On July 26, 2012, in Punta Gorda, Fla., Ruth Soukup, a 33-year-old stay-at-home mom of two girls, threw away all of her children's toys. Soukup took away the dress-up clothes, baby dolls, Polly Pockets, and stuffed animals; the Barbies, building blocks, and toy trains; and even the dollhouse furniture and play food from their kitchen.
She wasn't mad. She wasn't even upset. She was just tired of being inundated with stuff.
Soukup, a blogger, chronic shopper, and self-proclaimed "organizer," had reorganized her daughters' room just two days earlier, and there were still a few toys on the floor that her kids, then 3 and 6, refused to pick up. That afternoon, Soukup realized she genuinely wanted it all gone.
Such are the stories I've heard while interviewing "minimalist" parents and others who manage to limit the amount of stuff in their homes. Their reasons ranged from wanting a more organized space to financial concerns. Yet they all arrived at the same solution: scaling down.
Getting rid of possessions seems like a hard task at any time, but it's especially difficult during the holidays. What to do about presents, Santa, wish lists, relatives? How to make a season meaningful without red bows and stuffed stockings?
The Soukup kids, among others, have some answers. When Soukup cleared their room, she expected crying and wailing and protesting from her kids, but they were unfazed. Not only did they keep their cool about their missing stuff that afternoon, but they have maintained their acceptance of the situation for 21/2 years. Now 5 and 8, Soukup's daughters do have a few toys, mostly Legos, with which they can play on weekends, and American Girl dolls, which are sentimental gifts from their grandfather, as well as board games, arts and crafts supplies, and books.
At birthday parties, Soukup puts a donation box outside for anyone who shows up with toys, though people have mostly stopped bringing them. (Other families deal with gifts by asking family members to keep any toys that are presents in their own homes for when the children visit.) For the holidays, Soukup encourages family members to do something special with the children instead of buying them presents. And she takes her own advice.
The focus in the Soukup home is on buying experiences rather than stuff, and on developing gratitude for it all. The family volunteers together, takes extensive road trips, and, for the older daughter's birthday, flew to Tennessee to visit family friends. During the holidays, Soukup focuses on family activities like ringing the Salvation Army bell, filling Operation Christmas Child boxes at church, and going caroling.
The emphasis on togetherness is the beauty of Soukup's story. Hers is not just a thrilling tale because her choice feels extreme, but it's shrouded in the reality that spending time together, and teaching ourselves to better appreciate that time, cannot be overstated. Against the cheerful choruses of joy, gratitude, and giving that tend to feel trite during this time of year, Soukup's drastic action is a refreshing reminder: Christmas isn't about accumulating stuff; it's about appreciating what you have.
In truth, our belongings aren't bad in themselves, but it behooves us to remember that objects can't be at the heart of family life. Whether we shock ourselves into that realization by discarding our belongings or we realize it within the quiet of our own hearts, it's a reality worth considering during Christmas or anytime.
Gina Ciliberto is a freelance writer in Connecticut.