- Coming Clean -

8 Ways to Simplify the Holidays

The joy of the season really does come from the little moments. Our managing editor shares a few ideas to make it memorable — and less stressful.

With days to go before Christmas, my 4-year-old told me: “We need to put up more Christmas decorations. A lot of decorations!”

I sighed and replied, “Sylvia, sometimes more isn’t better. Sometimes more is just more.” It’s a concept that was beyond her grasp so I reassured her: “Someday, you’ll understand.”

I grew up surrounded by decorations, treats, gifts, and all the abundance a young child could dream up at Christmas. One year as a teen, I donated time serving food at a shelter for families in need, and I realized how blessed I had been to have so much. And I realized my wish list was filled with more wants than needs, so I stopped sharing my list altogether. It made me difficult to shop for, no doubt, but I realized that I was more interested in enjoying memorable experiences with my loved ones.

In the eight years my husband and I were married without children, our wish list remained light, our decorations minimal, and our focus was on spending quality time with family and friends.

Now that we have two children, I can feel that urge to create a magical Christmas seeping in — only, it’s some whimsical idea of what the holidays should feel like.

It’s easy to fall under the spell: You have a vivid memory from childhood of waking up Christmas morning to a new bike; you loved the scene in Miracle on 34th Street when young Susan discovers her mom married the neighbor or when Clark Griswold lights up his house in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. There’s a spirit to the season that embeds into our unconscious brain and fuels our desires to make this holiday just so — to design the perfect experience.

“Often what’s going on underneath perfectionism is a desire for control,” says Los Angeles–based coach Kristine Oller in “The Good-Enough Holiday.” “With the holidays, this can manifest as a desire to recapture something you had at some point in the past. But the thing about memories is they’re our own little edited movies. When we try to make an experience turn out a certain way, we set ourselves up for disappointment.”

The idea of a joyful season is alluring, but there are moments when it starts to get lost as we pack in too much and overwhelm our to-do lists. Maybe it’s self-induced pressure — or the role of “emotional labor” that women carry — or it’s familial or societal. Yet, every year we tell ourselves: There’s got to be a better way!

Sure, I may have purchased a few more gifts this year than last, but several times this season I took a step back to reevaluate what I truly desired to do — and what was better to skip. I focused on avoiding holiday-stress syndrome by upping my self-care routine; I enjoyed meditation in a salt cave and plan to tap that skill set often (get more of my meditations for the holidays here); and I re-thought a Christmas tradition: Every year, my girlfriends from college gather during the holidays, and one of us hosts the event at her home. This year was my year. Instead of panicking over cleaning my home and fretting over the food, I scheduled time for us at Life Time. We took a hot yoga class; one woman booked a massage; we walked on the treadmills and lifted weights, sat in the steam room and sauna, and ate lunch in the café. Bonus: Life Time was hosting a Christmas market with a visit from Santa, so it felt extra festive.

It was something new and enjoyable for all, and it even prompted us to look at the club’s schedule for a future yoga class.

This reinvented tradition was so enjoyable, it’s made me seek other ways to reimagine and simplify the season to make lovely experiences:

  • Try a new recipe. Nothing fancy or with a long ingredients list — even just a new punch can be easy to make. Find one in “11 Winter Mocktails.”
  • Make a reed diffuser. Easy to make and beautiful to enjoy for yourself or to give as a gift.
  • Cook your gifts. Love that new recipe you tried? Make it in bulk, package it in pretty jars, and adorn with a ribbon to give to friends and family. Herbed teas or infused olive oils are flavorful and sweet to give.
  • Cut back on decorations. There’s no need to put out everything you have — some ornaments can remain in the box this year if you’re looking for a simpler tree design. Avoid buying anything new, and instead swap with family and friends who are looking to declutter their own collections. Donate excess to charity. Focus on just a few items, like the tree, a wreath, or special candle holders, that bring you joy. When packing away items after the holidays, decide what was nice to have out — and what can move on.
  • Share your gift preferences. If you feel stressed by gift giving, let your family know! Maybe they’d like to cut back on material exchanges, too. We’ve made it a new tradition with my nephew and niece to take an adventure in February instead of exchanging gifts.
  • Scrap half the items on your to-do list. Or maybe nix even more. Look at each one and, think, Does this really need to happen? What would it look like if I skipped it? Delegate and delete repeatedly until the tension releases from your neck, back, and shoulders.
  • Spend time in nature. The light is different, the trees are frosted, the wind is crisp — take a walk in your yard, around the block, or on a trail and notice all the beauty around you. When it snows, look up as the snowflakes fall.
  • Practice self-care. You might have a regular routine that’s serving you well — or you might be in need of a fresh start or fine-tuning. The best gift you can give yourself is a massage, exercise, sleep, and nourishing food. Try this prescription for a relaxing bath and feel the holiday stress dissolve. You’ll be more present for your loved ones if you are well and rested, and you’ll enjoy the holiday season that much more.

Tell us how you’ve made the holidays simple — while still keeping them sweet — at experiencelife@experiencelife.com.

is Experience Life’s managing editor.

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