mother died and my sister and I had no mother to visit, I was out of the decorating habit. Mindless shopping? Never did it and have continued that Grinchiness. Like Doug, I give to a niece, nephew, and great nephew – and money is what they want and need; so I oblige. We bake Orange Kisses Christmas morning; he opens a couple of gifts I’ve had hidden away; he’s not a shopper, and my feelings aren’t hurt that I have nothing to unwrap because we’ve just purchased a new dishwasher or air fryer or matching recliners a few days before; then while a festive feast in the making, we enjoy a Christmas bowl (as Scrooge called it) and/or maybe some champagne; partake of said festive feast, a good wine, a special dessert, and – as my ol’ pappy used to say – wonder what the poor folks are doing. Boring? Perhaps. But we make up for being far from family on Christmas any time we can get together with them at other times.

  7. Judith Salter says:

    The year Trump got elected we didn’t have the heart to decorate the tree except for lights. None of the family noticed except my daughter in law and it took her awhile. I have large wooden letters on the mantel spelling NOEL. That year I wrote LEON. Same result. So I quit decorating. Now I am giving most of my ornaments and decorations to Carr families. It IS more fun to slow down. Thanks for this reminder

    • Judy, your little test with the wooden letters made me smile. Imagine all the spelling options with “happy holidays” on the mantle. And I like your idea of passing on the decorations to people who lost everything. And you’re right, it’s more fun to slow down. Frantic is not fun.

  8. CODY says:

    Festivus for the rest of us…

  9. Debbie Davis says:

    I love what simple and quiet brings to the Christmas spirit. The rest puts me in a whirling fog. Thank you for bringing your wisdom to the table.

  10. Eleanor Townsend says:

    Yeah, word. I recall making Christmas bows from reels of sticky ribbon, and enjoying it – then. One thing I really try to have the few people I still exchange gifts with understand is to give consumable items only. Hey, there’s enough of them – wine, chocolate, enough. My house sure doesn’t need one more thing, and nor do I. And way gone are the days of fearing the wrath of the family member who believes ‘family’ should all be together at the same place and time on Thanksgiving/Christmas (many of whom will be in front of the TV/phone the whole time) despite weather, travel etc. Always a recipe for disaster of some kind, oy! Let It Be. Thanks for the sanity, Doni!

  11. Richard Christoph says:

    Over the past 30+ years, our extended family has transitioned from each gifting everyone, to drawing the name of one individual, and this year to simply pooling our resources for Carr/Camp victims. We don’t need more stuff, but many other families surely do.

  12. Peggy Elwood says:

    Every year I do less…next year I may do nothing other than give away some art. Christmas in Redding has never been the same since they ruined the downtown with that dang mall…back in the 60;s we would park on a side street and go to all the stores you mentioned, buy gifts for everyone..$5 limit and be done in a couple of hours. That was fun!

    • I agree, Peggy, that the enclosed mall ruined downtown Redding. And even with all the downtown changes happening now, although I try to remain optimistic, the truth is that I don’t really hold out hope that I’ll see the kinds of improvements there that I’d like – not in my lifetime.

  13. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    Sometime around 40 years ago, I found myself working five nights a week, going to school full time and raising two pre-school kids. As I sat at my kitchen table trying to decide which to tackle first, the Christmas cards or the term paper, I had an epiphany!! Sending Christmas greetings should NEVER feel like a term paper. Right then and thereI stopped with the Christmas cards. Every five years or so, I’ll send a “catch-up” letter sometime during the year. You know what I’ve discovered? Not one single person has unfriended me . . . . either in real life or otherwise. I’m still way too involved in presents . . . . but that’s a personal problem. LOL!!

    • I think that’s a good litmus test: If some part of the holidays are feeling like an obligation, rather than a joy, then that’s the part to delete. For example, I love baking and creating food gifts, so that’s pure fun for me, and something that makes me feel happy, so I keep doing it.

      Christmas cards, I confess, I love to receive them, but I’m terrible about sending them out on time … so maybe I should let that one go, too (as soon as I send out the cards I’ve bought.)

      • Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

        One of my cherished memories of childhood was shopping for Christmas cards (with my folks, of course) and then perusing the ones coming in. I would rate them (in my mind). You know, I’m sure, my criteria: the more sparkle, the higher the grade. LOL!! Some things never change!!

  14. Judy says:


    Thank you for this discussion and confession. Some time ago I wondered about the wisdom of pressure being loaded upon wife, Judy. The decorations, cooking, presents for people far and near and the hundred cards all seemed a bit much as I had mostly opted out. It isn’t just age and fatigue. The point of the solstice celebration was renewal and looking both forward and backward as Janus (January) taught us long before Santa Claus and the so called Holiday Season. We can not mention Christmas any longer in this age of political correctness where free speech is usurped by a false sense of “feelings”. So, let the good times roll and live every precious moment for its own sake and not some sense of obligation. Frank is right; I am sending still useful hand tools from their great great great grandfather to my grandchildren. Nothing in today’s stores will last as long or have as much worth no matter how much money one has.

    • Beverly Stafford says:

      Well Judy/Dr. Smith – you said it so well, as have others in the above posts. I love winter solstice because it means the days are getting longer. In Alaska, there were huge celebrations during summer solstice, but they made me sad because the days would soon be shorter. I gave up sending Christmas cards years ago. All that time and effort plus the cost of the cards themselves and stamps? Nope, give me e-mail and/or a phone any day. The rush to comply with what we’re “supposed” to do between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is just plain fatiguing. I understand that in times past, the new year was celebrated in Spring. Makes much more sense because Spring is a time of renewal: new leaves and buds on trees, bulbs sending their shoots up through the soil, hibernating animals emerging. Why we celebrate in the dead of winter is beyond me. Maybe on the Spring equinox, we can start a new tradition: A News Café New Year.

  15. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    I love the sentiment behind this.

    The holidays shouldn’t be a stress-fest. For a few years now, I’ve been trying to convince my bride and my sister-in-law that we should go out for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Would those dinners be as good? Probably not–my wife and SIL put out amazing meals. But dang, I’d love it if the focus could narrow to just being together and not getting things done in time.

    Maybe I’ll swing them around to my way of thinking while I’m still breathing. Maybe.

    • I love this line: … “If the focus could narrow to just being together and not getting things done in time …”

      I love it. (But seriously, where would you go out to eat for a holiday meal? I’m drawing a big blank.)

      • Beverly Stafford says:

        Perhaps we could have an ANC Holiday Potluck for all of us who want nothing more than good food and good friends at Christmas.

  16. Matthew Grigsby says:

    This is a beautiful piece Doni, and filled with the kind of sentiment we need more of. Holiday traditions can go through their own evolution, as needs and interests and desires change and we should be able to embrace what works best for us.

    My family drew names this year, and we are each buying gifts for only one person. This makes it more interesting and personal and not some kind of chore to slog through. I’m enjoying it. The memories are made from the fun stuff anyway, with the laughter and the screeching and the joyful commotion. Last year we went to the park before dinner and played Frisbee and that stands out in my mind as a very fine day indeed.

    • I like the Grigsby family’s pre-Christmas Frisbee-throw. Great idea. (But Matt, what about the thrift store T-shirts? Please don’t say you’re stopping that tradition.)

      • Matthew Grigsby says:

        SHHHH! We pretend every year like I’m not doing it, and then everyone pretends to be surprised when they get one.

        (I’ve been buying shirts since August)

  17. Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

    So much truth, Doni!

    For a couple of years, I just didn’t have it in me. Not even for cards, outside of a few family obligations. This year once again I don’t plan to decorate – can’t reach the decs anyway, and don’t feel like clearing space (already at a premium) to put decs up, only to have to take it all down again. We put up a red ribbon from which we will hang the cards we receive, and that will be it.

    What I did feel like doing this year, though, was sending out more Christmas cards than I have done the last couple of years… so I did. It was nice. And it was enough.

    Your plans sound lovely, unique, and just right for all of you. That’s what it’s all about, in the end, anyway – the gift of family and friends and time spent together.

    • I think you make a fine point, Deb: We should just go with the flow and not be so rigid to cling to those things we feel we SHOULD do. If it’s a year that feels good for writing and mailing Christmas cards, then so be it. If not, forget it. Maybe we’ll feel like it next year, or maybe never.

      …”And it was enough.” Great policy.

    • Terry Turner Terry Turner says:

      I love how you developed just the right thing- cards on a red ribbon- to celebrate. Delightful and no stress! Great idea, Deb. Thanks for the idea.

  18. Linda Cooper says:

    Thank you, Doni, for such a fine piece. I started re-reading it at 6:30 am this morning. Uh, I think you might have saved my life. Okay, too much drama. Perhaps it’s better to write, you gave me courage to say “no.” And I granted myself the gift of “opting out.”

    My backstory here, is that I don’t really mind Christmas. I love sending cards. I like the stamps. I’m probably the last person on earth who appreciates the dear post office. When the grands were young, and the parents not divorced, and they all visited together, we did have a tree. With presents under it. Over the years, during the season, I gave small gifts to wonderful employees who served in stores along my path. At times, maybe a silver dollar in an envelope with my appreciation. It was just fun. And always a special bottle of wine for the post master at the Old Shasta post office. Side bar: this year, although we no longer live in Shasta, we delivered a tiny case of Tito’s vodka for the post office peep. Well, heck, she had explained she lost weight by giving up wine, and turning to a chilled glass of vodka at night. Just saying.

    This year, I had the courage to say no to our daughter. Who announced she was going to visit on December 24th, and leave the 25th. (We didn’t invite her.) She would arrive with her boyfriend (she’s 49, and yes, he seems to be nice), and next his two teenagers. Whom we have never met. She even provided us a list with what she would cook, and what we could cook. And our grands would be with their dad. I recently attended some counseling, because I saw the signs. The counselor said, “people don’t get it unless they have lived through it.”

    What we have lived through is our house and “stuff” being toast, moving to Chico where the area is now impacted with Camp Fire evacuees, and just for fun, two weeks ago a three night stay in the hospital for pneumonia. No, dear daughter, only child. We are not ready for prime time. We will be. Just not now. We don’t have a guest bed – yet.

    And there’s this. Because I’m learning that people like a happy story. We dropped some bucks at Michael’s yesterday. And, yes, I did use my 25% off coupon. We replaced our painting/art supplies! That felt so good. And today, we acquired a New table and chairs, and side bed tables. To be delivered in three weeks. Because we wanted the 20% off for waiting. And that felt good. Still no guest bed mattress. Hum. Baby steps. Not living in a third world country. That also feels good. And I do remind myself of that hourly.

    Most important, is that today I said, “no.” I prioritized my health. And it wasn’t easy. Because I really did want a visit. And, yet, I did it! So, once again, thank you Doni, for the article and impetus for practicing this courage of mine. Merry Christmas.

    • Dear Linda, I am so, so glad you chose YOU this holiday season, after all you’ve been through.

      You’ve been through so much: losing your home, and then relocating to the supposed “safety ” of your new Chico home … and we all know what that meant.

      You know what? I smiled as you wrote your words about your daughter because the odds are probably zero that your daughter will read this piece, because, well, she’s probably not a subscriber, so we’re like family here, and there’s a certain amount of privacy in what we share that’s just between us, where only subscribers can comment. It’s pretty exclusive.

      I have to admit that I laughed out loud when I read about your uninvited daughter who invited herself and her 49-year-old boyfriend and his kids, and your grands wouldn’t be there… because I could see how obviously unappealing that sounded.

      I have a little song I used to sing to my kids when they did something awesome, called the “Proud of You” song … and I’m singing it for you now, Linda. I’m proud of you for saying no to a situation that sounded like a potential stress-bomb. I’m proud of you for having courage. I’m proud of you for choosing you, and your health, over others’ needs.

      I have a hunch that you’re a giving person (see silver coins and Tito’s vodka, above), so being “selfish” is difficult, because it’s new territory. Go for it. Put yourself first now, so next year, if you feel up to it, you can opt in again. Or not. It’s your call, and everyone else will get it, or they’ll get over it. Not your problem. (This is for me, too.)

      • Linda Cooper says:

        Doni Dear, again, well done and thank you. Yeah, I woke up with trepidation about spilling my guts on ANC. Maybe I should gift her a subscription? Kidding! Actually my trepidation was exposure in general. However, your article created a shift in me, so maybe it’s important to share.

        Anyway, I agree, there’s that “let it go,” aspect. The other perspective I have learned is that we can’t (at least I haven’t been able to) change anyone. For me, it’s literally impossible. Because there was a time when I did try. I don’t see many articles titled, “How I Successfully Molded Someone and Changed Them into My Ideal.” Instead, my guess is that it’s more like, “you get to be you, I get to be me, and together we will be free.” It even rhymes.

        • SHELLEY FOWLER says:

          Please correct me if I am wrong, but I seem to recall that before I was a subscriber that I could read the comments I just couldn’t add my own.

          I did appreciate the article as we’re navigating this a little ourselves this year. Some changes the adult children are in agreement with…..others they are not. We’ll see how it all shakes out.

          • First, thank you for being a subscriber, Shelley.

            Second, you are correct. Everyone can read all the comments, but only subscribers can comment. They can look; just not touch. 😉

        • That would be a funny column: Articles we don’t see … (I like yours … and you’re right: I’ve never successfully changed anyone.)

          We are OK with gut-spilling here. It’s a safe place. You’re among friends.

        • Terry Turner Terry Turner says:

          If I may, I would like to second Doni’s response to you, and join her in a chorus of “Proud of You”! ??? Allowing self-care is a challenge for giving hearts, but as a friend once told me “You can’t give from an empty tank.” You deserve several years to refill your tank after all the events of this year.
          Again, So proud of you saying No, and thank you again for sharing your story. You inspire me to say No when I need to. Thanks!

  19. Hi Beverly,

    The ancients had this better than we. The major solar events of each year were celebrated for different reasons including the four Cross Quarters still represented but whose origins are mostly forgotten. Ground Hog Day is the first of these between a solstice and an equinox. May Day is the Second. Halloween is the Fourth. Space and time do not permit discussion of the missing Third once the largest and most important of them all lasting for three weeks from 1 Aug. Anyway, like the valuable meaning of the days of each week and the months of each year, we are not instructed about these things and much of our cultural heritage has been lost. So, we muddle and stumble along confusing things as they were once and fighting over things of limited real value. Yet Aristotle’s Chief Good of Life being Happiness seems rather firmly rooted somewhere as is John Muir’s “There is a love of Nature in everyone.” So, whatever, however, in every way possible, find joy in all you do all the year long.

    • Beverly Stafford says:

      A comment using your own name instead of Judy. Progress! Thanks for the education. I so appreciate your philosophy and all that you do for the community with your good works in open space clean-up and fire safe management. You are a year-round gift to the community.

  20. Thanks Beverly,

    Cell ‘phone knows me, home computer has to reprogrammed every use to identify user. You will be interested in knowing that this volunteer has been retired from further service. I had hoped to return in Jan. after a total hip replacement as Oleander and other weeds are returning quickly from fire damage. They always the first to gain dominance. But I am informed yesterday that City of Redding has everything under control. Apparently, Carr Fire has increased awareness and rearranged priorities. Hopefully, everything will be cleared and maintained before next fire season. It’s a tall order. Stay tuned!

    • Beverly Stafford says:

      My hope is that with physical therapy, your new hip will make you a new, more mobile, you. In Alaska, the first plant to emerge after a fire was, appropriately enough, fire weed. It was welcomed.

  21. Roxanne Blankinship says:

    Thank you Doni! The year I tore down the few Christmas ornaments off the tree because my husband wanted to take all of us skiing with the kids the day I got back from chaperoning basketball game for my oldest child should have been a HUGE warning that I was not cut out for this. However, a year or two of Prozac got me through the next few years. When the kids left for college I would often get out our plastic tree and put the box of treasured ornaments out for anyone who wanted to decorate the tree. Guess what? No takers. I certainly felt compelled to keep Christmas real. I just wasn’t sure what “real” meant.
    Thank you for your validation! It’s okay to do less, to enjoy the family and have FUN doing it instead of constantly worrying about what isn’t done. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    • Oh, Roxanne, I had a few years when the only thing that got me through the holidays was Prozac and Bailey’s.

      I hear you about the kids’ ornaments, and other childhood stuff that I’ve been carting around for nearly 40 years. I’ve finally gotten a clue that if it’s not important to them, then I should let it go, too.

      I like your idea of keeping Christmas “real” … and I guess the trick is figuring out what “real”, and doing what feels right to us.

      Here’s to more fun and less expectations. Happy holidays to you!

  22. Janine Hall says:

    Oh yes, thank you Doni. To say that I don’t like Christmas season is kind of an understatement. I have been in a retail hell since I was 22 years old. And now40 years later as I have faced another year of people wanting a part of me to do things that could have been done months or weeks ago…… well, the word NO has worked well for me. Would I have picked a different career, no probably not. Would I have found the word No sooner, oh yes. I choose to not decorate at home, the shop looks great. And my friends and I have decided to make a cool day of special treats to eat. That is Christmas and we will rock that.

    • Janine, I would imagine that working for 40 years in retail would suck the joy right out of the holidays for you, especially in your line of work, where I can imagine last-minute pleas for specialty gifts.

      I’m fairly new to the word “no” too … and it takes everything in me to say it sometimes, because I don’t want to let people down or disappointment them. What I’ve found is that when I say no, life goes on just fine, and I feel better about myself for standing up for myself and putting myself first, another thing that I’m still learning to do.

      I like the idea of your Christmas with friends. It sounds fun and sane. Have a rocking Christmas, Janine!

      • Linda Cooper says:

        Yeah, hard about the saying no thing. Someone once told me that saying no, was saying yes to something else. So I said yes today to some little gifts to drop off to my new docs office and some for the neighbors. That felt good. For now, my bench mark, is if good feels good, well, it must be good. Just saying…

  23. Terry Turner Terry Turner says:

    What a perfect column for the season, Doni! I had to laugh at the description of your early adult years. Except for your gifted baking, that described me perfectly. And how very stressful it all was.

    Your story of the delicious tamales reminded me of when we made our new holiday dinner tradition. I had always made a table full of all the “traditional” dishes. And spent days before and hours after in the kitchen. And worked hard not to act as tired and grumpy as I felt.

    Then one year, my husband had a great idea. We’d bought a boneless turkey breast, because we all loved turkey, and my husband and son and I then each picked one simple side dish to go with it. And that was all we made. Dinner prep and clean up was then fast and fun.

    Making new traditions, as you said, is a brilliant idea, and can surely help us enjoy our family time, because after the fast cleanup, we’d have a game night, too. Good memories.

    • That reminds me of the time when I was finishing college and my kids were in junior high and high school. I had Thanksgiving looming and no time or energy to cook. I ordered a pre-made boxed Thanksgiving dinner from then Sunset Marketplace for something like $69, which included a whole roasted turkey, gravy, rolls, potatoes and a pumpkin pie. It was so easy! I put everything in dishes and the kids proclaimed it one of the best Thanksgiving dinners ever. Sheesh!

  24. Beverly Stafford says:

    Ah, tamales. My mother made the absolute best tamales in the world partly because of the gravy topper. Hers were very small, only about two bites each, more the size of empanadas. Because of their size, she didn’t use corn husks, but instead, used waxed paper as the wrapper. One year, she was headed to Washington State to visit my sister on her birthday and decided to take tamales as a surprise birthday dinner. She decided to wrap them in foil for the trip then froze them. A couple of days prior to the trip, she figured TSA would question four dozen foil-wrapped “somethings” so she unwrapped them all and rewrapped them in waxed paper. Very time consuming but they got through bag-check without a hitch.

  25. Eleanor Townsend says:

    Decided to read this column (and the reinforcing comments) again first thing this morning after a weekend ‘managing’ the grandkids (headed into their teens, oh my).
    Feel better now! Will send two more cards, that I really want to send, gifts all bought and nearly wrapped. Family Christmas here next Sunday will be simpler, and Christmas Day will be a walk in the park (literally). Doni, you, and the ANC family, made a big difference with this discussion!

    • Beverly Stafford says:

      So many ANC viewers have benefitted from Doni’s column. And as Linda wrote and Doni concurred, “saying no is saying yes to something else.” We should all be saying yes to exactly how we want to spend the holidays and no to what we’ve always done simply because it’s what we always did or what our mothers always did or what our children expect us to do. Stressless and enjoyable holidays to all.

    • Hey, that makes me very happy, Eleanor. I think there’s a movement afoot to reduce holiday stress by doing only what we want and discarding the parts that are purely out of obligation. Good for you!
      Your Christmas day sounds lovely!

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