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How to Simplify the Holiday Season and Make It Stress Free

It feels like as soon as we tuck our little trick-or-treaters into bed on Halloween, plastic skulls and scarecrows go on clearance and Hanukkah and Christmas decorations go up overnight. Holiday songs sound from store speakers before the snow even hits the ground, and we all start to feel the pressure to be “happy, merry, and bright.” By the time Thanksgiving dinner rolls around, we’re exhausted, and by the new year, we’re burned out from cooking, baking, decorating, shopping, partying, caroling, and wrapping.

There’s no doubt the winter holiday season can be overwhelming and stressful. A 2015 survey conducted by Healthline found that 62% of respondents reported “very or somewhat” elevated stress levels during the holidays, while just 10% said they don’t experience any stress at all.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s holidays might be more stressful than ever, as families worry about how to stay safe while celebrating. Everyone is tired of social isolation, and the thought of having to give up cherished winter rituals is a bitter pill to swallow. And with unemployment still at record levels, many families are also worried about putting food on the table and making major holidays like Christmas Day special for their kids.

In the wake of all this uncertainty and stress, what can we do to slow things down, spend less, and have a more peaceful holiday?

Why We Experience Holiday Stress

For some people, the winter holidays are a long-awaited and cherished season. For others, Thanksgiving stress and Black Friday madness provide an ominous hint of things to come. Why do many of us feel so much stress each December?

The culprits behind holiday stress are different for everyone. One person might feel stress because people expect them to host Christmas dinner for extended family each year. Another person might feel stress because of their family’s mile-long gift list. Some may even experience a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder.

While everyone is different, there are some common triggers for our holiday stress.

Too Many Priorities

Our brains can contribute to holiday stress simply because we aren’t used to meeting the demands that come along during this time of year. Neurobiologists use the term “shifting set” to describe our ability to update our coping and thinking strategies in a continually changing environment. While most of us can do this successfully throughout the year, it’s more challenging come December because we have so much more to juggle.

According to Harvard Medical School, shifting set requires a combination of skills like time management, the ability to switch focus, attentiveness, planning and organizing, and accurately remembering details. The less skilled we are at adapting to a changing environment, the more overwhelmed we’re likely to feel.


Another reason we get so stressed is that we often feel pressured to spend more than we can afford on holiday gifts for loved ones instead of looking for ways to save money on gifts.

According to research conducted by global consulting firm Deloitte, holiday retail sales are expected to climb 1% to 1.5% in 2020. That’s a modest increase compared to last year’s gain of 4.1%, as reported by the National Retail Federation (NRF), which is primarily due to the ongoing pandemic.

We all want to save money during the holiday season and experience less stress, but many people end up going overboard and buying extra gifts they didn’t budget for.

We also spend money on corollary expenses like gas for driving to different shops, gift bags and wrapping paper, last-minute gifts and impulse-buy stocking stuffers, and food while we’re out shopping. Once the holiday high has worn off and the credit card bills arrive in January, we experience the sinking feeling we spent too much — again.

Lengthy Shopping Season

Another added stressor is that the holiday shopping season seems to get longer and longer. And this year, consumers are expected to start holiday shopping earlier than ever. According to the NRF’s 2020 Winter Holiday Trends, 74% of retailers believe consumers will spread their shopping out over several months in 2020. Half of respondents believe consumers will begin shopping for the winter holidays in October.

How to Simplify Your Holiday

Wouldn’t it be great if you could look back on this time with real joy and the realization you didn’t spend more than you could afford once the holidays were over? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know you took advantage of this time with your loved ones and only spent your time and energy on the people and events that really meant something to you?

These are just some of the advantages of simplifying the holidays, and there are many ways to make that happen.

1. Strive for White Space

If you look at most family calendars during December, you’ll probably see appointments and commitments written in most squares, including school plays, work parties, neighborhood parties, volunteering and dinner commitments, and religious events. Even our kids are overscheduled during the holidays.

One of the best ways to slow things down is to strive for white space on your calendar — days with no commitments at all. These are the days you can spend at home, taking it slow and relaxing. And there are many activities you can do to relax and make lasting memories.

2. Find a New Way to Celebrate Holiday Traditions

This year, many families will avoid holiday travel due to COVID-19. Others will break with tradition and cancel their annual Kwanzaa or Christmas dinner to stay safe.

Not getting to follow your usual holiday traditions can be a significant source of stress. That’s why it’s crucial to focus on what you can do safely rather than what you can’t.

This year, make the most of holiday traditions in a different way — you could even start some new ones. For example:

  • If you can’t visit your family this year, try making one family member’s signature recipe. Call them a few days in advance to ask them how they make it. Then, connect with them virtually on the big day so they can see or hear how it turned out.
  • Use videoconferencing software like Zoom to plan a virtual family gift exchange or sing holiday songs with each other.
  • Send a care package to friends or family members who will be alone during the holidays or can’t get out due to health concerns.
  • With your friends or family, work on a shared project that benefits all of you. If the pandemic has you separated, think about how you can do it in different stages or virtually.
  • Pack some hot chocolate and drive around to look at holiday decorations.
  • Find a local drive-in movie theater and watch a holiday movie. You can find one near you at
  • Get your kids some Advent calendars so they can countdown the days until Christmas morning.
  • Take this idea from Real Simple and host a pajamakah party. If you have friends or family in the area, you can amp it up by planning out your Hanukkah feast and then having everyone drop off at least one travel-friendly dish to each other. When it’s time to eat, you can all don your pajamas, connect over Zoom, and enjoy the flavors of the season.
  • Learn to make all your family’s favorite Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa dishes so you can offer to host next year.

The pandemic is also going to put a damper on many kids’ plans to sit on Santa’s lap. According to CNN, malls with live Santa visits will ensure a completely contactless experience. Santa will be in a snowglobe, behind a plexiglass barrier, or sitting behind decorations that prevent children from getting near.

Fortunately, you can do something different (and safer). Use JingleRing to schedule a live virtual visit with Santa and Mrs. Clause. Packages start at $24.95

If this is outside your budget, have your child write a letter to Santa instead. Follow the United States Postal Service guidelines so your child can receive a letter from Santa in return (spoiler: You have to write the response and secretly mail that too). Mail the letters no later than Dec. 7 to ensure a return letter by Christmas.

3. Simplify Your Party

Throwing a holiday party for friends and family can be enormously fun. It can also be tremendously stressful and expensive if you’re not careful. There’s always a temptation to buy one more lavish decoration or a new set of holiday plates to create a get-together everyone will remember.

This year, many people will have to cancel holiday parties due to the pandemic. However, there are still ways you can gather safely with friends and family to celebrate. One option is for all of you to quarantine for two weeks before the party to ensure no one is sick with the COVID-19 virus. Another option is to form a pandemic bubble, a group of people who are all following strict safety protocols so they can all gather safely in person.

However you go about it, this is not the year to go overboard with decorations and food. We often forget during this time of frenzy that our guests are coming because they want to spend time with us. Fancy decor and a luxurious menu matter far less to your guests than your time and attention. They probably won’t notice you didn’t wrap the stairway with fresh greenery, and they won’t mind eating on plain china — or even paper plates. And if they do notice, they’re not likely to care.

But they’ll definitely remember if you’re stressed that everything isn’t perfect. They might even feel guilty you spent more than you could afford on your party or that you’re stuck in the kitchen instead of spending time with them.

So instead of throwing a holiday bash that stresses both you and your bank account, set a party budget and stick to it. If you use a budgeting tool like Tiller you can add a holiday party budget category and allocate a portion of your total expenses to that.

To some, hosting a holiday party on a budget sounds more stressful than going all-out. But setting financial limits, even strict ones, can relieve stress and give you the freedom to enjoy your party more.

For example, instead of cooking everything yourself or having your party catered, go for a potluck dinner and ask everyone to bring a dish to share. Pick a theme, such as hors-d’oeuvres or bread and soup, or a cuisine, such as Thai or “family recipes,” and ask guests to bring a dish that matches the theme. For guests who can’t cook, create a wish list of incidentals you need, such as paper plates or ice, and ask them to contribute that way.

Instead of doing over-the-top decorations, keep the holiday decor simple and intimate with just a few decorations and some candles. You can also check the dollar store or local thrift stores for cheap or vintage decorations. Then plan some budget-friendly holiday activities to do with your guests after you eat. For example, you could make paper snowflakes — Martha Stewart has a great tutorial — or do holiday karaoke.

The rule here is to keep it simple. Your friends and family members want to see you, not a perfectly decorated house or an elaborately cooked meal.

Homemade Gift Box Decoration Christmas Diy

4. Practice the 4-Gift Rule

Some parents follow a four-gift rule during the holidays. The rule limits the number of presents parents have to buy and keeps clutter and possessions to a minimum. The rule is simple to remember and follow. Each year, kids get:

  1. Something they want
  2. Something they need
  3. Something to wear
  4. Something to read

Another version of this rule replaces “something to wear” with “something to do.” And that’s it. Try following the four-gift rule with your family this holiday season — it’s truly liberating.

You can also follow the example of the titular character from the 1995 movie “Sabrina.” When she returns from Paris, she gives her father three gifts:

  1. “For going out.” (She hands him an expensive tie.)
  2. “For staying in.” (She hands him a bottle of scotch.)
  3. “And for laughs.” (She puts a beret on his head.)

This formula is another simple and fun way to keep gift-giving at a minimum this year.

5. Give Experience Gifts

Instead of spending your afternoons and weekends cruising the mall or deep-diving into Amazon looking for the “perfect gift,” go a different route and give someone an experience.

Experience gifts have multiple benefits:

  1. They don’t add clutter to someone’s home.
  2. They create lasting memories.
  3. They’re something the recipient can learn and grow from.
  4. They can enrich the recipient’s life, boost their self-confidence, push them out of their comfort zone, or even help them fulfill a lifelong dream.

For example, if your partner has always dreamed of writing a novel, sign them up for a creative writing class. If your sibling has always wanted to try skydiving, book them a class with an instructor.

Most people want to have new experiences. But between the demands of work and family, they don’t always set aside time for themselves. But if the experience is a gift, they have an excuse to make time for it to avoid seeming ungrateful by letting it go to waste.

And you’re sure to find one for everyone on your list because experience gift inspiration abounds. Examples include:

  • An art class, such as painting, glassblowing, or pottery
  • Music classes
  • A parent’s day off — with no cleaning, cooking, or child care responsibilities
  • A specialized cooking class, such as Tuscan food, French pastries, or home brewing
  • An annual pass to a state park or national park
  • A family trip to an escape room (part scavenger hunt, part mystery, adventures like The Great Escape Room are available across the country)
  • An annual pass to your local zoo, art museum, science museum, nature center, or planetarium
  • Season tickets to a sports team, drama group, or orchestra
  • Tickets (seasonal or one-time) to a local amusement park or rock-climbing gym
  • Classes or one-time activities like horseback riding, rockhounding (amateur geology), scuba diving, self-defense, yoga, or martial arts
  • A haircut, massage, or facial at a luxury salon or a DIY spa day
  • For your partner, a special date night out
  • Sign up kids 3 and up for Little Passports, which puts them in touch with a fictional globetrotting pen pal who sends a monthly letter along with games and activities that teach kids about world geography
  • To encourage reading, get kids ages 2 and up a monthly subscription to KidArtLit, which sends a high-quality picture book and corresponding art project monthly
  • To promote bonding and storytelling, give a shared mother-daughter, father-son, father-daughter, or mother-son journal (for ages 9 and up), which offers parents a chance to build their child’s writing skills and both a way to compare different perspectives around family issues, share secrets, record memories, and talk to each other in a risk-free, rule-free way

6. Simplify Your Gift Swaps

Many people have multiple white elephant gift exchanges each year, from employer-sponsored work events to church group parties and friend groups. White elephant gifts are typically $10 or $15 or less, but they can add up. They’re stressful to shop for, as you have to find something a wide variety of people might like. They’re also wasteful, both financially and for the environment, because you often end up buying something the eventual recipient will forget in a few days.

Instead of shopping for white elephant gifts, encourage your group or organization to have a used gift swap in which you give away your own possessions — something nice that you don’t use. It makes more sense to regift something than buy something cheap they’ll just donate (or throw away) anyway.

Better yet, ask them to skip the gift swap this year. Do you really need to exchange gifts with your work colleagues to make them feel special? Instead of giving them a gift, tell them how they made your work life better or easier this year and thank them for their kindness. They’ll remember that far more than a scarf or gift card.

Or you can ask everyone to bring what they would have spent on a white elephant gift and donate the money to an organization providing relief to families during the pandemic, such as Feeding America or Toys for Tots.

7. Remember to Give

The holidays are a perfect time to give your energy and time to others in your community who need help. And there are several ways to make a difference this year.

  • Donate Change. Take your change jar to a coin-counting machine, and donate the proceeds to charity.
  • Give Blood. There is a critical need for donated blood right now. Contact the Red Cross to find out how you can donate blood safely.
  • Donate School Supplies. Local schools are strapped for cash due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many teachers end up buying school supplies with their own money. Call a local school to find out if they have a wish list.
  • Donate Food. Local food banks are scrambling to meet the needs of hungry community members. Donate nonperishable food to your local food bank.
  • Help a Senior. Seniors have been especially hard-hit during the pandemic because of their increased need to isolate. Find a senior in your neighborhood or community and offer to pick up their groceries, rake leaves, shovel snow, or drop off a plate of homemade cookies.

Your kids can also learn essential lessons from giving. All too often, kids get caught up with “getting” during the holidays. Every year, people ask them, “What do you want for Christmas?” and they can come up with hundreds of toys and books they’d love to have. It can get overwhelming for everyone.

Instead of focusing on getting this year, ask your kids what they can give to others. Zoe Kim writes on minimalist blog Raising Simple that she does this with her kids every year. Some of the answers her kids have come up with include:

  • Give hugs
  • Give homemade bread
  • Hold the door for someone
  • Give a pencil to a classmate
  • Help a neighbor with yardwork

Asking children what they can give changes their perspective and empowers them to see all the ways they can make a difference for other people. It also allows them to use their strengths, talents, and experience to enrich someone else’s life.

Also, kids love to make things. Come up with some easy DIY gifts you can create with your children and let them take the lead with the project.

Another option is to give kids or teens a set amount — say, $25 or $50 — and tell them the money is theirs to donate to the charity of their choice. Some kid-centered charities include:

  • Heifer International, which works to end hunger by supplying families with livestock and new skills
  • Kaboom, which works to build safe playgrounds in low-income areas
  • Reach Out & Read, which works to increase literacy by providing pediatricians’ offices with books to give away during checkups

8. Rethink Christmas Eve

Many people use Christmas Eve to shop or attend one last holiday party. Although it can be fun, it’s also hectic and wearing.

Instead, start a new Christmas Eve tradition the way Icelandic people do with Jolabokaflod, which roughly translates as “the Christmas book flood.”

The concept is as relaxing and charming as it gets. On Christmas Eve, Icelanders give each other a book, which they start reading right away, usually in front of a fire with a mug of hot chocolate or Christmas ale.

If you’re not sure what books to buy for your family, check out Amazon’s list of 100 books to read in a lifetime or 100 children’s books to read in a lifetime.

Final Word

Hilary Barnett offers a wonderful piece of advice on lifestyle blog No Sidebar: “[T]his month, recognize that good is the enemy of great. Choose what matters to you and relentlessly stick to it. Delete and decline what doesn’t fit.”

When we spread ourselves too thin and try to do it all, we end up doing everything poorly and burning out in the process. And that doesn’t do our families or us any good. However, if we focus on the few things that really matter and politely disregard the rest, we can give ourselves fully to those moments, truly engage with the people we love, and create a holiday season centered on memories instead of money.

This year, keeping things simple is even more vital because of the added stress and financial strains of the pandemic. We need to slow down, go easy on ourselves, and focus on what matters most: the people we love.

What are you doing to slow down this holiday? What would you like to cut from your holiday season to make things less stressful?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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