Keeping Christmas Simple — with Simple Matters author Erin Boyle


Meet Erin Boyle, mama of one with another one on the way, friend of Babyccino, and author of both the fabulous blog, Reading My Tea Leaves and the super inspiring book called Simple Matters: living with less and ending up with more.

We recently reached out to Erin to ask for her expert advice on simplifying during the holiday season. How can we keep the joy in Christmas, and the excess indulgences out? Whether it is food, drink, parties, kids parties, or gifts, it can quickly and easily become a busy, expensive, and exhausting time when it should be an enjoyable and magical season.

Erin practices what she preaches, carefully considering every item in her life and living in a 500 square foot apartment in Brooklyn. I am a fan of her small space living ethos since I also live in the same size flat (in London) as a family of four.

And after forcing my husband last week to travel two hours round trip across London to get our 3 big boxes (!!!) of Christmas decor from a friend’s storage, Erin’s recent post, Clutter Free Holiday Decorations, made me weep with joy! Her tips on a compostable Christmas tree and how all of her holiday decorations fit in just one (ONE!) shoebox for storage made me instantly feel lighter and breath better just reading that. So I thought a chat with her was just what we needed in the midst of the Christmas season.

We asked Erin to (kindly) share Ten Simple Christmas Thoughts so things can be simple (and sweeter)!

  1. Christmas is often filled with festivities and indulgences (or overindulgences). What one ritual or tradition have you and your family created to stay balanced during the Christmas Season?

Last year we made an advent calendar focused on small daily activities rather than gifts or treats. This year, the current state of politics in the US has inspired us to adapt the calendar again and to use it to turn our attention to activities related to peace and justice (and also some in-home merry making). The calendar went entirely over our daughter’s head last year (and was really more for me and my husband), but this year she’s super into the daily envelope opening and it’s become a really sweet ritual.

  1. People often countdown to Christmas Day, which builds with both fun anticipation and sometimes unwanted stress, rushing to parties and purchasing presents. What is your favourite time of this year… how do you slow down and appreciate the season?

At this time of year we honestly try to make every night feel like a mini celebration. This isn’t to say there’s any big fanfare, but it gets dark out so early and we need a little bit of extra sparkle to get through those long nights. Every evening we turn on the Christmas tree lights, light candles on the kitchen table, turn up the Christmas carols and read all of our wintry children’s books before bed. It gets us all in the spirit, even if it’s happening in the midst of otherwise mundane weekly responsibilities (or, let’s face it, toddler meltdowns).

  1. Celebrating Christmas while pregnant is such a special thing. With a baby on the way, what one or two quality, beautiful heirloom products will you give your daughter Faye so she will love and cherish them for a long time before passing them down to her younger sibling?

We always keep Christmas gifts super simple—generally abiding to a rule of giving just four small gifts for our daughter— and I try to always have at least one of the gifts be something special that I’ve made myself. This year I’m making Faye a magic wand that I’m super excited about and I’m hopeful it’s something she loves and might be happy about passing on to her younger sibling when she outgrows it. (Though it’s just as likely the two kiddos will each need a wand to play with together! I don’t think that’d be worst thing either;))

  1. As your daughter, Faye, becomes a big sister, are there any new traditions you have planned for this Christmas?

In hopes of teaching Faye that the spirit of the holiday is as much about giving as it is receiving gifts, I’m working with her on a special project for the baby—a soft rattle. It will be Faye’s gift to the new baby and I’m hopeful that that idea of having each child make their respective sibling a special present each year will be a tradition that we can continue.

  1. You have such specific taste and need to carefully consider what objects live in your small space. How do you kindly encourage remote family members (aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc) to give gifts that you have both room for and love?

This is hands-down the most frequent question I get regarding kids and simplicity. When I was writing my book, Simple Matters, I read Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne and felt really bolstered by his take on the subject which echoed my own; essentially that we’re the adults in our kids’ lives and that it’s appropriate for us to take an active role in shaping their physical surroundings and providing them with a calm environment. And, yes, sometimes that means editing toy collections! We’ve been able to be super straightforward with our own families about our desires to keep our house and our approach to toys simple and we try to model that by approaching gift giving in the same spirit. We try for experiences over objects, we invest in one special gift instead of many less-special items, and we choose books over everything.

Whenever I answer a question like this, I’m inevitably reminded by readers that I don’t have a five-year-old obsessed with a Disney cartoon and the accompanying paraphernalia. True! But I do think a lot of this is about taking a holistic approach from the beginning. I’m hopeful that by cultivating a shared love of traditions and activities over toys that we might avoid some of the deluge of stuff that’s anxiety producing for so many parents (and kids!). Of course, you’ll have to check back in with me a few years down the line.

  1. In the past, has Faye ever been given gifts that are too tacky for your taste? How do you handle this? Gracious receiving is as not always easy if there isn’t space or love for a gift.

There are inevitably gifts given that are redundant or that don’t fit with our general hopes for the kind of items that fill Faye’s space. I think the key is to always accept a gift graciously but to also recognize that we get to be in control of our homes. If something isn’t a great fit for us, we give it away to someone else who might love it. That said, I admit this really hasn’t been a big problem for us personally. Our friends and family tend to be super conscious of the fact that we live in a tiny space so we haven’t had an enormous onslaught of unwanted gifts.

  1. Teaching our children about giving to those less fortunate is such a great lesson to counterbalance the giving frenzy trap that is easy fall into. Do you and your family ever volunteer?


For the adults in our family this year, we’re giving everyone a small, self-care related gift, but we’re otherwise donating to charity what we would have normally spent on presents. (We keep a spreadsheet of Christmas gifts we give each year, so tallying up the amount we typically spend and deciding to donate it instead was super easy and satisfying!) (If folks are stumped about charitable giving, I put together a little primer a few weeks ago.) And if donating money in lieu of gifts doesn’t feel like enough of a gift, I love the idea of offering someone something that does some of that work anyway. I recently wrote a post where I pulled together ideas of “gifts that give back”—artist work mostly, where the artist has pledged to give a percentage of proceeds toward a good cause.

Our peace and justice advent calendar also includes a lot of opportunities for taking a more proactive approach toward helping others and reaching beyond our own family but in terms of volunteering, since we’re still in the toddler stage, we try to be cognizant of the fact that places like soup kitchens might not really want “help” from a two-year-old. It is definitely something that we’re interested in doing as our kids get older. I really love the idea of starting a family tradition that revolves around giving to others as a joint project rather than only being on the receiving end of a gift-giving bonanza.

  1. At the end of Christmas there is often a mountain of paper waste… cards, wrapping paper, tissue paper etc. Do you have any interesting tips on wrapping or reusing?

So true! And I admit I always cringe when I see someone haul out a huge plastic garbage bag to gather discarded wrappings at holidays and parties. But the truth is that I actually really love wrapping presents. I always try to take a mindful approach to either reuse something that I have, to use cloth bags and ribbons that can get reused year after year, and to add bits of branches or berries or pinecones for decoration. This year I made a whole bunch of cinnamon stars that I plan on using to decorate the small gifts we’re giving. (For folks who need specifics, last year I compiled a post with a few of my favorite wrapping ideas.)

  1. Food. It’s one of the easiest and yummiest indulgences. What is your favourite way to simplify entertaining & cooking?

I admit we’re often traveling to other people’s homes at the holidays, so we’re not typically hosting family in our place for the actual holidays themselves. This fall though, we’ve been trying to invite different friends over for homemade sourdough pizzas every week as a simple and fun way to gather friends, minus the pressure. Pizza and a salad is dinner if you ask me!

  1. What would be one thing you would like under the Christmas tree (or in your stocking) this year?

Barring world peace, I could really use a pair of beautiful mittens for getting through the long winter. I lost a beloved last winter and I haven’t found a great replacement yet. And of course, I’m hoping for the late Christmas gift of a healthy new baby.

… wow!… Thank you Erin! Enjoy this cosy season with your loved ones and good luck in the New Year with the new baby. What a beautiful family to be born into.

And if you truly want to simplify your life, I recommend adding Erin’s book to your Christmas Wish List. Simple Matters really does simplify life. It makes us pause, appreciate what we have, and value what we treasure. What could be more appropriate this season?

Lara xx

p.s. We can’t wait to hear more about living as a family of four in a small space. : )


Comments (11)

December 16, 2016

Fantastic piece Lara – thank you for sharing. I shall be adding Erin’s book on my Xmas list! Out of interest Lara, do you intend on staying in your flat long term? I’ve found storage costs in London to be so expensive. I lean towards a more pared-down approach to family life (family of four) but would struggle in a flat of that size. Thanks again for the thoughtful post – Happy Christmas!

Lara in London
December 22, 2016

Thank you for your kind words. I find Erin so inspiring. We have no plans to move anytime soon, but then you never know where life will take you! And it is definitely a different way of living with this size space, but fortunately my husband is even more minimal than me, so it works. We also designed the space for maximum storage. And when we need more space, luckily, we have a friend who has a basement 🙂

Rachel | The Little Pip
December 16, 2016

We are also a family of 4 in a small London flat. Loved some of these tips – we also light candles every evening, listen to carols and have our Christnas tree lights on and don’t go crazy over decor but I still feel we’ve too much clutter.

Lara in London
December 22, 2016

Clutter is a constant battle, I agree. And it can be especially difficult at Christmas time. I think it is so easy to let things in the front door… but in 2017 I am going to try to be more selective!

Susie R.
December 16, 2016

Love Erin and her blog. She always has great ideas for our family in a simple way.

Lara in London
December 22, 2016

So happy you enjoyed it!

December 16, 2016

Love the orange slices, but how do you compost them afterwards? living in a small flat, I assume there isn’t a convenient compost heap…

December 16, 2016

In New York lots of people freeze their compost then take it to the farmers market to be composted. I think but I’m not 100% New York might also have curbside compost collection.

December 17, 2016

Thanks for all of these sweet notes! So glad to have you all reading! Re: the compost question, yes! We freeze our scraps on a lidded bucket in the freezer and bring them to the farmers market each week! (Also yes, there’s curbside pickup in some neighborhoods, though not currently in ours!)

December 27, 2016

I loved this post and have loved discovering Erin’s blog since reading it. Like many others, Lara, I’m really interested to learn about how you live with your family in such a small space. My partner and I live in a 2 bed flat that we adore and are worried that we will outgrow it with babies. I’d love to read some articles about how people live with their families in small spaces.

Lara in London
January 6, 2017

Thank you Laura. I always think you make a space work for you if it is a space you truly love. We really have to curate our stuff so it doesn’t get in the way of enjoying our space. My husband and I often have moments of wanting more space but then I realise that our kids have everything they could possibly need and want. And many children around the world would be so lucky! But it is totally do-able. Ideas on small space living would be a great future post, thanks! Stay tuned 🙂

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