I remember as a child getting really excited about how many cool things I was going to get for Christmas and how happy I was going to be when I got them. Then on after all the presents were opened, I felt disappointed because I didn’t get everything I wanted and what I did get failed to fill the void that I expected them to fill. There was something missing from the way that my family celebrated the Holidays, but it wasn’t until I was an adult myself that I figured out that it wasn’t better presents.

As adults the Holidays tend to be a frenzy of cooking, cleaning, buying, and wrapping all on top of our normal busy lives. We feel tired, stressed out, and confused and when it is all over we are left feeling empty and disappointed. Are we insane? Why do we keep doing this stuff if it makes us miserable? Isn’t this supposed to be fun?

The problem is that instead of making our Holidays special to us personally, most of us try to fit into a cookie cutter concept of what the Holidays are supposed to be. We allow advertising and media to tell us how to celebrate. And we keep doing the same things year after year whether we enjoy them or not.

Most of the holidays today seem to be focused on stuff. Getting it, giving it, wrapping it, buying it, and throwing it away. If I’m honest I’ll admit that as much as I like some of my stuff, it really doesn’t make my memories. And it seems to me that this focus on stuff is ruining my holidays.

I want to offer my daughter a more fulfilling experience of the holidays than I experienced as a child but I don’t want to exhaust myself doing it. This has led my family to do some serious considering and negotiating to create holidays that are meaningful to us on a personal level, yet fit the comfort level of all those involved.

The first step to making changes to your holiday routine is to sit down with yourself and try to figure out what kind of meaning you are trying to bring to your holidays. Get a pen and a piece of paper and do a short free-write on what the holidays mean to you. Set the timer for five or ten minutes and for the duration write whatever comes to mind. Don’t censor or think too much, just keep it moving. When you’re done go through and pick out the things you like about your holidays and want to keep and the things you dislike and want to change. Decide on some changes that you want to make and some new rituals that you want to start, using this article as a guide if you want or coming up with your own ideas.

Next, you may want to call a family meeting. This might include just your immediate family or it could include your extended network including your community of friends. Talk about past holidays and ask what people remember about them, both the positives and the negatives. Explain your feelings and ideas and ask for feedback and for ideas. Chances are, your family will have their own strong feelings about the holidays and how to make them more special. You may be surprised at what you find out.

As you plan your holidays, try to remain open to making mistakes and improvising. Don’t get tied down to one concept regardless of whether or not it works for you. Chances are you will want to keep refining things every year as your needs and priorities change. Some families might be more resistant to change than others so you may need to start slowly changing just one tradition per year.

Ah, the holiday shopping. For many people this is the most stressful aspect of the holidays. Of course you may be that rare person who LOVES figuring out what to get for each and every person on your list and if that’s the case, can I get on it? But if you hate it or feel like you are spending more than you can afford or giving lame things just because you have to, this might be an ideal place to start reforming your holiday habits.

  • Set a budget or guidelines for gifts.
    This could range from a specific monetary number, to giving only used items, to making your gifts or providing each other with services. Don’t think of your guidelines as limitations, think of it as an exercise in creativity.

  • Pare down your list.
    You don’t have to buy presents for everyone you know. Even among families, there are creative ways of minimizing the sheer volume of presents required. Everyone in the family can go in on one really nice gift for each person (so for example Mom, siblings, grand-ma and friends all pitch in to buy that cordless drill that Dad really wants, but nobody could afford on their own). Or have a Secret Santa where you draw a name out of a hat and that is the only person to whom you will give gifts.

  • Simplify.
    Find one cool all-around present to give to everyone (gift cards, magazine subscriptions, homemade cookies, movie passes etc).
  • Recycle.
    Recycle your wrapping paper and boxes. One crafty mother I know bought plain canvas bags to wrap presents in and decorated them with her kids. Now every year she has hassle-free wrapping, quick clean-up, and no waste!

Christmas Tree
For some people the Christmas tree is a time-honored tradition that cannot imagine the holidays without. Ideally though, do we really need to kill a tree to celebrate?

  • Substitute.
    For several years, we used a potted palm tree as our Christmas tree. We hung decorations on the fronds and surrounded it with presents. You could hardly tell the difference.

  • Borrow from other traditions.
    Just because you’re not Jewish doesn’t mean you can’t have a menorah.
    The Yule Log is another sustainable tradition that can be used instead of a tree. Find a nice looking log, decorate it with pine, ribbons, and candles and arrange your gifts artfully around it. Research what the tradition means to its original people and substitute your own meanings if necessary.

  • Plant
    Some people buy a potted tree and plant it after Christmas. If you decide to go this route, make sure to buy a healthy tree from a nursery rather than one with burlap wrapped roots from a roadside stand since these don’t have much chance for survival. If you plan to plant a tree, you cannot keep it inside for very long and must acclimate it to the outside slowly. If all this sounds like too much work to you (it does to me!), then consider one of the other options.

  • Go Organic.
    Conventionally grown Christmas trees use a lot of pesticides. If your tree tradition means that much to you, show it respect by purchasing an organic Christmas tree.

Sometimes being with family is the most stressful part of the Holidays. Some families get along great, but for others the stress of the Holidays makes tempers flare. If you know that you will have at least one fight occur in every holiday situation, you may want to consider limiting company during the Holidays. Obviously all of these options must be carefully considered and tactfully explained to avoid hurting feelings, but sometimes you just have to take that risk in order to take care of yourself.

  • Stay Home.
    If you usually travel during the Holidays and have come to dread it, stay home. Explain that you will come and visit at a time that is not so hectic when you can have more one-on-one time with your hosts.

  • Set Limits
    Limit the number of Guests you invite into your home. If the celebration is always at your house, ask someone else to host.

  • Go away.
    Escape the Holidays altogether by dropping the kids off with the grandparents and having a couple of days as a couple at a romantic Inn somewhere eschewing the family chaos for a year.

For our family, food is probably the most important aspect of our Holiday celebrations. We really enjoy the preparation and serving of gourmet meals. But we also like to take it easy sometimes and just relax. Here are a few suggestions for simplifying Holiday meals.

  • Potluck.
    Next time the celebration is at your place announce that it’s a potluck and you will provide drinks. Organize who brings what or leave it to chance—either way you’ll finally have time to get your house cleaned before company comes

  • Keep it small.
    For Christmas Eve at my Mom’s house we all cook one appetizer and make a meal out of it. It’s fun and not too much work for any one person.

  • Leftovers.
    Cook plenty of food the day before a Holiday and then just reheat and serve. More time to relax and enjoy the rest of the day.

  • Simple Luxury.
    At our house, Christmas and New Year’s morning consist of bagels, lox, cream cheese, capers, coffee and oj. Hardly any work to set up or clean up, yet it feels luxurious and leaves plenty of room for a hearty dinner. Make sure to buy your bagels early on Christmas eve, bagel places tend to run out early and then close (as I learned the hard way!). Hmmm…we must not be the only family with this tradition.

Some people have strong religious convictions that dictate exactly what they do on the holidays. Many of us however do what we grew up doing, whether or not we still believe in the philosophy behind the traditions. If this nourishes you, by all means keep going. But if your traditions leave you feeling empty or incomplete, you may want to examine your beliefs and tailor your rituals to follow.

  • Ancient Traditions.
    Explore your roots and give traditional rituals a try. Call your grandparents and ask them what they did for holidays when they were young. Attend church or synagogue or any other religious gathering.

  • Melting Pot.
    If you are unsure and searching for answers try asking people of different religions what they do to celebrate and cobble together your traditions by what interests you. Attend a different religious service each year. Ask each member of your family to come up with one simple ritual to try out.

  • Strictly Secular.
    If the religious aspects of the holidays just don’t appeal to you, don’t force yourself to do them. Focus on the aspects of the holidays that you actually enjoy such as feasting and gift giving. A hike in the woods on Christmas day is a tradition that many would consider secular, but to my family it is not only spiritual, but also healthy and fun.

  • Service.
    Teach your children the value of giving by spending your holidays in service to others. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Help your children go through their toys to pick out some to give away. Many people find giving much more rewarding than receiving at this time of year.

Above all, remember that any change you make to the way your family celebrates this season of the return of the light is supposed to make is less stressful. So listen to your intuition. If any of these sound good in theory, but thinking about them makes you feel slightly anxious, this may not be the year to try that particular idea.

I am interested in hearing about how you celebrate. What traditions nourish and fulfill you? How do you keep things simple? Let me know by posting a comment below.