8 Ways to Simplify the Holidays for More Joy and Less Stress

By contributing writer Susan Sachs Lipman.  Suz is the author of Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, a new book that contains this and other fun family activities.  

For many of us, the holidays bring unwanted frenzy and stress. Budgets, time, and resources are stretched. We overspend. We overschedule. We spend precious time in crowded stores, parking lots, and post offices. And much of this occurs because we want to give our families a “perfect” holiday.

By simplifying our holidays, we may be able to provide more joy and less stress.

1.  Set a family intention for the holiday season

Intentions are extremely powerful. Have your family determine and express exactly what you want this holiday season. What is important to the family? Time spent together at home or out at parties? A family vacation? Treasured traditions (and which ones)? Lots of gifts? Discuss your intentions as a family and perhaps arrive at some new ones.

2.  Question or limit consumerism

Decide on a gift limit, say one or two per person. Try a “Secret Santa” activity, with extended family members or office mates, in which participants choose names from a hat and gift that one person a gift, instead of every person in the group.

Support local small businesses and artisans, and choose gifts that will get a great deal of use because they inspire creative play or exploration. Another great gift that is often in short supply? The gift of time or a special activity.

3.  Be a holiday tourist

Limiting consumerism doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy commercial holiday fun. Lots of towns and cities employ beautiful shop windows and other holiday and light displays. Find one near you and see how much more you and your family enjoy them when you’re not rushing by with a lengthy shopping list.

4.  Visit your favorite holiday traditions, or create new (and inexpensive) ones

Holiday time can provide extremely meaningful and memorable family rituals. Ideas include:

  • enjoy a holiday play, ice show, or a ballet such as the Nutcracker
  • address cards together
  • make your own gift wrap
  • decorate your home
  • put out cookies for Santa
  • enjoy holiday movies or books
  • play old-fashioned games by firelight
  • play in the snow
  • take a holiday walk
  • enjoy holiday light and decoration displays  (often published in local papers)

My family has always been careful to choose a few meaningful activities, even alternating them between years. Down time and rest are important at holiday time, too.

5.  Gather for crafting and food

Holidays offer plenty of gathering time. Why not gather around fun, homemade activities? Make food together that is unique to the season, such as mulled cider, apple butter, latkes or holiday cookies.

Host a cookie exchange, to which guests each bring three to four dozen cookies and an empty container. Put all the cookies on a table and have guests walk around the table, taking one of each until the cookies are gone. (Serve a hearty or potluck meal before the cookie exchange, if you’d like.)

Or make a homemade gingerbread house or simple crafts like doily snowflakes. (Instructions below.)

6.  Get outdoors

Holiday time can be a lovely time to enjoy nature. Often there are less people on the walking trails and in the parks. Live in a snowy place?

Make a Snowman Kit and keep it handy: Collect and store together coal pieces, rocks, or buttons for eyes, and woolens such as a knit cap, scarf, and mittens. Have carrots handy in the fridge.  When the snow hits, take your kit outside and create your snowman, adding branches, twigs, evergreen boughs, and other items.

7.  Celebrate the winter solstice

The winter solstice provides a special opportunity to slow down during the hectic holiday season. Take a walk or have a family game night on the year’s longest night.

Celebrate the sun’s return by making or eating sun-colored foods, such as oranges and frosted yellow cupcakes. Place gold-covered toys or chocolate coins in bags and surprise children with them at night or during the morning after the solstice. Take a walk together at sunrise to greet the return of longer days.

8.  Say no to some activities

As you’re saying yes to some of these new, fun activities, you might find yourself needing to say no to others. Do you really have to attend every office, school, and neighborhood party or event?  Decide which activities truly give you pleasure and try to guiltlessly skip the ones that don’t.

The same goes for holiday cooking, decorating, and other activities. If something isn’t pleasurable, no matter how much it fits into your idea of a “perfect” holiday, opt to do something you enjoy instead.

9.  Give to someone less fortunate

There are many opportunities to serve and give over the holidays. Help at a local food kitchen, or participate in a toy or book drive. Or consider gifting in a recipient’s name to a worthy non-profit or other organization. These gifts may have much greater meaning than additional trinkets or things for families that have plenty.

How to Make Paper or Doily Snowflakes

Snowflakes like these grace our windows each winter.

You’ll need:

  • Doilies, or paper in circle or square shapes
  • Scissors
  • Ribbon (optional)

Fold a doily or paper circle in half, then in half again, and then in half again, resulting in eight wedge-shaped layers, or fold a square piece of paper in half to form a triangle shape, then in half again. Then fold both halves of the triangle in toward the middle, so that there is one pointy top, with the pieces overlapping, and two pointy ends sticking down. Trim the bottom to cut the pointy ends off.

Cut out small shapes along the folds or ends, such as triangles, half circles, or swirling edges.

Unfold the paper and enjoy your snowflake. You may wish to string many snowflakes together on a piece of ribbon to create a garland decoration.

Susan Sachs Lipman (Suz)Susan Sachs Lipman (Suz) is the author of Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which grew out of her award-winning blog, Slow Family Online. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog and the Christian Science Monitor’s Modern Parenthood blog and is the Social Media Director for the international Children & Nature Network.  A longtime Girl Scout leader, Suz enjoys gardening, hiking, soap crafting and food canning. She lives with her husband and daughter in Mill Valley, California.

Craft adapted from Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, A version of this post ran appeared on Slow Family Online. All photos by Susan Sachs Lipman, except for doily snowflake garland courtesy of Design*Sponge.

Share this post:


  • Strien December 16, 2012, 3:20 pm

    Hello Suzan,

    Nice to read your tips!
    Have to work quite hard now to support my family… Hope we can do some nice things with the family this year, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to have a completely business free holiday, but I’m working on it…

  • Samantha @ Digital Zen December 11, 2012, 12:48 pm

    I agree, #1 sets the tone and helps keep holiday madness at bay. Intention is powerful, and ever more important as our environment becomes increasingly noisy and distracting. Love the cookie plate, yum!

  • Amy's mom December 5, 2012, 10:04 pm

    Love the doily snowflakes, Suz. I had never thought of this, even though the doilies were a part of my childhood. I used to color them, especially for Valentine’s Day and just the sight of them brings on a flood of memories.

  • Jeffrey Willius December 4, 2012, 9:46 pm

    Hey Suz — These are great tips. I know this is still very hard for many people to actually adopt. Your appropriately numbered first tip is the key. Decide what you really want and how much that vision is worth to you.
    Keep up the good work, my friend!

    • Amy December 5, 2012, 7:05 am

      Hi Jeffrey,

      You are a wise man. It is hard to decide to slow down, perhaps because we are worried about what other people think (or even worried about not living up to our own expectations for a ‘perfect’ holiday). I often find that my choices to simplify are rewarded by the luxuriousness of time: time to hang out, be cozy and home, and to be thankful for what I have. Thank you for stopping by Frugal Mama. Suz is a gem, isn’t she?