Holidays, the Simplified and Low-Stress Way

It’s probably no secret how excited I am about the holiday season this year. November is a crazy-arse month in our household, but we’re all really looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas (including the build-up to it). New Year’s maybe a little bit, but the whole holiday thing has us downright bouncy.

Last year, it was a different picture. I always enjoy listening to the Christmas carols, and seeing the magic through Hadman’s eyes last year was uplifting, but for some reason I just wasn’t super into it. We all have years like that, don’t we? It’s one of the reasons I wrote this little ditty about getting into the spirit of the thing.
The holiday season can clearly be a super stressful time. The gift that should’ve come a week ago that still hasn’t arrived. Trying to give that one impossible-to-shop-for person the best gift in the world. A million things to do and only this many days to do them. Traditions you want to uphold. Happiness you want to spread. Food you want to make.

I get it, I do. But, the last couple of years with a kiddo around have also helped me to take a few steps back and evaluate the situation. One lesson I did learn last year, especially since it was our first year with a very mobile child who was “getting” the idea of things more, was how to simplify. Since I wasn’t super into it and I was a pretty tired new-ish mama, I put in the bare minimum to get the most out of it. It was still a special, memorable, nice year, so this year I hope to maintain the simplicity, but with a touch more joy and magic.

Here today are the things I learned that perhaps you can try, too. 🙂

Holidays, the Simplified and Low-Stress Way - image  on

Pick and choose.

This is the first step, and it’s a biggie. Make a list of all the things you do (or think you should do) for the holidays and give them a deep, hard look. How many of the things do you HAVE to do? Which ones do you and your family look forward to? Are there any things that you can do but on a much lesser scale? Which of the things are you doing out of obligation, either to just maintain a tradition or because you feel guilt-ridden to do it? Take a red pen to the list. Feel free to do this with your significant other or even bring your kids in on the conversation. You may be surprised at how much (or how little) attachment they have to certain things.

While you’re at it, lower your stress level by making one long (or short!) gift list to keep tabs on what you’ve gotten or still need to buy. I keep mine on Google Docs to avoid any inadvertent surprise-ruining moments, along with how much I’ve spent on each item (budget, people!).

Deck the halls!

Decorating for the holidays can be a super fun thing…or a major drag. This advice may sound like more work, but it really does help: pick a theme. Look at all your ornaments. Do they look like a mismatch of fun family interests and classic-looking ornaments? Embrace it by creating a 1950s-style of decor. Sprinkle your favorite ornaments around your home or on a plate/bowl as a centerpiece (add some greenery or a candle in the middle and it’ll look totally intentional), hang a festive pendant banner or wool ball garland (how fun!) and you’re done.

Or, do you have plenty of different colored ornaments floating around? Pick a two or three color theme and stick with it. Last year, we had an outdoorsy/winter wonderland sort of theme, along with extra branches of greenery from the tree, scarves to decorate the tree and along tables, and neutral and brown colors around the house. It was simple, yet warm, and helped me feel less overwhelmed, feeling like I didn’t need to use ALL the decorations in storage.

You can also throw all caution to the wind and pick out your absolute favorites. Who cares if things don’t totally match? Do what will make your heart sing every time you look around!

With Every Christmas Card I Write…
While evaluating your usual holiday to-do list, ask yourself if writing Christmas cards is a must-do. Aside from being eco-friendly to skip this task, it’s a huge task off your list. It’s never just writing the cards; it’s finding and buying them, buying stamps, tracking down updated addresses…you know the drill.

So, ask yourself: Do I feel totally weighed down by this task, or do I enjoy it? Do I feel guilty every time a Christmas card arrives from someone I didn’t write to, or does it just touch my heart that I was thought of fondly? Are there people on my list whom I’ve lost touch with; can I whittle down the list? Can I simplify the process with personalized pictures of our family with pre-written greetings? How many of my friends are online and could be forwarded a family photo and greeting instead of a card?

Now, don’t get me wrong. When we do cards (we always do them, but we strangely enjoy it), we always write a few sentences; we’re old school like that. I’m not a fan of just signing our names or sending a personalized family card with pre-typed messages, but there is nothing, NOTHING wrong with anyone who does it this way! It’s all about simplifying the tons of holiday tasks that weigh us down.

Even if you shave ten people off your list, it saves you some time. And, if all else fails, we like to do our cards over some hot tea or cocoa while watching our favorite Christmas movies after the little guy goes to bed. Making it a relaxing experience while getting in the holiday mood with Jimmy Stewart or Charlie Brown helps a lot.

Cookie Monster

Ohhhh, Christmas cookies. What a quandary this one is in our household. See, I was raised making tons of cookies (and pretty enjoyably so), eating them and sharing them with neighbors and…yeah. That was my thing. But, Dave (who thinks that chocolate chip is a holiday cookie, I kid you not) doesn’t really eat them and Hadley’s 50/50. And, wouldn’t ya know, all the batches create a million cookies each. Grr.

But, I don’t want to give it up. Instead, I make one type that I particularly like and one that I know the family will actually eat, including some form of cut-outs for Hadley to help with. This year, I may hook up with my mom so that we bake together and split the batches; she’s in a similar position.

So, my advice is to A) divide and conquer (hook up with friends/family to bake together and split the results – I way prefer this to a cookie exchange, but you can do that, too), B) simplify the amount of cookies you’ll be making down to your favorite, C) FREEZE what you can (frosting doesn’t always freeze well, so frost after, but if you bake some NOW and defrost some as you need them, it’ll save you time later), and D) gift what you make to letter carriers/teachers/neighbors/anyone!

Entertaining vs. Obligations

There’s a big difference between enjoyable entertaining and fulfilling obligations to hang out. Even before we were parents, we weren’t big goer-outers (formal term, yup) and cherished our down time to work on projects or just hang out watching a favorite holiday movie. We LOVE hanging out with our loved ones A LOT, but have long since figured out that we just need to stretch out the frequency of hang-outs, especially after the little guy came along. If that means saying ‘no, thanks’ to an invitation or two, so be it.

The idea of “entertaining” also needs to be analyzed. Are you going to do a huge rivals-Thanksgiving feast when a few friends are coming over just to hang out for awhile? Or can you do a simple meal or a few basic, delicious snacks with a festive beverage? Remember that your friends and family are coming for your company, not for your level of decoration or fanciness.   

Finding Inspiration

I love Pinterest, but between the fact that my family lovingly puts me in my “who do you think you are, Martha Stewart?” place if I go overboard and the fact that Pinterest Perfectionism is a real, honest-to-goodness disease that I’d prefer not to catch, I take it with a grain of salt. I think that’s the best way to do it, really.

So, I pick my bits of inspiration – maybe one new recipe to try out or a neat homemade gift idea that doesn’t contain too many steps – but I don’t try to Pinterest-ify an entire shindig (or an entire holiday, for that matter!). After all, that’s FAR too much pressure to put on a very average person like me, and it’s definitely not the reason for getting together in the first place. It’s just not. 😉


This is a big one for parents of little ones, but we can all stand to look at our gift-giving practices to see if they can be put on a little diet, too. People have been reeling in the toy-giving, which we appreciate (it still happens, of course, and we want folks to enjoy buying for the little guy, but his first Christmas was insanely overboard). This year, though, Dave and I set a smaller budget for ourselves (along with a “one free gift” idea), and a bit for Hadman, too.

My side of the family has also decided to stop our Secret Santa tradition and just get for the four grandkids and my parents. It already feels pretty weird not to get for someone (a sibling or in-law), so who knows? Maybe we’ll reinstate it. But, either way, it’s a good way to have your family cut back — do a Secret Santa where you’re only getting for one person rather than 8 or 10 (or more). It also adds a fun element to gift-opening, figuring out who got whom.

It truly is about the time spent together, or the exchange of experiences rather than stuff, stuff, stuff. Oh, and since you will inevitably be shopping, make it far simpler on yourself and do as much as you can online. Believe me. Isn’t shopping in PJs far more relaxed? (Please. Don’t shop publicly this way. That was my high school look; we don’t have to go there again.)

Traditions or Burdens?
There’s a long list of holiday activities that you and your family can join in when celebrating the holiday season. Lately, though, I’ve noticed that list growing ever longer and even more complicated. Elf on a Shelf? Complex advent calendar activities?  
Chat with your significant other to see which things matter most. We’ve finally settled between real and fake tree (our fake one bit the big one a couple of years ago, so the last two yes-with-a-baby-around years we bought real), so since it’s something we’ve decided to make into a tradition, we’ll stick with it. In other words, if it’s important to you, keep doing it. If it’s not (or you find that it’s not worth the time you put into it — like those eight types of cookies that no one eats, or the real tree that you have to vacuum up after twice a day, not that that happens #okaysometimes), make a concerted effort to purge it from your holiday routine. And don’t mourn the loss too much, it zaps valuable energy you could spend having fun.

Speaking of Which… Schedule fun!
Remember how I said that November is a wackadoo month at school for me? It goes far too quickly and is spent prepping for and putting on a Book Fair, in addition to getting ready for Thanksgiving and trying to get holiday shopping underway (luckily, I don’t host Thanksgiving, so that helps a lot right now, although I make an equivalent meal at a different time…mmmm, leftovers). So, at such a nutty time, my husband and I try to schedule in a couple of dates, or dinners/meet-ups with friends who recharge our batteries, whom we haven’t seen in awhile, and we truly look forward to our time with family at Thanksgiving.

After Thanksgiving, we also get a sitter so that Dave and I can spend about half (or more) of the day getting some shopping done together. We figure out our Christmas cards (still unsure about buying or having some family ones made up this year), do some shopping for the monkey and other folks on our lists, and grab a quiet bite to eat. It’s an awesome, calm tradition that lets us focus on ourselves and our little family and the happiness of the season ahead.

When December hits, we also put IN PEN certain events that we look forward to annually (like when he meets up with an old co-worker/friend to read “The Polar Express” to kids and our annual trek to see THE Santa). Simple things like a drive to a local Christmas light show on a random evening or remembering that cookie-baking with a toddler can be a fun activity rather than a “gotta get it done” chore. You can keep the fun times to a minimum or pile them on, depending on how you and your family are feeling.

Because, at the end of all the stressful times that the holidays bring, isn’t it really all about having fun with the ones you love, finding gratefulness for your blessings, and doing more for those who are lacking?