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How to simplify the holidays without feeling like a Scrooge

If I’m honest, I think it all goes back to the fact I never knew my mom. Don’t worry, this isn’t a sob story, just a fact.

I never saw her leave a sink full of dishes or forget the snack she was supposed to bring to my school party. I never saw her stressing out about holiday cards or burn a batch of cookies.

…I never saw her fail at Christmas.

So, when I grew up with a home and family of my own, media perfection was my only example. I thought that in order to be a great mom at the holidays, I had to do All. The. Things.


Here are a couple highlights:

There was that year I hand wrote in gold glitter pen the entire lyrics to Chris Rice’s Welcome To Our World in EACH of the Christmas cards I sent out to all the people I’d ever met in my entire life. Those lyrics were in addition to the full page personalized note in each card…in a corresponding red glitter pen.

(Because I COULDN’T write the same thing in each card! What if they all sat around in a circle reading my cards aloud basking in the lyrics and handwritten personalization?!)

I’m still waiting for a call from someone saying that it changed their life.

Then there was the personalized full length DVD recap of the year I created in iMovie and burned one by one on an archaic Mac and mailed to way too many people whose names I needed an address book to spell correctly. I’m probably the only person who ever took the time to watch it.

Finally, there was the graveyard of “attempts to make the holidays meaningful” – attempts at “family fun nights,” supposedly “simple” Advent activities that I successfully overcomplicated and the general wrangling of my family to force them to do something because “by golly” we are going to celebrate the meaning of the season.

Now, hear me out. There is nothing wrong with any of these things. What was wrong was my reason for doing them — I did them simply because I thought I should.

How much time do we spend on things simply because of some vague notion that we “should?” I didn’t do them because they actually made an impact or because anyone had asked for them.

Can I just say that again? I didn’t do them because they actually made an impact or because anyone had asked for them.

I don’t know about you, but I run myself ragged doing things that I think people expect of me. I had no actual measuring stick for myself so I was battered around like a ping pong ball by everyone else’s measuring sticks.


It’s time to set our own standards and outline our own measuring sticks so that we focus our limited time on things that truly matter and make the holidays a season of actual joy. But how?

1. Identify

Write down the top five holiday events/activities/traditions that are most meaningful to you. Ask your spouse and your children.

Make a master list and use it to help you funnel your time and energy to the things that really matter to the ones closest to you.

2. Ignore

If it’s not on that list, feel the freedom to say no.

If Christmas lights aren’t on your family’s list, lose them.

If the annual white elephant exchange isn’t on the list, skip it.

Be assured that your third least favorite coworker’s disappointment that you’re not bringing a Yule Log to the office will not have long term emotional effects.

3. Refine

Regardless of how much you minimize what you do, there will probably still be things that feel like a chore.

For me? I honestly don’t like pulling out Thanksgiving decorations and then putting them away and pulling out Christmas decorations, putting them up and then putting them away. ARGHHH!!!!!

That possibly sounds incredibly Scrooge-ish to many of you. But the fact is, I loathe it. So, I’m doing as little of it as I can.

My plan is to scale back and focus on high impact elements. I’ll have one big focus decoration (Christmas Tree, Thanksgiving centerpiece that features things we are thankful for). And then I’ve found that for my family, candles and music add more to the atmosphere than a bunch of decorations.

I’ll light a few candles in the fireplace, turn on a great Pandora station, and call it a holiday.

We don’t have to love every task we do, but we can simplify by focusing on the elements that are low investment yet high impact.

The Overarching Question

In the past, I’ve worked so hard to be “merry” for everyone else that I’ve been a Scrooge in my own home.

I need to ask myself, “Who do I want to make the holidays special for? Instagram? The other moms at my kids’ class party? The 7 year olds who will NEVER remember how I hand stenciled their monograms on their Christmas party bag?”


No. I want to make the holidays special for the people in my home. The people I love.

So, let’s make our family lists, focus on just those things, and simplify the season.

Reading Time:

3 minutes





  1. Kathleen

    I recently asked my 7-year old son what he looks forward to most about the holidays, excluding Christmas Day itself. His answer was, “Making paper snowflakes, going to see snow [we live in the desert but can get up to the snow in nearby mountains], and spending time with my family.” Pretty simple! I’m also not a big fan of decorations. They make my house feel more cluttered than I’d like. I put up a few favorites, our stockings, and the tree, and call it good.

  2. Amanda Villagómez

    I like how this process can be applied to life in general and not just the holidays. It reaffirms a process I just went through to create some boundaries at work. It is still hard, knowing that saying no makes me at times feel like I’m not doing enough when in reality it is about establishing and sticking to healthy boundaries. Keeping the overarching question in mind (bottom of your post) can help to maintain focus on why I was making the decisions I did. I appreciate the inspiration and it coming at just the right time.

  3. Sarah Westphal

    I really loved this post Kat. To keep the Holidays enjoyable in our house we keep it simple too–for both decorations and our schedule. Decorations are the Xmas tree, outside wreath and meaningful decorations only (so not too many!)inside. Activities are watching Xmas movies (me and my hubby) and reading Xmas books (our 4 kids are four and under) and eating LOTS of shortbread and gingerbread cookies that I made and froze in advance. Simple!!

  4. Jenn

    One of the best ways that we simplified Christmas and the most controversial, was deciding to stay home. On Christmas Eve by 5 or 6 we are home and we don’t leave the house all Christmas Day. Our family and friends are welcome to drop in any time to see us. Instead of one big meal we put out several seasonal dishes through out the day. It upset several family members at first but the pay off of letting our kids take their time opening gifts and then playing with them was completely worth it.

    • Teresa

      This is such a great idea Jenn! Did you do the same this year?

  5. Natalie

    Thanks, Kat. Just thanks.

  6. Mama Rachael

    We have so many options, and we want to choose them all. Perhaps this became true in the last generation? But before that, the options were limited, there might have been 1 or 2 things that you could do to celebrate or decorate, and that was it. You got to use butter in the mashed potatoes, b/c you saved it up from the stash you had last Fall. (Yes, we’ve been reading the Little House series!).

    Or perhaps we truly remember our Mom doing all these things, when, really, she did one thing one year, and one thing the next year, but we have conflated them all into each year.

    Yes, we need to let go of the guilt to make it ‘perfect’. Or, perhaps, change our definition of what perfection is, so that we see the perfection in something much simpler.

    Thanks for the thoughts, Kat. Good to get them, esp now as we head into the season.

  7. Betsy

    I so appreciate your wisdom here, Kat. So often we’re trying to live up to what we think our families want from us during the holiday season. (And the stress all falls on Mom to “make it memorable.” But in reality what my family mostly wants is an unstressed, relaxed, joyful me.

    I’m totally going to do steps 1 and 2 that you outline here. Great idea.

  8. Jody

    Two adults and three kids; each picks their favorite Christmas tradition or activity and those are the five things we do. It may change from year to year but each person gets to pick a favorite thing to do.

    When the cousins got into their teens (they’re in their 30s now), they started having a cousins party night sometime between Christmas and New Years (even later at times now). They’d get together at one house, play games, watch movies, eat snacks, even sleep over (in the early days). It is a fun time just for them and they’ve included spouses and children and Significant Others throughout the years.

  9. Hummie

    I followed a retweet to this post and must say I absolutely agree. Last year we cut back to not even putting up a Christmas tree and no presents! Just a few decorations. I know some would judge us, but instead we spent family quality time shopping for ourselves and then someone else volunteering to purchase. We learned about each other and felt loved without all the wrapping and stress. This year, I’m think I’m going to give away some of our Christmas decorations and consider keeping a less stress scaled back version. We had a big tree and exchanged it for a small skinny tree at some point. This year, I may just exchange it for a table top tree!

  10. Sharon Holbrook

    Yes!! And this is exactly why I ditched the homemade Advent calendar that I’d been so excited about. It turned out to be about high pressure and high expectations. We still do most of the things on the calendar, they just don’t a big daily reveal and the need to do it THAT day.

  11. Monica Crumley

    Love this. I, too, loathe getting out Christmas decor, only to put it away a couple weeks later. With 5 kids ranging in age from 4 to 17, I have too many little people to worry about first and foremost, not how festive an perfect my decor looks. I’ll admit, I used to be the Martha Stewart type when I only had 2 kids… Fast forward 3 more kids later and it’s just not possible and the crankiness that everyone has to endure isn’t worth it. Cookie swaps, dinners with formal china, open houses… not any more… Last year I had to make Christmas Day dinner for about 16 family members. Most were tired of the traditional ham, so I made chicken enchiladas, homemade guac and salsa and other sides and the family still talks about it a year later. Do what makes you happy. Simplify. I love a simple green pine wreath with a few pine cones and a bow. Love a simple tree. A few decorations here and there that are meaningful, but most stay in their boxes anymore, year after year. I keep saying each Christmas that I’ll give away a ton of Christmas decor and ornaments… I have yet to do it, but I fee the urge to purge coming on again this year. Anyway, thanks for the post and the reminder to simplify. Maybe this year I’ll ask each child what is most important and go from there. 🙂

    • Teresa

      Mind if I copy your Christmas Dinner idea? 🙂 Brilliant!!

  12. Rachel Hembree

    My mom always overdid Christmas, and I hated dragging all the dusty old decorations out of storage every year. My husband was raised Jehovah’s Witness, (and doesn’t believe that anymore). So I had no problem NOT doing Christmas on my own. But now that we have our son, I see why some people feel like they have to make the season super special for their kids. My son is 2, so this is only his 3rd Christmas. He loves the trees and lights, and won’t leave other decorations alone, so we just stick with the tree and lights. We have taken him to see Santa, which he could care less about, but I want the picture to share with our far-off family. We go looking at lights, and to tree-lighting and parades, but haven’t really started any real traditions for our own little family yet.

  13. Beth DeRoos

    We are very much a WW2 style Christmas family. Not a Martha Stewart style Christmas. Presents are not important, but good food, friends, sitting and playing musical instruments, going caroling is what we do a lot. And on Christmas Day we eat awesome Scottish and Swedish foods and go to a movie. Love not having decorations to take down, or any of the stress so many people have. And NO after Christmas bills!!

  14. Anna

    I love this. Not the stressful bit you had but the now ideas. I had one Christmas where my entire family came to our house and I spent hours making each person hand made presents. I ended up throwing up and in bed on Christmas Day whilst they all celebrated downstairs. I do not desire to repeat that one bit. Here’s to a simpler Christmas

  15. Robin

    Great post! I’ve always liked keeping the holidays simple. Running around like a maniac, making sure everything is perfect is a good way to miss out on all the fun! 🙂

  16. alexa

    A great reminder, and thank-you, as I am just about to start thinking about Christmas. Every year, I think about how to make the whole month of December simpler!

  17. Christina Mathewson

    This is totally me, I have spent many years feeling disappointed in myself because I wasn’t able to make it the perfect Christmas. I focused on doing things that where not important and people that where not the most important in my life. I loved this post.

  18. Guest

    Love this! I don’t put out Thanksgiving decorations and focus on our tree and our Dickens village for Christmas. Our family loves them both and we leave the village until January as it’s really a winter village anyway and the lights are warm and welcoming during the cold, dark-early, winter months. It’s so fun going to the homes of others who do love all that decorating but not my gig. And that’s okay. 🙂

  19. Helena

    Oh my … this was EXACTLY what I needed to read today … I was actually thinking this (as I felt nauseous in Target looking at all the Christmas “stuff”), how can I be a minimalist without being a killjoy for Christmas …? And voila, my answer appeared. So very appreciated … what a blessing.

  20. Lindsey

    First; a big hug.
    It’s a relief to hear and empathize with knowing
    I am not the only one who “loathes”.
    I adore that term you chose.
    Although my home is carefully decorated festively this year and every year, I am “sickened inside myself” from end of Oct through New Years due to the demands of the holidays.
    I’m embarrassed that I make it know to everyone from my immediate family to ever acquaintance I know and that ugliness induced by all the demands ashamed me even more,

    Thank you for your article, it will help me balance things out better as well as your choice of words are much better than my negative and derogatory way of expressing my frustrations this time of year.

    Hugs 🙂

  21. Erica

    I so needed to read this tonight, Kat. I am feeling overwhelmed with the holidays and it’s only Dec 3rd! I feel like it is so often a contest when talking to friends and family and reading Facebook on who has all of their Christmas decorations up so far. It can be such an exhausting process to put it all up while trying to keep up with normal daily life. Then I was feeling very sad and Scrooge like today wondering what was wrong with me. I was questioning why I wasn’t so happy to be celebrating Christmas. But once I sit and reflect, I realize that celebrating the true meaning of Christmas does make me very joyful and I just need to make sure my family and I are focusing on that and not worry if I’m not keeping up with everyone else.

  22. MrMax

    Woo hoo… YES.
    We are on the same path this year. The family has all been put on notice. We do not want anyone buying us stuff, and we’re not doing it anymore. Enough of this insanity.
    “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, PERHAPS, means a little–bit–more.” (– Dr. Seuss)

    3 gifts for each of our kids, one for each other, and that’s all. Sorry, Amazon, Best Buy, and Target, you don’t
    have our family to kick around any more.

    The decorations — oh my, YES YES YES. My parents used to put up massive amounts of lights and decorations in the house. And you know, as a kid, I loved them. But I hate the idea of storing all that stuff, pulling it out, putting it away. For what? If we have 2 precious weeks to be off work and school to celebrate the Christmas season, are we really going to blow three of those days wrangling decorations???

    So now it’s:

    1. Outdoor lights: Simplified so I can put them all up in an hour (and take them down in a half hour)
    2. The tree: This is the one serious decoration we have. We cut one at a cut-your-own lot as a family, we put it up and we decorate it together.
    3. Whatever comes out of the couple of totes of room decorations that we can place around the living room while we decorate the tree, fine. But that’s it.

    I am already cheering for how it feels to do this.
    Take back Christmas while you still can!
    We may actually have time to sit together in the kitchen as a family this year and
    make cookies together.

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