To me, the holidays mean work—long, hard, worrying work. Not that I'm a Scrooge: I love the spirit of the season. I love wrapping gifts in colorful paper. I love finding the perfect ceiling-grazing Douglas fir and weighing it down with ornaments that carry precious memories. I love writing Christmas cards with my husband. I love going to church on Christmas Eve, when hundreds of flickering luminarias light a dramatic path to the familiar doors. I love the gleeful abandon of my 10-year-old son's present unwrapping, and even the waist-high tumbleweeds of crumpled paper left in its wake.
I love the holidays, that is, when I'm not harried, trying to orchestrate all those wonderful things and carry the usual load, which already fills each day to the brim. And I'm hardly alone.
Exhausting is how Mary LoVerde, of Aurora, CO, says her holidays used to be: Christmas Eve spent ironing the tablecloth, setting out china, polishing silver, roasting a turkey, mashing 30 (yes, 30!) potatoes, shouting at the kids to put on clean shirts and share those toys. "I felt like I was demanding that they have a wonderful Christmas," recalls LoVerde, the mother of three, the youngest now 12.
One frazzled year she called a family meeting to announce that (a) the holiday work was driving her crazy, and (b) would anyone mind if they toned down the glitz and gorging a bit? No one did. They junked the high-maintenance soiree and replaced it with a festive Christmas Eve dinner of gourmet takeout followed by candle lighting and carols around the table. A traditional ritual was reborn in a simpler, low-stress version that brought LoVerde closer to her family rather than setting her apart on a hamster wheel of chores.
LoVerde, who used to direct the University of Colorado School of Medicine's Hypertension Research Center, is the author of Stop Screaming at the Microwave! How to Connect Your Disconnected Life and one of the many experts who've appeared lately to offer suggestions for simplifying your life so you have more time and energy to devote to the important stuff: spending time with the people you love.
So before you crank up the Happy Holiday machine this year, check out these ideas for doing less but getting more out of the season.
Anne Reeks reviews software for PARENTING and writes frequently about kids and families.
Rethink holiday habits
Must you send 75 cards? Buy gifts for every brother, sister, cousin, grandparent, your daughter's Brownie leader, and the FedEx delivery guy? Visit your parents on Christmas Eve and his parents on Christmas day, lugging Santa-size sacks of gifts? If you think (or wish) not, first ask the parties involved how important such rituals really are to them. If they answer "very," ask what isn't.
Some other ways to pare down: If you haven't gotten a card from someone for two years straight, take him off the list. Give the kids' soccer coach, your hairdresser, and the mailman the same thing, such as gift certificates to a local bookstore or music shop. Propose to extended family that you each pull a name out of a hat and get only that person a gift.
LoVerde's gold standard for a holiday ritual: Does it connect her with someone—a child, herself, her husband, a friend, those in the community who are not having a good Christmas? Or does it pull her away by gobbling up too much time? Hence her no-fuss Christmas Eve and a one-per-person gift exchange among her relatives. "Doing too much means not connecting," says LoVerde.
Keep a holiday planner
Start it now, to herd in the heaps of details that would otherwise drive you crazy. Whether you want a quiet, homespun, low-budget Christmas or a house-packing, present-piling extravaganza, if you have to do it or buy it, write it down. Include everybody on the gift list, gift ideas, gifts bought and those still hunted; necessary supplies, like tape, ornament hooks, and wreath bows; parties you're going to and giving and related needs, such as a special dress sent to the cleaners or a call to the babysitter; baking plans and supplies; household jobs to do; endless grocery lists. Jot everything in a small notebook, so you'll never have to leave home without it. And cross things off once they're done so you can savor a sense of control and satisfaction.
The reasons are legion: all that time and money spent acquiring too many forgettable gifts; all that wrapping paper and plastic junk winding up in landfills; all that overflowing consumption in the midst of people who have so little. But beyond these preachy (albeit true) points is the fact that a materialistic holiday is too much work and not enough fun, says Bill McKibben, author of Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas. Shopping is a chore that can drain the spirit and the pocketbook. And merely throwing money at the challenge of giving someone something special isn't particularly satisfying. Most of us have too much store-bought stuff already.
McKibben, who lives in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York with his wife and 6-year-old daughter, says his ideal $100-a-family limit on holiday spending isn't an absolute, only a spur to simplicity, creativity, and thought. "Doing with less materially opens up time and energy to do other kinds of things that are much more special," he says. It leaves you more time, for example, to tramp a wintry beach, fashion homemade gifts, or take the kids to the zoo. Yes, do-it-yourself gifts and special outings take time. But McKibben argues that it's time better spent—and cherished more—than hitting the malls and emptying your pockets yet again. And even catalog shopping is plenty time-consuming if you're juggling 10 dog-eared catalogs and a 20-gift list.
If you want something done, don't do it yourself. Ask your spouse, friends, and relatives to help. Let the children do the decorating. Even 3-year-olds can apply sticker snowflakes to windows and go around the house distributing fat, colorful candles. If they're a couple of years older, they can trim the tree (or at least the lower branches). Be nearby to aid and praise but don't take over. Likewise, shift some of the gift wrapping to 9- and 10-year-olds, who are plenty capable with scissors and tape. Or buy cheap, plain gift bags and let the kids put the gifts in and add bright stickers and bows.
You can divvy up tasks assembly-line fashion. While you and your spouse write out and address greeting cards, the kids can choose snapshots to enclose, stuff cards in envelopes, and add press-on stamps. Jobs tend to get done quicker—and more to the point, the time is spent together instead of in solitary toil.
Shop till you drop—just once
Set aside one whole day to tackle the bulk of your gift shopping. If you've pared down your gift list—giving teachers and coaches the same thing, instituting the one-per-family gift exchange with siblings or cousins, substituting simple homemade gifts for friends, buying fewer fad toys for your children—it's entirely possible to do it in a day. Arlington, VA, mom Kathy McKinless favors a Wednesday in early December, and she and her husband both take the day off. Together they polish off presents for their four children and also treat themselves to a leisurely, just-us-two lunch. Even if a few items elude them, she says, "I feel much happier when I know the big parts of the shopping are done."
Let others share the joy of entertaining
If someone asks, "Can I bring something?" say yes. Sandra Bastin, assistant professor of food and nutrition at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, and mother of two, likes to host holiday gatherings. She contributes her home, and asks the guests to bring fruit kabobs, baked ham (precooked or from the deli), side dishes, drinks, paper products. That way everyone feels included in the celebration but nobody is overburdened. "It's my favorite work-saver," says Bastin, whose children are 4 and 6. "Everyone gets out of something and does something too."
Lower your standards
Maybe your idea of tree decorating is to nestle each ornament in its own six-square-inch swatch of uninhabited greenery. Perhaps you fold over the ends of the wrapping paper as precisely as a parachute packer and use tape like it's $10 an inch. Quit being so picky.
Kathy McKinless's daughter Jackie, 11, can't fold wrapping-paper corners as crisply as her parents can. But that's okay: "The homemade look is great," says her mom, because the true goal is her daughter's participation—not perfection. Likewise, youthful assistance with table setting may result in a novel placement of forks, but it gets the job done.
Turn off the oven
Since icing and sprinkles are really what kids love about holiday cookies, why not decorate plain sugar cookies from the grocery store or bakery? McKinless piles powdered sugar in four bowls, and the kids mix a few teaspoons of water (just enough to give it a gluey consistency) and two drops of food coloring in each. Presto chango: colored frosting. Add lots of different sprinkles in shaker containers and the stage is set for fun and some original "homemade" treats.
Party with a purpose
Turn holiday tasks into party activities. If you're just starting out as a family and haven't many baubles for your tree, invite friends for a tree-trimming party. When they ask what they can bring, say, "An ornament for our tree that reminds us of you." They'll leap to the bait, trust me. Or press guests into service making popcorn and cranberry garlands and ornaments made from seashells, pinecones, and last year's Christmas cards.
Who could resist a slip of paper entitling the bearer to a trip to the zoo, a game of Scrabble, an evening of babysitting, a foot massage, a home-cooked meal, payable on demand? Or a card that says a donation has been made to a charity in their name?
Stretch out the holiday
Nothing says all the fun and excitement of Christmas must be crammed into December 24 and 25. Besides, "Too much holiday all at once is overwhelming to young children," says social psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of Little Things Shared: Lasting Connections Between Family and Friends. Kids react by losing it—fussing, fighting, crying, clinging. "Once they're overwhelmed, parents become stressed," she says. And vice versa. Instead of an avalanche of guests, gifts, and good food, string out the visits, rituals, and even the opening of gifts into smaller, more manageable occasions before and after those peak-overload days. When a present arrives early, by guest or mail, let the kids tear into it. If that takes some of the ferocious anticipation out of Christmas, so much the better. And on Christmas morning, if the kids lose interest before they've torn into all of Santa's treasures, save some for the next day or the day after.
It's just plain easier to avoid congested roads and airports and stay home on Christmas. The Santa experience can be ho-ho-horrible to transport. But if that's what you want, at least cut your cargo down to a present or two per child. See if the relatives you'll be visiting are interested in a gift exchange, which will further lighten your load. Send the gifts ahead by mail. Or travel right on December 25, when the highways and airways are quieter, and celebrate on December 26.
Letting go of traditions that don't bring cheer anymore—and choosing new ones that do—turns a negative into a positive, says Elaine St. James, author of Simplify Your Christmas: "Look at it as saying 'yes' to what you really want for the holidays—not saying 'no' to getting on a plane, for instance, but 'yes' to a wonderful, quiet time together with your kids."