Experience more fun and less fuss this holiday season.

Experience more fun and less fuss this holiday season.

The other night over dinner my family reached a consensus: Thanksgiving is the best holiday. You might think that four kids, ages nine to sixteen, would be more into gifts, but they were adamant: Thanksgiving has all the fun of Christmas, with none of the fuss.

As an adult who’s responsible for making all the “fuss” happen, I couldn’t agree more. For Thanksgiving, Will and I are responsible for bringing a few side dishes to two different family dinners, and not for hosting thirty people for dinner. We get to spend time with people we love in a low-pressure way. We have few obligations that holiday weekend and a whole lot of time to hang out at home.

But Christmas demands more of us: more food, more planning, more parties and people, more gatherings, more gifts (so many gifts). I enjoy most of these things in isolation (well, maybe not the shopping), but cumulatively they’re enormously draining.

I finished writing a book this year: it’s called Don’t Overthink It, and it’s coming out in March 2020. This is the third book I’ve written, and I’ve learned that the thing about writing a book is that you have to live in the content for at least a year to do a thorough job of it. I’ve been learning about and researching overthinking for years, but this is the first holiday season I’m living through since completing that manuscript, and now that I know what I know, I’m approaching the holidays differently.

Some of the “fuss” is fun, but much of it—on top of all the ongoing obligations of ordinary life—feels like more than I can (or want to) take on in one short season. And so, with Don’t Overthink It still rattling around in my brain, this season I’m striving to spend my energy (and time and money) on what matters to me, and not on the things that don’t. Because the dominant culture is focused heavily on the latter, that requires intention.

I want my holiday season to be more about the love than the trappings, so right now I’m deliberately taking note of both the simple things that we enjoy a disproportionate amount, and the things I tend to needlessly overcomplicate. I’m certain you can guess which ones I want to bring more of into my life into the coming months, and which I’m looking to minimize.

Overcomplicating leads to exhaustion, and I’ve learned from experience that two things trip me up, year after year: the cooking and the shopping. I do enjoy cooking, when the timing’s right. This year I’m stopping to ask myself, what am I cooking, and why, and for whom? For me, the holidays are generally not the time to try a new complex recipe: too much pressure, too much mental energy, too much mess.

This year I won’t needlessly overcomplicate it: we’ll bring simple, tried-and-true favorites to our family gatherings, and save the kitchen experiments for leisurely weekends (if we get to enjoy such a a thing in the coming months). Last year for my stress relief/fun family project cooking combo I perused the pages of this cookbook and made this impressive holiday bread, but it wasn’t for performance’s sake, it was because I wanted to. (That’s my star bread pictured above. My talented friend made that gorgeous yule log, because he wanted to.)

When it comes to holiday shopping, I know that perfectionism is my downfall. I fall into the common trap of waiting to find the absolutely perfect can’t-be-beat gift before I buy it. This year, to avoid the procrastination-induced stress that comes from waiting for perfect, I’m telling myself that the goal is pretty good.

Black Friday stresses me out and punches my materialistic maximizing buttons, so I’m skipping it. I’m not in the market for any of those expensive deals anyway. Small Business Saturday is more my speed, but do you know what’s really my speed? Ordering early and avoiding the stores in December.

And because gifts aren’t the thing that makes the holidays great (see: Thanksgiving), and shopping stresses me out, we’re reconsidering our family approach. My kids aren’t getting much this year: they don’t want it, they don’t need it. Friends who’ve scaled way back on gift giving, or have quit altogether, tell me to consider giving the gift of time, or an experience (that may or may not cost anything), or a warm handwritten letter in lieu of a wrapped package.

Now for the fun stuff: so much of what makes the holiday season special are little things. We know we like to flip on a $12 string of twinkle lights in the living room, while we read books and drink tea and cider. We work old jigsaw puzzles that may or may not have all the pieces. We know we like to burn the candles—the ones with names like fireside and winter hearth and pine— and strike a match to the tea lights. We know we like to cozy up under blankets and watch a good seasonal movie. If we’re going all-out, we may even light a fire.

pomegranate lemon potpurri stove

We know we love to put on holiday music, and put a stockpot simmering with half an orange and cloves and rosemary on the stove to make the whole house smell like Christmas. We make countless batches of addictive spiced nuts. We know we like days with nothing on the calendar, with good easy food, and casual time spent potlucking with friends. Our favorite holiday outing is always the drive we take to check out our town’s Christmas lights; it costs us nothing but the gas.

These are all little things: they don’t take much time, or energy. They cost very little. But when we stop and think about how these little things matter—how much they add up—well, it’s clear where I want to put my energy this season.

Something I learned in the course of writing my book is that it’s not overthinking if you’re giving it—whatever “it” is—the amount of thought you want to. I’m taking time now to think about what I want from the months to come: more fun, less fuss. And I’m making a plan to make that possible.

I’m sure I won’t do it perfectly, and that’s fine. Unexpected things will pop up, both good and bad. But because the season I want isn’t going to happen by accident, I’m setting my intentions for it now.

I’d love to hear what you do—and what you skip—to experience more fun and less fuss during the holidays. What have you tried in the past? What are your plans for this year? Please tell us all about it in comments.

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50 comments

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  1. Margaret says:

    YES! to all of that. My adult kids were saying the very same things over supper this week. Thanksgiving is the best because we just spend time.

  2. Sue says:

    My mother always says that the best Christmas we ever had was the year they had zero money for gifts. She and Dad decided that we could each pick ONE thing from the Sears catalog (so they could charge it) and although initially disgruntled and whiny, we soon settled down to the serious WORK of choosing our gift. We pored and pored and pored over that catalog, day after day, chose one thing each finally, and when the Day came, we were happy and content, she said. No fuss, no extravaganza of soon-broken toys, just happiness and gratitude. Yes, gratitude, because we realized how precious our gifts were from our hard-working parents, and that gifts don’t come from Santa Claus!

  3. Yes to all of this! We have definitely pared way back on gift giving. 2 years ago I suggested to my mom that she stop buying gifts for all of us (adult) kids. There are 8 grandchildren so she still have plenty of gifts to give and the holiday still feels festive since the kids have gifts to open. We usually try to sponsor a family in lieu of a gift for my parents. In the past we would get a gift list and shop for the family but now we donate to the organization as I just don’t have time to shop like I did before I had my son in 2018. I have friends that LOVE to shop for presents and I knew they’d never give up on that so instead of buying something for everyone, the 4 of us draw names for a gift exchange and our kids draw names. That way the gift givers still get to buy gifts and the people like me who hate shopping have fewer gifts to buy. 🙂

    I want to love this time of year because I have fond memories of it as a child and want those memories for our son. But I am always asking myself what matters to US. If it’s not important, we don’t do it. Like we are opting out of taking our son to see Santa. He has terrible stranger danger so I know he will scream if we try to make him sit on a strange man’s lap. We’ll skip that ‘holiday must’ until he understand santa and expresses an interest in meeting him!

  4. Adrienne Jubilee says:

    Last Christmas, I was very ill and had just been released from the hospital. We did not have the time or energy to do all of the usual activities or get the usual gifts. It made us focus on the most important parts, which included a live tree with twinkle lights, lights around the house, watching old holiday movies, warm drinks, and some favorite dishes. We spent the actual day with family friends. It was the best Christmas ever. I was filled with gratitude and joy as I recovered. That feeling hasn’t left and we will be repeating the same things this year.

  5. Vrena says:

    This is GREAT! Typically, my teenage son spends the holidays with his other family. And since he’s gotten older, it’s so much easier to ask him what he’d really like money for to buy himself. It’s typically one thing and he can buy it when he has time to. My mom also lives with me. She and I enjoy looking at all the Christmas lights and walking through craft bazaars, looking at all the talented people’s wares, watching football, and eating a family cranberry salad recipe. I enjoy the holiday season so much more now than when I was younger, stressed about how much time we spent with whose family, was equal time, and are they going to like the gift we picked for them. UGGHH! So glad those days are gone!

  6. Soleil says:

    Growing up our holiday gifts were almost always homemade, we didn’t have much money but we also valued the time and effort that went into making the gift.
    With my kids and husband we have a few things we still do that I love. We do a spin on your viewing the lights idea, we bundle up on Christmas eve (we live on the east coast – so sometimes it’s serious bundling up) and walk around our own neighborhood to admire the decorations and the lights. We also always put out our collection of holiday themed books in a central place at home so we can pick them up and read them at will. And even though my kids are almost grown (17 and 19) we still track Santa through NORAD and watch one of our favorite animated holiday shows, from the 1950s and 1960s. I love the idea of experiences for gifts and am trying this year to move more in that direction. Great blog post- thank you!

  7. sarah says:

    I totally agree. We’ll get our three kids a few useful gifts. They are mostly things they need and would get anyway. They usually get a lot of books of course. I’ll give my kids’ teachers some sort of gift card, but other than that I feel no obligation to buy gifts for adults and I expect them to reciprocate with me. My husband and I might get each other a gift if we happen to think of something the other would want, but if we don’t it’s not a big deal. We do have a semi-tradition of having a dinner get-together with some very close friends where everyone is expected to wear sweat or pajama pants.

  8. Ann Bower says:

    I am a nurse who has to take some Holiday Call. Last year was really one for the books in terms of work/call that carried right into New Years. Last January I knew that I didn’t want the Holidays to slide past again in that haze. I am on call Christmas, but the day after Husband and three sons in their 20″s are heading to Mexico until after New Years. Only present is a couple of fun new swim suits. We are all so excited. As the kids age, I am 100% letting go of what anything “has” to look like. My siblings and I are all physically far apart so our gift to each other will be connecting this summer for a group beach trip with all the nephews (7) and the solo girl! I like the “doing”not the “getting.”

  9. Sarah R says:

    We have drastically scaled back all non-holiday-related commitments for December so we can have family time. We are also very intentional about what holiday parties we attend (sorry, work party, you didn’t make the cut this year!)

    I start all my Christmas buying in October. I try to buy off of referral links from bloggers like you and I try to buy from small businesses. We also plan one weekend where we will visit stores in person to knock off as much of our Christmas list as possible.

    I agree with you on sticking with tried and true food. It’s easier on me and setting a good tradition for our family.

  10. Carrie K. says:

    Out of financial necessity, we pared our gift-giving way back several years ago. We only buy for our kids and their spouses. We don’t buy for anyone else, or even each other, and it has relieved so much of the stress of the holidays!

  11. Janet says:

    I am definitely in the “less is more” camp. Just dragging the tree out of the garage and getting it decorated seems Major some years. About 10 years ago, I suggested to my in-laws (with whom we MUST spend each Christmas, but that is a story for another day!) that we stop exchanging “gifts” for the adults as we were basically all just trading gift cards back and forth. Most of them were on board immediately, except for the SIL who whined that she likes getting presents. Now we only buy for the little guys and of course they get books from me, and the adults do white elephant exchange with very lame and silly gifts. It has turned into a very enjoyable way to spend Christmas morning and takes stress and expense out of the equation.

  12. Debi Morton says:

    Two of my sons and their families use a 3-gift Christmas idea for their children, based on the gifts of the Three Wisemen. They are: Something you want, Something you need, Something to read. Then they also get small things in their stockings. It simplifies Christmas shopping so much, and they know the kids are also going to get gifts from us, their grandparents, so they definitely aren’t going without.

  13. Calidaho says:

    My favorite part of Thanksgiving is that a majority of the time is spent with chosen family. A few years ago, I started gathering with my friends who didn’t have family in town. A google doc keeps track of food and beverage assignments (I always call dibs on the stuffing since my mom’s recipe is the BEST) and a couple of dozen people mingle in and out all day. Grazing on this and that. No uncomfortable conversations with relatives who clash on politics or who are nosey about things we’d rather not share. Now that I have a husband whose family is local, I have to spend a couple of hours on Thanksgiving away from my favorite gathering of the year. Thankfully, the celebration starts early and goes late into the night.

  14. Debbie in Alabama says:

    OOOOHHHH, Debi Morton I like that gifting plan! And I made so many batches of the famous Anne Bogel nuts last year, and that has become my gift to have on hand as much as I can! Now it looks like I will have to try the start bread and the black presentation board was genius!!! Look for me to post it on Instagram!ha!

  15. Michelle Wilson says:

    I have really started concentrating on gifting experiences rather than things plus about 3 years ago, I started doing Jolabokoflod. Gifting those closest to me with a book and some chocolate. (I’m happy to say that all the books are chosen and everything else is done as well.) I love Thanksgiving and can enjoy that time completely.

  16. Joan says:

    We have a quiet Christmas and Thanksgiving too. All of our extended families live far away. The annual live tree is one custom we keep until we are unable to put a big one up. The red Santa bag holds special gifts like a wanted book or a cute gift that is special is a tradition we keep and love every year.
    Joan

  17. Shyla Strathman says:

    I always cooked Thanksgiving for relatives in the area. People would bring wine, my Mom would make a pie or 2, but other than that, I’d be doing all the cooking/cleaning for days. Last year, we took a family trip to NYC (2 teams we follow were playing in a college basketball tourney in Brooklyn). We ate lunch on Thanksgiving at an Irish pub! This year, we are flying to DC because my older son just started a job in VA. I don’t know what we’ll cook, but I am looking forward to less kitchen stress (do we really need 2 veggies, sweet AND mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, etc.?). We may just do appetizers, watch football, and play cards. Yay for finding a new way to experience a thankful time together.

  18. Donna says:

    Hi Anne, my family also favors Thanksgiving, no gifts, no pressure. Plus all the interesting foods with recipes handed down for generations, French Meat Stuffing is their favorite. On another note, your blog is the first blog that I have read faithfully and I wait with great anticipation for your new posts. We seem to have the same taste in books. I love your blog.
    Donna

  19. Carissa says:

    Thanksgiving is more about the time together it seems than Christmas because kids tend to want to rush dinner to get to the presents. Growing up my parents enforced the four present rule: One thing to wear, one thing you need, one thing you want, and a book. I generally ended up with two because because I generally wanted a book. It was their way of off setting the gifts of toys they knew the grandparents and aunts and uncle would still give not matter what they would say.

  20. Pam says:

    I also prefer Thanksgiving to Christmas, although the former is in the rear view mirror up here in Canada. No pressure, just a good meal – we do a potluck turkey dinner with all the trimmings, and a visit with four generations of extended family.
    Christmas is more stressful, but not that much, as I spend a lot less time shopping and decorating. No massive gift exchange or stocking stuffers anymore, and I’d be happy to drop the little that we still do with extended family. I’m trying to downsize, so I’m not really interested in getting more Things at Xmas or my birthday. My partner knows that, and encourages me to buy whatever I want, and he’ll wrap it up for me for Christmas. Most years, we exchange bottles of wine and boxes of chocolates! Notable exceptions include a new tablet and a new smartphone for me, over the past two years. (Insert happy face). As for decorating, I’ve gone very minimal in the last 20 years or so. No tree, just a few small seasonal items scattered around the home. I just wish I was a better/more motivated baker! Shortbread cookies are a must at Christmas, I think. And gingerbread.

  21. another Sarah says:

    I actually had a near-fight with a frenemy recently about Xmas plans. She was critical of what she attended last year, at a mutual friend’s. That it was too casual, that dinner didn’t happen until 7, etc. Didn’t live up to her expectations. (Never you mind, choosy beggar!) I defended Thanksgiving as the ‘sitting down at table’ holiday, and Christmas as the ‘lounging around munching’ holiday…but it made me realize just how many other values I don’t share with Frenemy! And that I need to call up Mutual Friend and make some plans…

    • Anne says:

      I hope your frenemy situation resolves itself in a satisfying way, but I especially want to say: I like the sound of a “lounging around munching” holiday. 🙂

  22. Marion says:

    We have a family dinner on Christmas day. Oatmeal is the meal for Christmas Eve ,just like Scrooge. The live tree is always decorated at least two weeks before Christmas so it can be enjoyed before it is ready to come down a day after New Year’s Day.
    Marion

  23. Carissa says:

    Yes! Love this. So much of what you said also applies to weddings, but we certainly have to push back against our culture a little to “leave the trappings”. I’m looking forward to reading the book in 2020!

  24. Marilyn says:

    We always have cocoa on Christmas Eve with a few Christmas cookies. My twin sister has warm plain milk since she is allergic to chocolate. We always fill stockings with little trinkets.
    Marilyn

  25. S An says:

    As a book person, it is challenging to give other than books, especially to grandchildren. However, our libraries know few boundaries; even kitchen update included a bookcase! That 3 or 4 gifts for each is sound! As to holiday foods: Your spiced nuts sound delicious. I suggest another variety: Frank Stitt’s Spiced Pecans in Southern Table, p.68. His include butter and olive oil, brown sugar, pinch of black pepper, cayenne (I omit this), and the unusual: chopped fresh rosemary; quite yummy, not too sweet, and as addictive as yours.

  26. kathy b says:

    I just had to laugh because my cousin sent me a photo circa 1965 of us dressed for Christmas. My mom had ONE decoration over the fireplace. A plastic Santa head. My memories of Christmas are full of lights, tree, decor etc. But in reality , my smart mom had ONE decoration besides the tree!!! Im going to find that Santa.

  27. Kristina says:

    Yes! My husband and I are going on one of our “bucket list” vacations this year, and have decided to do a very low budget Christmas for us, and keep our extended family gift giving at it’s normal level. We have had great discussions on what makes Christmas feel like Christmas and how we can do more of that and less of the commercial chaos. For us that is more candles, putting our tree up earlier and spending lots of the time with books in front of the fire. I think it’s going to be our best Christmas yet!

  28. Melanie Beisert says:

    This post is exactly what I needed right now! I love Thanksgiving AND Christmas! I love this time of year! But I often put too much pressure on myself to get things absolutely perfect. I also procrastinate way too much! Last year I did so much better during the Christmas season by buying presents for family members as I saw something that I thought they might like. I didn’t overthink it… If it was reasonable, I bought it. In the days before Christmas when I’m usually frantic buying “things” just to fulfill gifts, I was relaxed and at peace. I’m going to put that into practice again this year, and I’m going to make my meal prep lists for both holidays now, so that I don’t get sucked into experimenting with new recipes. Tried and true is what my family wants and it is exactly what they will get. Along with a batch of love and quality time together.

  29. Hilary says:

    Christmas posts always leave me feeling a little guilty. I love the over-the-top “ness” of the holiday season. I love the shopping, decorating, parties, cookies, etc. I *LOVE* it. I’m bummed that Thanksgiving is so late this year because that means one less weekend between then & Christmas! I like that we finally have a good excuse to get together with friends & family as I feel we all become hermits in the winter and I miss the hubbub of the holidays.

  30. Katrina says:

    I learned the great art of pretending to be Santa from my Dad who was GENIUS at it. It had nothing to do with gifts — we were relatively poor — and everything to do with drama. On Christmas Eve when I was little, I woke up to the sound of Santa and all the reindeer landing on the roof. (Ends up he was in the attic over my room with two large sticks and a set of jingle bells in his mouth, acting out the parts of landing reindeer.) He did LOADS of clever things like this for my brothers and me. We just went bonkers for it.

    About 25 years ago, when I was in my early teens, I noticed that lots of young kids in our neighborhood no longer believed in Santa, which crushed me. So in Dad-fashion, I got old-fashioned paper, and slowly wrote out personalized letters in calligraphy to each child in our neighborhood from Santa. I attached a candy cane to each, and then my mother drove me and my best friend out late on Christmas Eve and we put them inside each kid’s front door. The next morning all the kids went bananas with their notes. All the parents were tickled and tried to figure out who it was, but my friend and I played dumb. Then the rumor spread that an old red pickup trick, driven by Santa, had made its way through the neighborhood. We let that rumor stick. And it became one of those unexplained mysteries in our neighborhood for YEARS. I don’t know if anyone ever figured it out.

    Bringing Santa alive for little kids costs nothing but imagination and a straight face.

  31. Carol says:

    Thank you Anne! This is one of the sweetest posts ever. I love all the cozy factors of the holidays with the candles, my bedroom tree is up early this year and the comfort food cooking has begun. I have already made 4 batches of your Addictive Spiced Nuts, too! This is the first year with all the kids grown and in college or away with careers, so it’s giving me more time to reflect on what they remember fondly. It’s the simple orange in the toe of the stocking, the surprise beanie baby hidden in their bedrooms, baking cookies to share with neighbors, church Christmas events, reading Luke 2 and other Christmas stories, and the jigsaw puzzles all through the holidays. I have tried to give my kids just 3 gifts and it’s relatively simple to pull off; one gold, one frankincense and one myrrh type of gift (a “gold” or most wanted gift, average price gift and a simple/homemade gift, plus stockings!). Christmas is celebrating the birth of Christ with the ones you love. Thank you again for such a lovely post. May you and your family be blessed this Christmas season (and enjoy Thanksgiving!)

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