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It’s no puzzle: keeping holiday traditions simple

I don’t remember exactly when it started. Sadly, I suspect I may have rolled my eyes a bit the first time someone pulled out a box and started to pour the cardboard pieces on the recently cleared dining room table.

Putting together a puzzle? Really? THIS is how we’re going to spend our Christmas?

Really. Over the past few years, my cousins, siblings and I have started a new holiday tradition. It’s nothing fancy, it doesn’t involve instructions or ingredients, and because it’s so low-key and “un-photo-worthy,” it’s yet to be documented in any of our scrapbooks. After we eat dinner, exchange presents and clean up the mess from both events, we sit down at the table and put together a puzzle.

As much as I love Pinterest and Facebook and bucket lists and craft projects (and I DO), I’ve found myself weary of the holiday hoopla this year. Based on the many posts I’ve read expressing the same sentiment, the same urgency to relax, do less, be present, RELAX – I know I’m not alone.

The irony is almost too much, honestly. We’ve taken something like holiday traditions – those things that we’ve savored over the years, the experiences that have meant so much to us, the small, quiet moments and big, splashy ones that each have personal meaning – and turned them into tasks to check off and brag about in the name of sharing ideas.

And I’m certainly no different! When I did a quick search on Pinterest for “holiday traditions,” I was both thrilled and chagrined to see one of my own posts come up alongside 101 Ways to Pose Your Elf, Fabulous New Ways to Decorate Your Buffet with Pine Cones, How Many Traditions is Too Many?, and The 28 Traditions You Absolutely Must Keep in Order to Have a Decent Holiday Season.

And the truth is though I’ve written about traditions my family has shared for years and new ones I’d like to start, as well as how to resist the siren call of season busyness, I still struggle with balancing all that advice.

Christmas perspective

How can we keep the traditions that are important, allow room for new ideas, and still keep our focus on what truly matters after the cookies have all been eaten and the lights have been taken down?

No surprise on a blog called “The Art of Simple,” I believe the key to all of this is by keeping our traditions simple.

  • Like to bake cookies? Great! No need to break the bank buying sprinkles for 12 different kinds of treats. Stick to one or two favorite recipes, add in one new one, and only make as many as you can feasibly give away in one afternoon.
  • Want to give back this season? Fantastic. You don’t have to give bits and pieces to every single charity, feeling worn thin and giving-ed out by December 31. Just pick one cause that touches your heart and focus your resources there. Get your kids or your friends involved to serve for a few hours one weekend, and take time afterward to reflect on all you’re thankful for.
  • Believe it’s important to make the holidays meaningful for your family? That’s wonderful. Me, too. But rather than making an exhaustive – and exhausting! – list of holiday must-dos, let’s be intentional about choosing one or two or a handful of ways to celebrate together.

My cousins, siblings and I spent many years making a trip to see Christmas lights our big holiday tradition. But as we got older and busier and added people to our families, coordinating that outing simply got too difficult. And while we love each other something fierce, we’re a diverse bunch with widely varying interests.

There’s no way we would all agree to make candy or watch the same movie or create homemade gifts from a blog post we found on Pinterest. And honestly? We’re a little bit too competitive for even the tamest board game. But we sure can kick it old school and sit around a table, snacking and catching up, and finding that last edge piece that makes the whole thing stick together.

A puzzle – something I never would have imagined or chosen for a holiday tradition! But it’s the one thing we look forward to each year, even more than Granny’s pound cake or our secret Santa gift exchange. It’s simple, and it’s lovely, and it’s our tradition.

What is your favorite simple holiday tradition?

Reading Time:

3 minutes





  1. Chrisy@GoodNorthCoastLife

    Well, l think you might just be on to something. Bringing out a puzzle after the presents and lunch might be just what we need. Thanks for the great idea !!

  2. Johanna

    Growing up we always did a puzzle at Christmas. At my grandparents there was also always one going when we went to visit. (Maybe the tradition has been in the family for a really long time?). I love it the tradition!

    • Mary @ Giving Up on Perfect

      So cool to think it’s been going on for generations – now THAT is a tradition! 🙂

  3. Amy Rogers Hays

    Puzzles are so great at capturing the desire to “do something” and yet “be together” at the same time. You can have your hands full, but carry on a meaningful conversation. And yet I have had some really rowdy puzzle making sessions too where something is bound and determined to find a particular piece and makes quite a hilarious raucous about it. You can pick it up, or leave it. And yet there’s a strange satisfaction in completing it together. And I bet there are some really beautiful and cool puzzle images to choose from. May we all find more traditions that are somehow a great mix of celebration and contemplation!

    • Mary @ Giving Up on Perfect

      Great point, Amy – puzzles do allow us to connect without the awkwardness of staring at someone you might not see that often or know that well, all while building camaraderie by doing something together!

  4. Victoria

    My favorite holiday tradition, sitting in front of the lit up Christmas tree with all the lights in the house off in the early morning hours of Christmas before everyone else is up with a cup of hot tea and just reflecting on the year gone by and the year to come. I think of blessings and than God for each of them or sometimes I don’t think at all I just zone out watching the twinkle of the Christmas lights in silence before the busy fun filled day begins.

    • Mary @ Giving Up on Perfect

      That sounds so peaceful and lovely, Victoria! Thank you for sharing – and enjoy your moment of quiet reflection this year!

  5. Maggie

    Oh this post… My grandmother was a huge puzzle person. Every Christmas she would set up a card table and work on a hugely complicated Christmas puzzle. My brother and I would try to help and feel immensely happy when we finally got a piece to fit in! I keep thinking when my kids are older we will set out a puzzle just like she did.

    • Mary @ Giving Up on Perfect

      There’s something so satisfying about helping with those hugely complicated puzzles, isn’t there!? 🙂

  6. Hannah

    Amen! I wrote about this very topic recently. We lived overseas and celebrated three Christmases in India. Needless to say, it was a very different experience–lonely but intentional and full of meaning. Now that we’re back in the US, we’re re-learning how to celebrate in a way that doesn’t make us want to take a vacation afterwards! My mother-in-law, who doesn’t get online, knows nothing about the “simple” movement, and is traditional by nature encourages us to play dominoes over the holidays. Even the kids can join in because it’s so easy. We all sit around the table and play, play, play. Sometimes I want to poke my eyes out, but then I look around and see family of all ages lining up their pieces and I realize that it’s one of the best ways for us to do something together. Plus, it’s cheap and there’s no mess! Simple is good.

    • Mary @ Giving Up on Perfect

      No mess, no expense PLUS getting all the generations together? Sounds like the perfect tradition to me. 🙂

  7. Sarah

    My mom’s side of the family is big into puzzles but we’ve never thought to make it holiday activity. I like the idea of it, its low-key, people can join in at their leisure, all ages can participate…what a wonderful tradition!!

    • Mary @ Giving Up on Perfect

      Yes – great point about people being able to join and leave whenever they want. That’s a big bonus for holiday gatherings when everyone is in and out, hustling and bustling!

  8. kimmie

    Our kids get their gifts Christmas Eve morning so they have all day to play with their new stuff.

    • Mary @ Giving Up on Perfect

      That’s a fun – and smart – tradition, Kimmie. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  9. Ann

    When we lived in the US we always went to the movies on Christmas day. Here, we go for a nice long walk. Our favorite park is open to the public on Christmas, but the crowds are pretty minimal. It’s a really nice day.

    On a side note, I have 3-4 boxes of Christmas decor and ornaments in the basement. I’ve taken out 1/2 a box and used that for ornaments this year. I made simple decorations out of paper. One that says “Merry Christmas” cut out of red and green cardstock. And one using a decorated (bought that way) clothes pin, a cheap wicker ornament, and a white sandwich bag holding our advent activities (that we haven’t kept up with since December 5 and that’s ok by me). I love the minimal decorating – so much. So, so, much.

    • Mary @ Giving Up on Perfect

      Ooooh, I love your simple, homemade decorations, Ann – sometimes simple is so refreshing and peaceful that it beats the four boxes in the basement!!

  10. Crystal

    My favorite simple Christmas tradition is sitting with Matt in our living room on Christmas night watching basketball & going through the gifts we got that day. Everything is so hectic when we’re opening gifts that we never see what we’ve actually received until that night – it’s such a sweet time, just the two of us, unwinding and recapping the day 🙂

  11. Julia

    Each year we put on our own Nativity play in the living room, complete with random costume garb.

  12. Lisa

    I have heeded the call for simplicity this year AND last. It is life changing. I love the idea of a puzzle. Haven’t done one in years, but what a great way to sit, spend time together and visit.

    • Mary @ Giving Up on Perfect

      Yes, that’s the beauty of it – we’re “doing” something but still able to chat and catch up. Merry Christmas, Lisa!

  13. Jennifer

    Ours is making chili on Christmas Eve. This is a tradition my husband & I started when we were out on our own creating a new holiday rhythm for our house as newlyweds. Chili has been such a wonderful blessing to us over they years–we never wonder what we’re having on such a busy evening, we have a hot & delicious meal ready to eat whenever we can get around to it (based on church times, social engagements, present wrapping, etc.) and it has provided us with an easy way to show hospitality to our neighbors. There’s nothing intimidating about coming over for a bowl of chili, so when we’ve known people who were spending the holidays far away from family or we just wanted to welcome friends new & old into our home, our old standby chili has been there for us.

    • Mary @ Giving Up on Perfect

      I love chili for busy days – and special days – and everything in between, too. Enjoy yours – and merry Christmas!

  14. Betsy

    I’m so with you on keeping traditions SIMPLE. It’s ironic that we can be so stressed out over striving for the perfect Christmas, that we miss out on being present to our f amilies.

    My favorite tradition is lighting our advent wreath each night and reading something short, but this year with two teenagers who have different schedules, we only manage about 4 nights a week, and I’m fine with that.

    • Mary @ Giving Up on Perfect

      Exactly, Betsy! And I love your tradition – including the part about doing it a few nights a week being good enough for you and yours. 🙂

  15. Alissa

    We have an “Elves Party” on Christmas Eve – a tradition started by my parents when I was just a kid. In those days, my mom made us elves hats and slippers, but today, here’s what it involves:
    – Put on santa hats
    – Play music, eat, play games, hang out

    It’s the perfect holiday tradition because there’s really nothing to it except getting together. But, we NAMED it – that makes it special; that makes it ours; that makes it tradition.

    • Mary @ Giving Up on Perfect

      That sounds SO fun, Alissa!! Thanks for sharing it with us. Enjoy your party this year!!

  16. Amy

    Watching movies! Can’t get any easier than sitting on the couch 🙂

  17. Margarita

    This is such a refreshing read, I’ve just marked about 20 different posts on “how tos” and “holiday checklists” on my reader as READ. Because I didn’t want to read that I now have to create some amazing breakfast for Christmas morning (sticking to the regular fare will do just as well!).

    • Mary @ Giving Up on Perfect

      Haha! Much as I’d love to serve my family a breakfast casserole or pancakes on Christmas morning, I’ll probably just send my husband to the gas station for donuts. *gasp!* The horror! Except…it’s easy and low stress and a special treat that my daughter will love. Easy does it sometimes, even when it involves frosted junk from the gas station! 🙂

  18. Eva

    1- only having the Christmas tree lights on at night time until the 25 th, when we keep them on all day.
    2- keeping a box of books wrapped up till evening so the boys can open their last present and unwind while reading on Christmas night.
    3- always a bag of cherries in their stockings from Santa.

  19. Tragic Sandwich

    I love this! And it really gets at the heart of how I like to spend the day–sharing it with people I love, doing things that we love. There’s no need for a rat race at home!

  20. Lindsey

    My husband and I (of 4 years) were just talking last night about how it’s time for us to make our own traditions as our own little family. We have always traveled across the state during the holidays to be with our extended families and while we enjoy seeing them, it makes the day hectic and tiring. It would be much nicer to begin some traditions of our own and spend some meaningful time together on Christmas as husband and wife without trying to please everyone else. I’m looking forward to keeping it simple next year!

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