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.
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.