10 Ways to Simplify the Holidays

We’re sharing tips to help you streamline and simplify the holidays so you can enjoy the season and focus on what matters most.

how to simplify the holidays

If I’m being completely honest, I often find myself looking forward to the holidays in advance. But when they actually get here, I rarely slow down enough to enjoy them.

In early November, I have all these ideas about getting a great holiday family pic for the greeting cards. But coordinating my big kids’ schedules, outfits for the four of us, and setting up the camera becomes such an ordeal, I put it off for an embarrassing amount of time. The cards usually turn out fine, but later than I want and nothing like my imagination.

Life is funny, messy, and rarely goes the way we planned. I’ve learned to accept it. But now having experienced the holidays with kids for nearly two decades, I am SO OKAY with imperfection.

10 Ways to Simplify the Holidays

Some of these ideas may sound like common sense. But sometimes we need to hear that little voice of reason telling us it’s ok not to overdo it.

And sometimes we need permission to be imperfect. So, here’s your permission to avoid the holiday hustle. I hope these tips help you have an intentional holiday where all is calm and all is bright!

1. Prioritize

A great way to start off with a streamlined holiday season is to make a holiday Not-to-Do list. This is one of the most freeing and intentional exercises you’ll ever do.

Make a list of the things you love and look forward to during the holidays and keep those in mind as you evaluate invitations, travel plans, and obligations.

Conversely, make a list of the things you don’t like and avoid those things.

  • Feel like the holidays are too commercial? Spend some time creating handmade gifts, writing heartfelt Christmas letters, or giving back.
  • Does the fear of not moving the Elf on the Shelf keep you up at night? The internet has some fairly decent ideas for parting with your elf. There’s one where he leaves a letter saying Santa gave him a promotion and he’s excited to start his new job and he will always remember your family fondly.
  • Don’t like that certain holiday party that comes up each year? Give plenty of notice that you can’t make it this year.
  • Do you get antsy from being cooped up inside with all the days off? Plan a hike or walk around the block to enjoy a little nature and fresh air. Your kids definitely need a little outside time each day.

Seriously, once you eliminate what you dread about the holidays, the season becomes more enjoyable.

The key to sticking to your priorities is to choose meaningful, memorable activities and enjoy them to the fullest.

2. Keep your (and your family’s) expectations in check

Expectations can include gifts, parties, finances, clothing, travel, how your decorations look, keeping up with other people, and your or family’s emotional wellbeing during this time.

  • If your kids are old enough, talk in advance about what to expect when it comes to gifts. Here’s how you can help manage their gift expectations.
  • If you receive several invitations to gatherings or volunteer opportunities, be realistic in what you can reasonably commit to.
  • Not every holiday craft or baking project will be worthy of your Insta feed.
  • Got a trip planned in December? Understand that time or budget restraints will likely impact your holiday plans.

The sooner you accept these changes or hiccups as part of life, the happier you’ll be and the more fun your family will have.

Don’t aim for an epic two weeks of seasonal bliss. Real life has its ups and downs, and they’re part of what make it beautiful and memorable.

3. Let go of perfection

This tip is as much a reminder to myself as anyone reading. My son has said the following words to me before a party, “Mom, people are coming to have fun with us, not wonder why we don’t have more pillows on the couch.”

This scruffy hospitality tip (when I remember it) has given me my sanity back when it comes to hosting:

Don’t allow a to-do list to disqualify you from an evening with people you’re called to love in friendship. If it’s eating with kind, welcoming people in a less than perfect house versus eating alone, what do you think someone would choose?

We tell our guests “come as you are,” perhaps we should tell ourselves “host as you are.”

Let go of perfection when it comes to the tree, too. I’ve been the mom who let her kids hang ornaments where they wanted and then gone back and moved them when they’re not around. I’ve never looked back at our Christmas pictures and said, “Oh good, I’m glad the silver ball was 3 inches diagonal from the blue one.”

4. Make it meaningful

The Christmas spirit is about more than gift giving, cookie baking, and decoration overload.

Don’t view the grocery checker or delivery person as just another obstacle in your relentless quest to conquer the holiday. Greet them cheerfully and genuinely share the spirit of the season.

The last few years of isolation have robbed us of community. If you haven’t completely built yours back yet, please start this year. One of the reasons people in Blue Zones live a long time is they have strong community and real life social interaction. Being with others is good for our mental health.

Many of us find solace or meaning in nature. Spend time outside every day. Even if it’s cold.

5. Be grateful

Gratitude is the ultimate attitude adjustment. The minute you start to complain that your window wreaths are falling apart… And how much is going to cost to replace them? And why is everything so expensive now?… You can stop the spiral by remembering how fortunate you are to have a home to decorate.

Truly, it changes the energy of the moment. And if you raise grateful kids, Christmas morning is infinitely more fun.

One powerful way to remind yourself of all you have to be grateful for is to help others.

Giving back is a fixture of our holiday. We give the kids cash and tell them they can give it away however they feel. Often they donate it the local Humane Society. Sometimes they want to choose a name from the Salvation Army tree and buy gifts for a child in need. One year my youngest gave his cash to a homeless man with a dog.

It’s amazing to witness their generosity and feel those good vibes they get from helping someone.

6. Simplify your decorating

Most of us need to declutter our holiday decorations. When you drag out those storage boxes this year, purge any decorations or supplies you no longer use.

Some holiday decorations contain lead and other harmful chemicals. You can always deck the halls naturally by bringing some elements from nature indoors. Try fresh greenery, simple candles, and seasonal citrus to make your home look and smell inviting.

Use the Marie Kondo perspective and only put up the Christmas decorations that spark joy. Too many decorations feel like a claustrophobic chaos to me. So in an ideal world, we decorate the tree, hang a wreath and some garland on the front door, and maybe get out the Nutcracker plates my husband gave me.

But if you get enjoyment from making every corner of the house festive, carry on and be happy!

However you do it, keep these holiday decorating safety tips in mind.

7. Give fewer and more meaningful gifts

When gift giving becomes an obligation instead of a joy, you really need to rethink it. Giving fewer gifts does not make you a Scrooge. Generosity is a year-round attitude. It’s not defined by the number of presents you wrapped last year.

Instead of going overboard buying gifts for your children, try a simplified wish list. With the Want, Need, Wear, Read philosophy, each child gets something from their wish list, something they actually need (such as a new backpack to replace the one with the broken strap), something to wear (such as a new outfit or new coat or gloves), and a new book to read.

There’s no reason to feel guilty about giving fewer gifts, so don’t feel obligated to give a gift to everyone you know. Trim your gift list, and the resulting relief might just inspire your holiday giving with a newfound sense of excitement.

Or try giving experience gifts. They bring a new level of excitement and none of the clutter. They can be anything from music lessons or concert tickets to zoo passes or sports tickets.

8. Delegate and accept help

Mom should not be synonymous with martyr. These busy times of the year add an extra burden to the already hefty mental load of motherhood. Don’t work yourself into exhaustion. It’s less fun for you, and as the energetic thermostat of the home, your burnout affects everyone.

If anyone offers to bring a dish to the gathering you are hosting, smile and say, “Of course! Thank you.” Or turn it into a full on potluck.

Here are some tasks you can delegate to your partner or children, depending on their age:

  • wrapping gifts
  • watering the Christmas tree
  • turning on or off the Christmas lights
  • making place cards for the holiday table
  • loading and emptying the dishwasher
  • stamping holiday cards

You might have to revisit tip #3 about letting go of perfection, but taking these tasks off your hands will be worth it.

9. Trim your traditions

Revisiting the meaningful tip… if there are traditions that no longer serve your family, don’t keep doing them.

If you’d like to know the reason I deplore the Elf on the Shelf, it’s because my oldest son saw me move it one morning before school. He’s practically an adult now and says it wasn’t a lasting trauma. But it was for me.

Also I hated moving it. Also my friend Jen, who came to feed our cats when we were visiting family, arranged him with little rope like he was rock-climbing the light fixture. And I couldn’t keep up with those standards.

Anyway, the elf isn’t the only tradition I’ve ever kicked to the curb. It was just the most freeing. I’m sure you have your own burden that you’d like to drop off of a cliff.

Maybe traveling across the country to celebrate with extended family doesn’t work well with the ages of your kids. Give yourself permission to skip a year or two without feeling guilty. Maybe you’ve done elaborate holiday inflatables scenes but they’re all moldy and you don’t want to buy more. It’s fine. It’s a less-is-more Christmas.

Don’t get so hung up on how things have been in the past that you miss the chance to start new (or temporary) traditions.

10. Spend within your means

A welcome benefit when you simplify the holidays is that it can save you money.

“We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.” Dave Ramsey might be a little harsh with the people we don’t like part, but the words are powerful.

It all comes back to intention. What do we really want? To impress other people? Or to enjoy the magic of the season with those we love?

Keep common sense and your budget in mind as you buy gifts and plan your holiday menu. We waste almost 30 billion pounds of food each year – that’s nearly 100 pounds per person. Do you really need mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes? Three types of fruit salad? Five pies?

Ease Into Simpler Holidays

Not ready to go full-tilt on a streamlined holiday? No worries! Changing holiday traditions doesn’t happen overnight. Try trimming the things you’re ready to let go… even by 10 percent.

That could mean fewer decorations, cutting back the gift list, a little less baking, a smaller holiday meal, fewer Christmas cards sent. Once you feel the freedom of less, you can always cut more to simplify your holiday even further.

If you find you’re missing something, you can always add it back.

This article appeared in the Holiday 2013 issue of Green Child Magazine and was updated in 2023.

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