The Art Of Subtraction In The Holiday Season

By Sunday, December 1, 2013 8 0
  1. An evergreen wreath on our door is my home’s only holiday decoration. Our Christmas focus is on people, especially our annual open house .

Mainstream culture tells us that more is better. During the holiday season, our culture screams this at us.

But unless we are poor, it’s a lie that more is better. It’s actually a violent lie. More is often crazymaking and destructive, both to our personal lives, and to our planet, which has finite resources and a climate that’s destabilizing because we burn fossil fuels so rapidly.

In contrast, being joyful and rich in what matters often means practicing the art of subtraction. This week’s post is partially based on a recent piece by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits. The links are to Diamond-Cut Life posts; Leo and I have a lot of shared values. (Like me, Leo writes under the Creative Commons license: You are free to reuse and remix our content provided you link back to the original post, and offer your new work under a similar license.) Sharing makes us rich in what matters.

The tendency of our lives and holidays is to keep adding more: more decorations, tasks, gifts, baked treats. clothes, gadgets, appointments, features to websites and apps.

But continual addition isn’t good for us. It’s not sustainable or desirable. This is especially true in the holiday season. And it’s especially true concerning eating. See How To Not Gain Weight Over The Holidays for tips on being rich in holiday fun without overeating.

Too much gift-giving may not be in anyone’s best interests. If you already have credit card debt (most Americans do), consider not debting this holiday season. If you feel trapped by old holiday rules and want a way out of them while still preserving loving relationships, see How To Break The Rules At Christmas.

Too many things to do means we’re always busy, with no time for rest, nature, God, stillness, creativity, exercise, time with loved ones, being of service.

Too many possessions is clutter, visual stress, cleaning, maintenance, debt, less happiness. See here for ten commonly used items that I happily live without. And here are an additional ten.

Too many tasks makes it harder to focus on any one thing or get anything done.

Subtraction is beautiful: it creates space, time, clarity.

Too many things we want to learn means we never learn anything well.

Subtraction is necessary: otherwise we are overburdened.

Subtraction can be painful. It can feel like letting go of a child.

But other times, subtraction can feel like we’ve let go of a ten-pound rock we were carrying uphill.

Subtraction is an art that improves with practice. Subtraction can be practiced on your possessions, schedule, task list, commitments list, reading list, writing, product line, distractions.

What might you subtract this holiday season to make you richer in what matters? 

photo courtesy of the Netz family.

8 Comments
  • HS
    December 1, 2013

    I loved this! I am inspired also by http://www.adventconspiracy.org. We are breaking old traditions and taking a minimalist approach to Christmas with our three young kids by foregoing Santa lists and limiting Santa’s gifts to only what will fit into the stockings. We struggled with whether or not to eliminate Santa altogether, and hope this strikes a reasonable balance.

    • Alison
      December 1, 2013

      HS, this sounds wonderful! Stocking gifts only . . . what a beautiful way to focus, and subtract out the excess. Way to go.

  • Mike
    December 2, 2013

    What wonderful timing, Alison, as this has been on my mind coming off of Thanksgiving. I’ve always believed in less is better and had a non-materialistic life. I’m more about investing in the spirit and soul than income or more items around to try fulfill a need. And I’m in the process of purging and getting rid of more unwanted household items. Though, Phoenix can stay :)

  • Alison
    December 2, 2013

    Mike,
    It’s amazing how quickly unwanted or unneeded items accumulate in our homes ~~ even when we’re not materististic (like you and me). It takes steady mindfulness to live from our values, rather than take the path of least resistance and make the easy, default choices of consumerism. We need a nation of citizens, not a nation of consumers.

    Finally, I agree that Phoenix your Golden Retriever is a keeper!

  • Colleen
    December 2, 2013

    This subtraction post catches me in a time of purging stuff … to make way for our two precious adopted children who will join us, hopefully, in a few months. Of course, their belongings will need space, too. But we’re intentionally keeping the kid-stuff slim, and 90% second-hand. We’ll encourage our kids to pass along their things to those less fortunate, too, once they are done with them. I think life, in general, is a continual process of adding and subtracting. I suppose the mindfulness with which one subtracts or adds matters most. Still, there’s no getting around that less stuff is indeed better. So, for these holidays, I’ll keep on purging. :)

    • Alison
      December 3, 2013

      Colleen, I like your concept that life is a continual process of adding and subtracting. Sometimes we get to drive that process ourselves (our purging and purchasing) and sometimes it’s beyond our control (the huge subtractions in the Philippines caused by the recent typhoon). I think the better our relationship with God, or the forces of love and wisdom, the better we can weather all the additions and subtractions.

      The last thing I want to say is that you and Thad are going to be wonderful parents. I’m continuing to pray that David and Marie Louise can soon leave the Congo and join you here so you can all unite as a family.

  • Colleen
    December 4, 2013

    Thank you, Alison! What a great compliment. I wanted to add something that a friend of mine is doing right now, relevant to your post. She’s subtracting 5 unneeded things *every day* until the end of the year. I like this idea a lot. And she’s doing it with great success!

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