Can the season leading up to Christmas be less stressful and more joyful? Does it have to feel like hustle and bustle, or can the memory making be more laid back? After more than ten years of celebrating Christmas with our kids, I’ve compiled some tips and ideas that may help you simplify your Christmas season.
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Tips to Simplify Christmas
1. Guard your schedule.
If you are easily overwhelmed by a full calendar as I am, be relentless at guarding your schedule during the Christmas season.
Appointments & Parties
This is a time of year when I avoid making any appointments than can wait until the new year. As far as party invitations are concerned, truly consider whether they will add to your Christmas cheer or if they will detract from it. As much as you are able, minimize your busyness during this season and focus on the family and relationships that you cherish.
Another aspect of guarding your schedule is to shop early. This is a record year for me as I purchased most of our family gifts prior to Halloween. This has reduced the stress I would normally feel in late November and early December. In addition, my kids know that their gifts have already been purchased, so they can’t keep changing their lists or asking for new things.
2. Begin with modest expectations when your children are young.
Babies and toddlers don’t need much at Christmas. They are happy with or oblivious to most of the Christmas happenings in those earliest years. When your kids are little keep Christmas simple. It will inevitably build over the years whether intentionally or not. It’s always harder to remove a Christmas tradition than to have never had it in the first place.
3. Skip Santa Claus but consider keeping St. Nicholas.
New parents, hear me out. I, too, grew up with Santa Claus visiting my house for Christmas, so I understand the wonder a child feels. However, when my husband and I had to decide whether to include Santa in our Christmas, we opted to keep things simple instead.
As I look back on my childhood experience, here are some ways that including Santa likely complicated the Christmas season for my parents and me.
Travel, Stories, and Wrapping Paper
Since we traveled every year to be with family for Christmas, Santa Claus had to visit our home early to deliver his gifts. My parents added to Santa’s innumerable magical qualities by enabling him to deliver gifts to suit every family’s needs. I willingly believed their elaborate stories that differed from the traditional Christmas Eve sleigh flight.
Like other parents trying to keep up the ruse, my parents also used a different wrapping paper for Santa’s gifts. This roll of paper had to be hidden lest my sisters and I discover the secret too early.
More Gifts – Perhaps Lasting Longer Than Expected
Because we had Santa Claus when I was a child, my parents had to buy more gifts. Perhaps they would have bought the same amount either way and just labeled them differently had we not had Santa.
One problem is that Santa enables children to ask for gifts their parents may not be able to afford. This happened with me. My dad had quit his job to search out other opportunities, and for a time we had to live on much less. Although I don’t remember exactly when my parents told me the truth about Santa, I’m fairly certain it became a necessity to save money on Christmas gifts.
Families with multiple children, especially those with a large age gap between the oldest and youngest, may have Santa much longer than they initially expected. Older children continue to receive Santa gifts until all their siblings have outgrown Santa. My sisters, who are both older, were actually upset with me when I found out because this cut them off from Santa’s gifts too.
Questioning the Fairness of Santa
When I was a child, my biggest struggle with Santa Claus was that sometimes he was more generous with my classmates than he was with me. Why did Santa bring them bigger, better gifts when I had been just as good? Had I known the truth, would I have been more grateful for the gifts my parents could afford?
St. Nicholas: A Simple Alternative to Santa Claus
Even though we’ve chosen not to include Santa Claus in our Christmas celebration, we still hang up stockings each year. After learning more about Saint Nicholas from the “Why Do They Call It Christmas?” DVD, we decided to open gifts from our stockings on St. Nicholas Day, December 6th. Our kids still have the fun of Christmas stockings even though they know we gave them the gifts.
Recently, I asked my kids if they wished they had Santa Claus. They responded with a resounding, “No!” Excluding Santa from our Christmas celebration hasn’t left them with a feeling that they have missed out.
What about the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy?
If you decide to skip Santa Claus, you can skip the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy too. Our kids have never missed the Easter Bunny. Although we don’t give them baskets full of candy, they always get to participate in an Easter egg hunt somewhere.
As for the Tooth Fairy, we’ve chosen to give them one dollar for their first lost tooth as well as their two front teeth and a quarter for the others. They still get the payout, but we don’t have to sneak into their rooms while they’re sleeping.
4. Be very intentional with gifts.
Even without Santa Claus, the thought of buying Christmas gifts can still be stressful. From finding the right gifts to reining in spending, you must be intentional to simplify Christmas.
Make a budget and keep it.
A budget is a tool to help you manage your money. You Need a Budget (YNAB) is our budgeting tool of choice. With YNAB we not only track our spending, but we plan where every dollar should go.
At the beginning of each year, we assess our Christmas spending from the previous month, make any adjustments needed for the following year, and then create a monthly savings goal. We save for Christmas all year so that we’re prepared for the extra spending this holiday brings.
This year I created an additional budget in YNAB just to track Christmas spending. I used to rely on an Excel spreadsheet to keep the Christmas budget, but the beauty of YNAB is that I can check my budget and update it from my phone while I am out shopping. By budgeting every part of our Christmas spending from gifts and decorations to Christmas cards and keepsake ornaments, we can make adjustments ahead of time so that we don’t spend more than we have saved.
Have the hard conversations about budgets and/or discontinuing exchanges.
This year we made the difficult decision to discontinue a gift exchange with some friends of ours. Bringing this up was very difficult for me, but my friend was truly gracious. She asked clarifying questions that helped us both be on the same page.
I also had an unexpected yet enlightening chat over text with a family member about Christmas budgets. While we are continuing with our family exchange this year, this conversation helped us navigate gift giving for this Christmas and may spark a change in future years.
Giving up traditional gift exchanges can be very hard. I’ve struggled with this over the years because I enjoy this time of togetherness so much. Yet for the exchanges that have gone by the wayside, I don’t regret the reduction in stress and spending that resulted. I’m still holding on tightly to the gift exchange with my siblings and parents, but I know that change is inevitable, and I am preparing myself for that as well.
Try a Want, Need, Wear, Read list.
For the first time this year, we’re giving this very popular suggestion a try. I’m pleased with the results thus far. The Want list was very easy for my kids. The Need list seemed harder for most until I realized that one of the combined gifts they’ll receive this Christmas fills a need for all of them. The Wear list has been a little tricky as I try to match the ideas to our budget. Finally, the Read list sparked some great gift ideas for the kids that they would have otherwise missed out on.
I tried this Want, Need, Wear, Read list idea for my own wish list. The hardest one for me was the Read list because I couldn’t think of any books that I had to have and couldn’t check out from the library. Since I’m always seeking to have less clutter, I chose to forgo that list suggestion but added a game I’ve wanted for quite some time.
If you try a categorized list like this one, remember to let it be a guide rather than a requirement. I may not be able to fulfill the Wear list item for one of my children because I would rather stay in budget than force myself to stick to the list categories. Remember, we’re trying to simplify Christmas not make it harder.
Focus on gifts that will stand the test of time.
How many Christmas gifts have you given or received that went unused or only delighted the recipient for a short time before being cast aside? As a parent with four children, the battle to keep toy clutter at bay is constant. I often struggle with resentment toward items my children wanted, rarely use, but can’t bear to part with.
If your house has the same clutter problems as mine, keep that in mind as you buy gifts and make wish lists. Try not to add items to a list that you aren’t sure you or your family will really use or enjoy. As an adult, my list has transformed over the years from half-hearted wants to mostly needs.
Make homemade gifts.
Homemade gifts are always a great option for Christmas, but keep your recipient in mind. Fresh cookies for a friend struggling to lose weight might not be the most welcome gift. Alternatively, a minimalist may prefer something consumable rather than long-lasting. I’ve always enjoyed the homemade gifts we’ve received as I know how much thought, time, and effort went into them.
If you plan to make homemade gifts, try to begin early so that you can finish in plenty of time to enjoy the Christmas season with your family.
Choose a method for sibling gifts that works for your family.
A family with two children will find it much easier to promote gift buying between siblings as only two gifts are needed for the exchange. With more children in a family, the number of gifts quickly escalates. Our four children would each need to buy three gifts for a total of twelve sibling gifts. This number jumps to twenty sibling gifts for five children and thirty gifts for a family with six children.
Larger families may wish to have children draw names and buy only one gift for a sibling. We tried this method one year and it was pretty successful. One caveat of purchasing gifts between siblings is that some children may have more money to spend on gifts than others. The best bet is to limit the amount of money to be spent on each gift. When I was a child, my parents gave us each twenty dollars to put toward gifts for the remaining family members.
This year I am encouraging my children to make personalized coupons for each other rather than buying more inexpensive toys. Their coupons might involve serving a sibling by completing a chore for them or spending quality time with them while playing a favorite game. I’m excited to see how this will turn out.
Limit stocking stuffers.
As I mentioned above when talking about how we handle Santa Claus, our family does do Christmas stockings. My sister gifted personalized stockings to each of my children for their first Christmas. My husband and I each have a personalized stocking as well. Not only do these add to the festive décor, but they are fun to open as a family.
We choose to open our stockings on the evening of December 6th, which is St. Nicholas Day. Each stocking has a single gift and a few “gold” chocolate coins. The gifts are usually in the five to ten dollar range. This year I’m taking advantage of Kohl’s cash coupons to purchase our stocking stuffers while spending very little.
If you also do Christmas stockings, I encourage you to be intentional with their contents. The stocking doesn’t have to be filled to the brim to bring joy. A single, relatively inexpensive gift has sufficed for our family for years.
How Our Family Celebrates the Christmas Season
After reading all these tips to simplify Christmas, you may be wondering how we choose to celebrate a simpler Christmas. I’ll be the first to admit that I still get stressed about some aspects of preparing for the Christmas season, but overall I’m pleased with our progress.
I would gauge that we have a modest amount of Christmas décor for the average American family, but we certainly enjoy adding lights, stockings, and other decorations to our home. We usually wait until the Saturday after Thanksgiving to decorate for Christmas. If other plans arise that weekend, my husband may relent and allow us to decorate a little earlier.
We use an artificial Christmas tree to make things easier. We both grew up with artificial trees, so there was no existing family tradition associated with picking out a real tree.
Most of our Christmas ornaments have special meaning. Several years ago we began creating a photo ornament to commemorate each year. We now order extra copies of these ornaments so that our children will each have their own set some day. We also collect ornaments at the National Parks as we visit them.
My husband enjoys adorning the outside of our house with lights. Last year we and many of our neighbors kept our lights up until the end of February, and the dark, dreary Ohio winter was much more joyful than usual. We hope to do the same this year.
For many years, we’ve celebrated the Christmas season by creating an advent calendar with activities inspired by Everyday Emmanuel. This book also prompted us to add an advent wreath and candles that we use as we teach our children the true meaning of Christmas. We schedule fun activities in our advent calendar like viewing a free light show in our area, having root beer floats, and watching the pilot episode of The Chosen.
Only a few Christmases ago a new tradition began when our kids discovered LEGO advent calendars. Our youngest child didn’t want one, so we did a chocolate advent calendar for him instead. We didn’t increase our Christmas spending when adding these pricey LEGO advent calendars. Instead we reduced the number of gifts they received on Christmas morning. Since the LEGO advent calendar counts toward their Christmas gifts, our kids must decide for themselves if it is worth it or not.
Another tradition in our family is sending out Christmas cards. I love this non-digital means of staying connected with family and friends both near and far. My husband enjoys photography and does a wonderful job on our family pictures each year. To guard my schedule during the Christmas season, I try to have these ordered by early November and mailed out by December 1st.
Although we usually order cards from an online retailer, this year I am considering designing and printing them on our color inkjet printer. It’s a toss up between saving money with the prints and adding extra work for myself. Additionally, the quality may suffer by printing them myself, but most of them will be thrown away by January anyway, so it may not matter much in the end.
As for the cards we receive in the mail, we adorn our kitchen cabinets with them. I love seeing photos of our family and friends when entering the kitchen during the Christmas season.
The Christmas season abounds with opportunities to serve others. Some years we purchase gifts through organizations like Angel Tree. Many years our church takes up a special offering for missions.
Christmas is definitely a great time of year to share with others, but it’s not the only time of year this is needed. Choose opportunities that allow you to give joyfully without adding stress to what might already be a busy season.
Christmas Day as well as the days leading up to it and following are filled with family time. We spend Christmas morning with one set of grandparents where our kids enjoy opening their first Christmas gifts. Later that evening we celebrate with the other set of grandparents and extended family and open the last of our Christmas gifts.
As we marvel at the miracle of Jesus’s birth each year, I’m overjoyed to celebrate my savior in the presence of my family. Simplifying Christmas helps us focus on what really matters.