Do you find yourself walking around in December muttering to no one in particular, “Why are the holidays so stressful?!?” I used to do that, until two things happened. One, I matured enough to know that my holiday stress is actually faux (i.e., mostly self-imposed), and two, my oldest child went to college, and a piece of my heart went with him. And then the holidays became spectacular and perfect, because it meant my son came home and my heart was whole again.
So I vowed never to complain about holiday stress again. But some vows are made to be broken, right? Because I gain a few things–besides a mended heart–when my son comes home from college. Overnight my house is filled with stuff. It’s like a miracle, except it’s horrible, which makes it an un-miracle. You see, my cherished child leaves a trail of belongings wherever he goes: shoes in doorways, coat on living-room chairs, keys on stairs, wallet on kitchen counter, iPhone on kitchen table, sweatshirt on bannister. It’s “Hansel and Gretel,” the teenage-boy version. Except no one is starving (see faux stress) and I am the witch. Because while I intend to focus on my full heart and the sheer joy of my son, I really just want to burn all his detritus in a big oven in my gingerbread cottage in the woods.
Wait, did I say that out loud? I think the faux stress of holiday stuff made me do it. Everyone knows that too much stuff can make you feel crazy, which is why the Container Store was invented–so we can feel in control without having to get a prescription.
Now, let me be clear that too much stuff = faux stress = first-world problem. But we residents of the first world love stuff, and we love to complain about stuff, and Christmas is the Stuffapalooza of our calendar year. Which means many prophylactic suggestions for stuff control from writers of magazine articles: Family activities instead of presents! A one-gift limit! Have any of the people who write these articles heard of grandparents? If I suggested a one-gift limit, my in-laws would pull my husband aside and whisper, “I can have our lawyer draw up the divorce papers for you on Monday.” And while I know “experts” are always telling us that children are resilient, I’m not sure how resilient they will be after their mother is declared mentally ill for suggesting we cancel Amazon Prime.
Someday a company will be brave enough to broadcast a holiday TV commercial featuring a happy family sitting around with each member holding one present. Extra points if that present is homemade. Until then, it’s all abundance and smiles and hilarity, but what you don’t see is the thought bubble above the mom, which does not say, “Oh, look how happy my children are!,” but instead says something like, “Where the hell are we going to put all this stuff and is that remote-control helicopter broken already?”
Years ago I worked for a woman whose desk was always so neat that it both fascinated and intimidated me. The neatness of her desk signaled a superhumanness that I would never achieve. It wasn’t until I had worked with her for a few months that I realized the reason her desk was so neat was that she threw everything out. Sometimes even things she hadn’t looked at–poof, gone. It was staggering in its bizarre efficiency and, frankly, its disregard for everyone who worked for her. Horrible and beautiful at the same time. I’ve considered this approach to holiday presents but decided against it (see mother declared mentally ill).
There are two ways we can approach the overwhelming amount of stuff this season always brings. We can decide to throw away random gifts, like my old boss and my father, who every year drags out a contractor-size garbage bag and starts shoving stuff into it before half the gifts are even open. (I’ve been known to do this myself, which I blame on my DNA. And if you mistakenly throw out assembly instructions–not that I ever have!–you’ll find that it’s amazing what Google has to offer.)
Or we can take the more sensible approach, which requires the most thought and time, which is why the sensible approach to anything is often the most boring. In our house, this is called the one-in-one-out rule, meaning for every new thing you get, you have to donate an old thing. (I personally would prefer a one-in-two-out-rule, which would eventually result in a completely empty house. Depressing … or nirvana? I can’t decide.) One-in-one-out means the amount of stuff in our house stays relatively constant–until our son goes back to college in January, of course. Then my heart may be broken again, but the house is a heck of a lot neater.
Van Ogtrop is the editor of Real Simple and author of Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom
This appears in the December 15, 2014 issue of TIME.