Please Stop Buying Us Nutcrackers

Please Stop Buying Us Nutcrackers

Note: This is a guest post from Craig Stephens of Retire Before Dad.

During the past few Christmas seasons, my daughters performed in a local production of The Nutcracker.

The show is a beloved annual tradition. The girls love to dance alongside their friends in front of our close-knit community.

Their grandparents are enthusiastically present and engaged, always visiting when the kids have significant childhood events. We are grateful.

One or both sets of grandparents have visited from out of town to see the performance every year. They travel several hours to watch the girls on stage for only about three minutes each.

As someone who never knew any of his grandparents, watching my children interact with theirs has been one of the most gratifying experiences of parenthood. The most magical moment is when the girls emerge from backstage to receive hugs, flowers, and oversized rainbow lollipops from their grandparents.

Every year, one or both grandmothers have commemorated the performance by also giving them each an intricate 15-inch nutcracker. We’ve accumulated quite a collection.

My oldest daughter was overjoyed when she received her first years back. Like The Nutcracker’s protagonist, Clara, she’d never received such a beautiful and delicate Christmas decoration all her own. But each new nutcracker since the first has been less exciting.

Last year, it was excessive. Each daughter received a large nutcracker from both grandmothers. One grandmother gave a nutcracker to my wife, and another to my 11-year-old son (because what 11-year-old boy doesn’t want a lifelong Christmas mantelpiece to celebrate his little sisters’ dance recital?).

If you’re counting, that’s six big nutcrackers in one year, added to the previous years.

At ages eight and ten, there are potentially several more The Nutcracker performances in their futures. Are they going to get more of these plus-sized nutcrackers every year? It sure seems like the perfect gift, girls dancing in The Nutcracker and all. But every new nutcracker makes the previous gifts less meaningful.

All of this prompted me to ask my mother to please stop buying us nutcrackers.

Our family isn’t all that into Christmas decorations. We are not nutcracker collectors. Most Christmas decorations we own are gifts from our mothers or their sisters. In their minds, we still don’t have enough.

We pick a nice tree and hang ornaments, illuminate the house exterior, buy a wreath, and find places to display the nutcrackers and other decorations. But we don’t entertain during the holidays; we decorate for ourselves because it’s a tradition learned from our parents.

The kids appreciate the exquisite quality of the nutcrackers for a brief moment each year. Then it’s back to the tree swing or Nintendo. The girls need reminders of which nutcrackers are theirs because there are so many now.

Our house isn’t particularly design-savvy during the other 11 months. With three young and active kids, we still struggle to keep it clutter-free and tidy. Christmas decorations just sort of intercept dust particles for a month, then return to the bins.

Also, storing the nutcrackers has become an issue. A few years back, we remodeled our basement to create more living space. We made room for a big puzzle and board game table and a second TV area to give the kids some privacy as they age.

Half of the basement was previously used as storage space, but it’s only about one-sixth of storage space after the remodel. We do our best to squeeze the bulky nutcracker boxes into our existing storage bins. Still, every year, we must add another Christmas storage bin, adding to the collection that sits among more useful items like camping gear and luggage.

The decision to dramatically reduce storage space was an intentional one. We want our basement to be lived in, not full of stuff. When the limited storage space fills up, we force ourselves to find something to remove.

But that something can never be their grandmothers’ nutcracker gifts. How could we?

My wife and I have observed our parents struggle with eliminating unneeded clutter. Both sides continue to store the belongings of their adult children.

My parents recently moved out of the house they lived in for more than 50 years! The house was no longer suitable for their physical needs. But they stayed too long, in part because they were overwhelmed by the thought of sorting through 50 years of possessions.

When they finally moved, mystery boxes overflowed from the spacious new closets and converted the two-car garage into a one-car. Much of it is Christmas decorations, including an impressive nutcracker collection. Where will Mom’s collection go one day?

I’ve struggled with minimalism as one person in a household of five. Though we discourage the frivolous accumulation of possessions, our kids still love frequent and generous grandparent gifts. Getting rid of old toys, stuffed animals, and tight clothing has become more agreeable as the kids have aged. But as gifts, these nutcrackers aren’t something we can sell at a yard sale or give to charity. They were meant to be more special, dare I say, forever gifts.

There’s an unspoken expectation that one day, our children will be married with families living in large homes marvelously decorated with their grandmothers’ nutcrackers. Maybe that’s a comforting vision.  

But twenty years from now, our kids might be in graduate school or living in a tiny studio apartment in the city with zero storage space. They may never marry or wait to start a family until their forties. That’s more than three decades from now. When our children receive what might seem to be thoughtful gifts, the Scrooge in me thinks about who will oversee these bulky items for the next thirty years.

Does parenthood require accepting that we’ll store our children’s possessions indefinitely? What if we want to downsize in 15 years? What if we want to use our limited storage space for something more useful than nutcrackers that don’t crack nuts?

In retirement, my wife and I intend to design our lives to be more flexible so we can travel for extended periods without the burden of a costly large home full of stuff. That may mean downsizing houses or living in an apartment. We do not intend to store our adult children’s things as our parents did for our generation. A basement full of stuff we can’t bring ourselves to part with could be a deterrent from living our ideal retirement.

The nutcrackers are lovely decorations and a way to supplement the memory of a meaningful event. But not all people are enthusiastic about decorations. Cleaning up Christmas is among the worst days of each year. For how many more seasons will it continue to get worse?

My wife likes nutcrackers and thinks less about the long-term storage outlook. Though she agreed the 2022 onslaught of 15-inch nutcrackers was excessive. Even my mom agreed and said she’d cut back. If these were smaller ornaments, this wouldn’t have been an issue. Small ornaments could be a pragmatic compromise.

What’s most important to me, and hopefully everyone else, is my daughters will forever remember that their grandparents sat in the audience and watched them perform. They beamed with pride, showered the girls with hugs and congratulations afterward, and gave them flowers and oversized rainbow lollipops that elicited some of the happiest smiles the world has ever seen.

Can that be enough this year?

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