There is a common assumption that although the holidays are joyful, they are also, by nature, stressful. The holiday season conjures up images of parents going store to store, buying extravagant gifts to create the perfect Christmas for their kids.
The supposed perfect holiday includes ideal and plentiful gifts for everyone, lavish meals, and envy-inducing decorations, and advertisers try their hardest to sell us each of these ideas. I cringe at toy catalogs arriving in October, encouraging kids to “find” their Christmas wishes, and after-Thanksgiving sales starting ever earlier, promising amazing deals on things people didn’t even know they wanted and probably don’t need.
It doesn’t have to be this way! Ever since we got married, my husband and I have tried to keep the holidays simple in our home, and we have redoubled our commitment since we had kids. We want to create family traditions that bring us together and create memories of people, experiences, and faith, not just piles of gifts or Martha Stewart-approved decorations and parties.
We want something different for our family, something truly meaningful. Here are some of our strategies.
Dream of what you want the holidays to be
A simple holiday will not look the same in every family. Simplifying just means cutting out the unnecessary to make room for more of what you love.
You know that you don’t want stress and materialism to rule your holidays, but what do you want instead? Do you want to have a fun time as a family, playing games or music, watching holiday movies, baking cookies, spending time in nature? Do you want to explore your faith, share holiday stories with your kids, or volunteer in your community? Do you want to spend less time shopping so you can host a holiday party for your friends this year?
When your kids are grown and starting their own families, what memories of the holidays do you most want them to cherish? Keep that image in your head as you decide where you want to simplify or what you want to add to your celebrations. The chances are good that what you are imagining does not cost much money or center around extravagant gifts.
Examine your motives
If the idea of a simpler holiday makes you nervous, it is likely that you are subconsciously trying to impress someone – your relatives, friends, parents, or neighbors. Do you worry that your sister-in-law will ask your kids, “What did you get for Christmas?” and your kids won’t have impressive responses? Do you go all-out, National Lampoon-style, on lighting displays to impress your neighbors?
Or perhaps you worry that a simpler holiday will mean letting your kids down. I find it very sad that the expression “she wants to give her kids a good Christmas” means “she wants to give her kids a big pile of presents under the tree.” Most of us will readily admit that money cannot buy happiness, and yet we seem to forget this around the holidays. More presents will not make your kids happier; in fact, it could have the opposite effect.
Set limits on gifts
We all enjoy giving good gifts to our children, myself included. I love surprising my kids and seeing their reactions, and hey, it’s been a long time since we all got to play with toys ourselves. While some families choose to simplify by cutting out gifts entirely, I would guess that most of us like the gift-giving aspect of the holidays.
The problem with gift-giving is when it all becomes too much, when it overwhelms both the giver and the recipient. Parents pore over catalogs to make gift lists (or have their kids do so) and spend time wandering malls or circling parking lots. Kids become so starry-eyed and overwhelmed by a pile of gifts that they rip each present open, glance at its contents, and move on to the next, truly enjoying none of them! And in the flurry of activity around gifts, we forget the real meaning of the holiday and the vision we have for our family.
Limits can help by reducing the stress on both the giver and recipient. The giver can enjoy getting just a few well-chosen gifts and stopping when enough is enough. Buying fewer gifts means that each gift can be of high quality and well thought-out. The recipient can better value each gift because it does not get lost in a pile.
Setting limits will look different depending on your specific goals, but decide on a guideline and stick to it. This could be a number of gifts or a budget, or even a theme. Some families choose to do three gifts for each child: one toy, one book, and one new article of clothing. Other families dispense with store-bought gifts and limit the gift exchange to homemade gifts.
We usually aim for three gifts for each child and one or two for each adult. Sometimes we even do joint gifts. For example, when my oldest was about to turn three and could play more board games, we had a Christmas when we stocked up on board games, both kid games and family games. Although we labeled the gifts for specific people to open them, we knew that the games were meant for all of us to enjoy. Last year, we got some musical instruments for us to learn as a family, some percussion for the little ones and a guitar for the adults.
In all of this, the goal is to use gifts to express our love and build memories together, not to make them the focus of the season.
If your kids are old enough to have memories or expectations of what the holidays should mean, you’ll need to explain that things might be different this year. Market the new-and-improved simplified holiday by telling them about your dreams and vision. For example, they may get fewer gifts, but they will get more time with you doing fun things. If you have specific plans to attend holiday events or do activities together instead of spending time shopping, tell them about those. Most kids will prefer the idea of more fun time with Mom and Dad to a pile of anonymous gifts.
Rather than piling up gifts under the tree over the course of December, we put a pile of (unwrapped) holiday-themed picture books under the tree to be pulled out and read together. This way, kids aren’t constantly fixated on the pile of wrapped gifts, wondering what they could be. (This strategy also prevents babies from eating too much wrapping paper!) We put all the wrapped gifts under the tree on Christmas Eve.
Last year, when I was reading the Christmas chapter of Little House in the Big Woods with my son, we came to the part where the children opened their stockings on Christmas morning. Each child received a peppermint stick and a pair of red mittens, except for Laura, who received a doll. The author says that all the children “were all so happy they could hardly speak at first.” Can you imagine your children getting so excited over something so simple? Children are not naturally greedy, and no one wants their kids to fret constantly over the toys they didn’t get. This leads to entitlement and subsequent unhappiness. With simplified expectations comes increased gratitude in your children.
Make your vision clear to extended family
Grandparents and aunts and uncles often love to give holiday gifts to children, which can be a challenge if you are trying to take the focus off of gifts this season. As early as you can, try to explain your vision to your extended family, just as you explained it to your children.
Relatives may be on board, may even be excited about your simplified holiday, or they may not. Grandparents who are tired of the rush to buy gifts for multiple grandchildren may welcome the chance to relax. On the other hand, grandparents who are completely sold on the marketed version of the holidays may not understand. They might even be hostile toward your ideas, especially if you are trying to do something different from the way you were raised.
Try to be charitable and calm, and remember that one of your motivations for simplifying the holidays is to build better family relationships. If your relatives start throwing around the G-word, remind them that even the Grinch himself discovered that “Christmas doesn’t come from a store.” If necessary, it’s fine to set limits on the gifts your relatives give your children, as long as you do it with a spirit of gratitude. You wouldn’t want your children to learn bitterness from your exercise in making the holidays more meaningful!
Rest, and breathe
Finally, when it’s Christmas Eve and the stockings are hung (or not) and you didn’t do everything you wanted to do this season, or you did too much, cut yourself some slack.
Take time to breathe, relax, and love your partner and kids. Remember that the holidays are meant to be a time of rest and love.
The details are just details, and the holidays come around every year. If something worked well this year and you found yourselves building some wonderful family memories, then do it again next year. If something didn’t work, try it differently next year. But be sure to take a moment by the fire with some hot chocolate just to enjoy the season.