Experience more fun (and purposeful fuss) this holiday season

Two years ago, I shared how I was trying to adapt my holiday plans for more fun and less fuss. At the time, I had just finished writing Don’t Overthink It and was feeling empowered, newly recognizing how much of my holiday fuss was actually within my control.

Back then, I was more intentional than I ever had been before about deciding what matters to me and to my family, and planning accordingly. We didn’t try a ton of new recipes that year. We reined in some of the well-intentioned but exhausting large gift-giving endeavors we’d gotten roped into. We played a ton of Christmas music and made a zillion batches of Chex mix and spiced nuts.

Little did I know that my 2019 tweaks would be dwarfed by the changes we made last year.

This year I’m working on putting things back together a bit. Not just reframing how I approach a few of our holiday obligations, but fundamentally reconsidering what our traditions should even look like. Over the years we’ve had traditions come and go. I don’t expect much pushback from my kids just because “we’ve always done it that way.”

Will has a saying, (imagine him saying this while loaded down with All The Gear a family of six requires, walking several long blocks to the beach), “having fun is hard work: do the work.”

Just as I have tried to get away from giving our kids crap in their stocking simply because they expect stuff, I’m working on a loose schedule that leaves room for fun activities that are also high-fuss. But I’m ruthlessly cutting out any of the we-do-it-because-we-do-it projects that take a lot of work but offer little payoff.

I want to do the high-reward stuff. I’m willing to do the work—if it’s worth it.

Like this: my kids always want to make Christmas cookies. I hate this. Partly because I have blood sugar issues and don’t want a kitchen full of cookies (I mean literally all the way full the way they plan it). But also partly because it’s assumed holiday cookies should be part of the season, and there isn’t much of a special moment attached to them.

But then. Grasping at straws during full lockdown last year for holiday-themed entertainment, we watched a livestream of How to Make the Perfect Cookie Box. Not just how to bake cookies, but how to assemble the perfect box with a balance of basic, interesting, fruity, and chocolatey cookies. We were wowed; we were inspired!

We bought ten kinds of sprinkles, ruby chocolate, a cookie press. And then we were quick to volunteer to take over the big family cookie spread for Christmas. It was work, yes, but it became an event—the baking itself became a family activity, its own entertainment. And there was of course a delicious “moment” when my whole family was able to enjoy them. (Okay, lots of moments—because after that we were FULL UP with cookies.)

We’ve known for a while that the 2021 holiday season would not mean a return to any sort of “normalcy” for my family. We’re (still) deliberately thinking through what we want our holidays to look like—and honestly, with so many variables in the mix, it’s been easy to get stuck into overthinking in a way we haven’t in years. Waffling between the tried and true we’ve-always-done-it-this-way and what’s desirable, or even practical, for this year.

Will commented recently that it’s time to revisit our Don’t Overthink It principles to shore up our decision-making confidence for the season. And so that’s what we’re doing now at my house: we’re deciding what matters, and then deciding once. We’re evaluating our family rituals and traditions, both new and old. We’re considering smart splurges, and asking ourselves what simple abundance looks like at home in the coming weeks.

We don’t have all the answers we need, but we’re feeling good about the process.

We’re certain we want to enjoy a few high-fuss but high FUN seasonal experiences, while dropping those that are simply high-fuss. We’re making cookies again and we’re going to watch friends perform at the theater. But we’d love more ideas.

What high-reward activities do you find to be worth the effort in your own life? Which ones take a lot of work, but also bring a big reward? I’m sure I’m not the only one who would love to hear your ideas and experiences in comments.

more posts you might enjoy


Leave A Comment
  1. patricia says:

    We used to make a Christmas basket full of favorite treats for our family. It started out as just homemade pumpkin bread and grew. Last year we just sent every family a Trader Joe’s card and they could buy their own treats and zoomed our gatherings. This year, we’re repeating gift cards because we’ll be out of town until the night before our family get together. I’m thinking I can finally escape the gift basket. Yippee!
    One tradition I started decades ago. Hubs and I asked our family to give a gift of charity in our name to their choice of charities. Best gifts we get all year!

  2. Belle says:

    Two changes for us:

    1. We have stopped wrapping gifts for our children and opted instead to gift experiences. This can be as little as a movie or concert tickets or as big as a flyaway vacation (choosing wisely on the experience during Covid).
    2. We took cards off the church Christmas tree and put our full hearts and actions behind those gifts for the less fortunate even down to the wrapping paper. Those gifts felt good and right to give and we had a small feeling of the true meaning with that.

  3. Terry says:

    Each year we participate in a few meaningful charitable gifts. One is the red bags (full of wrapped needed items) for a specific foster child in our area. The other is the “light the world” vending machines in various cities (one at the Crown Center in Kansas City this year!) sponsored by the LDS church – you can donate a chicken or goat, books or water, etc. so much fun for our grandkids! It’s the reason for the season for me.

  4. Rita Rogers says:

    Going out to eat in our local cafe sometimes results in us paying for someone else’s meal anonymously, or someone paying for ours. We will definitely being doing this in the coming weeks.

  5. Candace McMahan says:

    We’ve opted for the gift of time together. My sister and two grown nieces live nearby, and their houses are always beautifully decorated for Christmas, so our gift to each other is girl time together. Last year we kicked off the season at my house with an eggnog-making party (my 18th-century recipe is famous and hugely sought after in these parts); we all made enough to give to our own circles of friends as gifts. Then we had a cookie-decorating party at the home of one of my nieces, which was huge fun in spite of—or maybe because of—how bad I was at it. Then we had a day of hiking followed by hot cocoa by the fire in my other niece’s mountain home. Finally, one day during the week after Christmas, we continued our long-standing tradition of spending the day at my sister’s house in our sweats watching Doris Day movies (Doris Day Day). All together, these times together plus Christmas Eve services, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day (games with the whole family) added up to the best Christmas ever.

    • terrykes says:

      Your famous 18-century egg nog recipe? Sounds fabulous? Open to sharing? And I love the Doris Day Day idea! We used to have pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving until we couldn’t make it work. Fun names for things and days only increase the fun. 🙂

      • Candace McMahan says:

        I wish I could share the recipe with you, but the person who gave it to me long ago swore me to secrecy. (It’s basically spiked whipped cream. 😉) And Doris Day Day is the best! Total relaxation (no makeup, hair in ponytails) and a million laughs after a month of busyness!

  6. Nichole says:

    My family decorates cut-out sugar cookies. At some point, this event has turned into an ugly cookie contest for everyone but me. They actually run polls on their SM accounts for the worst ones. I just go about my business of making pretty cookies and then force them to eat only their gross ones for the rest of the season.😂

  7. Anne says:

    It’s just my daughter and me (and our two cats), and life has been really upheaved (upheft?) by the pandemic. We’re in South Africa. She started university in Feb last year – only to be home by the end of March because of lockdown, and the campus hasn’t re-opened for Humanities students. It’s been a hard year financially and emotionally and mentally, and we are going for pretty this year. If it will bring us joy, we will get it. We don’t have a vehicle, so are pretty much housebound, which rules out the theatre or other experiences like that, so books and music and rest will be the order of our days once I break for the year on Dec 17. We have both earned it. I love the idea of putting in the effort for what’s worthwhile. We’ll have snuggling and reminiscing and I’ll tell her about my parents and their parents and Christmases past.

    • Ruthie says:

      Pay wall. If you have a library card, you might have free access via your library’s online services: the NYT directly, or Hoopla or Libby. Otherwise, do you have a friend who subscribes to the NYT? If so, they’re allowed to “gift” 10 articles a month. Maybe they could send it to you.

  8. Laura J says:

    My kids are grown now but each person in the family would pick something they wanted all of us to do. It might be making a paper chain (chosen longer than I expected and had the benefit of being decorative too), going for a walk together, taking a drive to see Christmas lights or making gingerbread cookies together. We also would string lights in the bedroom hall area which was unexpectedly lovely. It felt special because no one else would see it, it was just for our enjoyment but worth doing. 3M has lots of clips/hooks that are perfect for this. : )

  9. Angela says:

    With adult children, I am focusing on flexibility. Due to their work schedules, we are having to shift some of our traditional events. I am reminding myself that it is important to be together, not just the day or time it occurs.

  10. Virginia Westlake says:

    I started painting cookies with my daughter when she was 2 years old over 50 years ago. We did that with our two and they continued with their families. If we’re all together, we paint them at our house with the four grands. Two are in college and two are seniors in high school. The creativity of everyone is incredible! I use an icing recipe that will harden. We have every color and every kind of sprinkles available. It’s so much fun to see a tradition they enjoy!

    • Cindy says:

      How beautiful – something you started with your 2 year old is still flourishing today and has even multiplied to both of their families. New traditions happen by doing. Love this!

  11. Carly says:

    Every year I bake over 1,000 cookies to put in cookie boxes for friends and colleagues. I’ve done it for almost 15 years, and it’s a huge effort that requires planning and setting aside a whole weekend in December for baking (plus pre-making and freezing dough before then). But I freaking love it. I make different cookies every year and so get the fun of reading recipes and choosing the best mix, and the recipients really, really enjoy it. On baking weekend, I put on Christmas music and just enjoy having the tree lit up, the music playing, the feel of the dough, and the smell of the cookies baking.

  12. Kara says:

    I print out simple notes that read “Thank you for your Christmas lights! They helped make our holidays a little brighter.” The kids sign them, and we slip them into the mailboxes of their favorite decorated houses in our neighborhood. It’s become a fun (but low-fuss) tradition that allows us to connect with our neighbors in a socially-distant way!

  13. Jamie says:

    We (my daughters and I) spend one whole day baking and making treats with my mom and sister – we look forward to it every year, even though we’re ready to fall off our feet by the end! We divide the goods and package some to take to friends and neighbors. We also pick one night later in the season – my husband, the kids and I all put on comfy clothes (think PJs!) and pack into the car with the dog. We bring some candy canes and stop for fancy hot chocolate and spend time driving around to enjoy the lights. We also have a couple of botanical gardens near us that do a holiday light display, so we pick one of those and take a stroll through.
    Usually we’d do a holiday theatre performance and/or the symphony, but it will be dependent on the pandemic this year…
    Always a holiday themed puzzle out on the table for working on too. 🙂

  14. Cindy says:

    I love so many of these ideas! Thanks everyone for sharing! I’m excited to put a handful of these into practice to make this year special. We, along with many of you I’m afraid, have had some losses this year. Anything to help make the season a little brighter, this year especially, I am in favor of! And Will is right: it’s worth it to do the hard work!

  15. Carolyn says:

    We’ve been making a lot of similar decisions the past few years–not due to the pandemic–simply because I felt overwhelmed. Our kiddos are 17,14, 10; our youngest is very enthusiastic…so I’m committed to keeping the spirit alive. But I don’t want to be grumpy! So here’s what I’m trying on for ’21:
    I scrapped: Christmas cards.
    I changed up a ritual: adding a hot cocoa bar for Winter Solstice by the outside fire. (I’m so excited for less cleaning + cooking! Instead, I’m asking friends to bring a fun stir-in or topping. We’ll all have more time for the annual ritual and truly reflect on what I’m letting go of this year.
    I’m bringing back because it’s worth the fuss: an Advent ritual. Instead of stringing all the socks, though, and filling them with 3 surprises or notes/activities each day (exhausting!), I ordered a meaningful daily advent book (St. Francis/John Kruse)–and for a treat, I splurged on the Bonne Maman jam + honey Advent box from Cost Plus World Market. (I suspect I’ll be as excited as my 10-year-old for Advent this year 🙂

    Thanks for sharing all the fun, everyone!

  16. d says:

    I’m curious if you’ve found a lower-sugar cookie that you like to make, rather than simply subbing Splenda or another type of sweetener for sugar. We have lots of blood sugar issues in our family and everyone has a hard time resisting all the treats.

  17. Kelsey says:

    Every year we take a whole afternoon/evening to drive an hour away to a neat, interactive live nativity called Bethlehem Revisited. We stop for dinner on the way there. Our kids love it, it opens up so many great discussions, and it helps keep Christmas centered on Christ.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.