5 reasons I’m not simplifying Christmas

It’s that time of year again — time for a round of blog posts, ebooks and magazine articles on how to simplify Christmas. “Simple” is a powerful word in our culture. There’s a reason Real Simple magazine is called that, as opposed to “Real Easy” or “Real Quick,” even though there’s nothing simple about $400 linen pants, and other such items that make it into the photo spreads. “Simple” taps into a narrative that we are all so busy and harried and starved for time that our fantasies require stripping life of all we can and thus achieving happiness through calm (and muted earth tones in our living room decor).

But here’s why I will not be simplifying Christmas this year:

1. Simplifying Christmas implies you were doing too much before. I’ve never channeled Martha Stewart through the holiday season. Most years I’ve done very little baking, crafting, decorating, or even extraneous shopping. I haven’t been throwing elaborate parties. Since these are all enjoyable things to do on occasion, why not use the holiday excuse to give them a try?

2. Christmas comes once a year. Related to the above point. Since I don’t feel like the rest of my life is crazy busy (because I have more time than I think), adding a little extra activity during December won’t hurt anything. I plan to make a List of Holiday Dreams, aka a December bucket list, with traditions I’d like to start. There’s plenty of time for not doing stuff in January.

3. I enjoy my children’s enthusiasm. We’re in that wonderful stage where we have three little kids who are going to be so, so excited for Christmas. Eventually they’ll become cynical teenagers, but right now they’re still into the magic. So why should their memories of Christmas be of not baking cookies because mom dislikes cleaning up? Yes, the stuffers that wind up in stockings are often silly, but it’s so, so fun to see a bulging stocking and pull treasure after treasure out. What, exactly, am I saving my energy for?

4. I’m naturally cheap. Another theme running through “simplify Christmas” literature is that we overspend in December, only to look upon our credit card bills in horror come January. Better to spend less on gifts and give fewer of them. But I have the opposite problem. When Jasper was in daycare, I asked the center director what I should get his teachers. She said they’d probably like cash, which warmed my rational economic heart. But when I brought the cards with cash in them on the last day before Christmas, I happened to see that one teacher had kept a list of what each family had given, so she could thank them specifically and I saw that we were giving, by far, the lowest amount on there. I like being generous but have to consciously remind myself that what I consider generous is often way, way below what other people consider generous, and giving appropriate gifts is a social skill I need to learn much as I have learned to make small talk at parties.

5. I like going out. I work at home. I have three small children who have to be strapped into car seats if I want to go anywhere in the evenings or on weekends, so there isn’t that much of that. It’s not like I have so many parties that don’t involve bouncy houses that I’m going to the rest of the year. I have two dressy Saturday night parties to attend this December and I’m thrilled. Why would I not go just so I could watch TV?

Will you be simplifying Christmas? Why or why not?

Photo courtesy flickr user tamburix. I wish my trees looked like this.



32 Responses to 5 reasons I’m not simplifying Christmas


  1. Oh, this post warms my heart. I can’t bear Real Simple and it’s absurdly high-cost high-gloss simple ‘schtick.’ I’m naturally careful with my money, and am simple without making a big deal out of it. We have an annual Boxing Day open house on the 26th that usually brings in 30 people, that is fun, unassuming and never breaks the bank.

  2. That sounds pretty much like us, but what we have given to daycare teachers (in the form of Target gift-cards) is generally more than what other folks here give. I bet you that it is the same as or less than what you give. The difference? We live in a small town.
    ***
    Real Simple magazine’s suggestions would always have me complicating my life. I guess I’m just already zen. So simple I have transcended the need for magazines telling me how to run my life.

    • Laura says:

      @NicoleandMaggie – it may be the small town thing. But I’ve noticed we have this problem with wine, too. Much of what I drink is of the $15 and under variety (ok, $8 and under variety) but we had to learn to keep a few bottles in the house that specifically cost $30 or more, and label them as such for ourselves, so we could give them to people as hostess gifts. I think we once brought a $10 bottle to someone accidentally and then realized what we had done.

      • I’ve been pregnant, nursing, or trying to get pregnant most of my adult (non-graduate student) life, so we tend to just bring the extra wine bottles that previous guests have left us. So I have no idea how much the wine we bring costs. In the rare cases in which we’re out of other people’s wine, I always buy the same thing, Ferrani-Carrero Fume Blanc, because that’s what my elegant relatives (who are all from Napa) served at the party after my grandmother’s funeral and everybody remarked on how delightful it was, and what a great discovery. Then later my department chair whose daughter is a master chef ordered it at dinner for a job candidate. I understand it is a crisp white wine with fruity notes. Excellent with seafood and poultry. The internet tells me it is $15.

  3. Karen A. says:

    I think those “simplify” articles are directed at a different audience. Like you, I’m naturally frugal and generally have a simple approach to social life for much of the year. I tend to need advice on the other end of the spectrum–like, how to actually throw a party that is larger than 5 people. I haven’t done many of those, but the few times I have I’ve enjoyed it. However, those few times are enough for me. I know my limits, and I tend to know how to respect them better than any magazine. I think I read “Real Simple” at the doctor’s office a couple of times (not that I would actually buy it–where’s the simplicity in that? ;-) and it just never seemed to have any advice that spoke to me.

    And welcome to the (not-so) wonderful world of figuring out teacher gifts. I’ve come around to being very supportive of the limits on teacher gifts imposed by public schools, and to thinking that something like a yes, simple, hand-made thank-you note is best.

    • Laura says:

      I want to clarify here that I really like Real Simple and read it frequently (I have been a subscriber since 2004 and started writing a few pieces for them last year). I think they have perfectly figured out that upper-middle-class-30-49-year-old-woman zeitgeist, but I just find that zeitgeist incredibly funny. Like the linen pants thing.

      • Calee says:

        Aren’t linen pants the opposite of simple? I owned a lovely pair once but every time I sat down they wrinkled. Horribly. Ironing or a trip to the dry cleaner does not equal simple to me.

        • Laura says:

          @Calee- it’s the bittersweet reality of linen. It is a beautiful fabric, but not designed for real people.

  4. Amy Vachon says:

    Laura,
    This post is heavenly. I do try to cut out things I truly don’t enjoy that can creep into holiday expectations (like I think I will allow myself to skip holiday cards this year), but I absolutely love the full day of cookie baking I’ve done for 15 years with my girlfrield – resulting in about 15 kinds of cookies and a huge sugar high. It’s a big part of what Christmas is about for me. Doing this stuff is a privilege, and if we’re living balanced lives in general, a little imbalance for extra holiday fun can be invigorating! Amen, Laura! Hope you have a wonderful, awe-filled Christmas with your kids.

    • Laura says:

      @Amy- 15 kinds of cookies sounds awesome. I saw a spread in redbook on how to make a ton of different kinds from a few simple batters and I like wanted all of them.

  5. Twin Mom says:

    I’m not busy and don’t have to optimize my time, so we love Christmas, when there’s lots to do. We visited Santa and listened to a high school chorus at the strip mall last night. We’ll visit the zoo during parent teacher conferences and may visit the live nativity when it’s on. We’re going to the mini-musical at the local middle school tonight, ’cause what better introduction to the theater could there be?

    Gift giving is tough, because so much depends on your economic situation and that of the recipient. I have friends (because I try) who are not middle class, and the situations of people who qualify for WIC and food stamps are very challenging. Many of them are great parents, despite the challenges.

    • Laura says:

      @Twin Mom- live nativities are awesome when you have little kids. We went to one once and it was absolutely freezing out but the kids didn’t complain about the temperature. I’ll have to find one around here this year.

    • Cara Marcano says:

      actually this is a good point that the giving of christmas is a major tenant of christianity – as in not giving just toys to your own kids but giving of your time and your resources… being more generous in a focused charitable way is something i need to work on … also the live nativity thing is a GREAT idea !

  6. oilandgarlic says:

    Like you, I tend to keep social obligations to a minimum and spending in check on a regular basis. I tend to keep the holidays simple, too, but maybe with young kids, it’s time that I do go overboard just a little bit!

    I think Real Simple does have some good tips and articles but simplicity doesn’t equal cheap for sure!

  7. Sara Malton says:

    Thank you so much for this post, Laura! It feels like a fresh of breath air and made me, all of a sudden realize that *that* is what has made Christmas more stressful for me in recent years — not all the things I have to do, but constantly thinking about it in the negative, in terms of what things I *should* not want to do or what things I *should* avoid! Thank you for helping me realize it’s okay just to go ahead and make the cookies! And to enjoy it!

    • Sara Malton says:

      That’s obviously a “breath of fresh air!” I obviously have too much on my mind, like scented candles, holiday home spray, etc. etc.!

      Thanks once again!

      • Laura says:

        @Sara – I’m like semi-allergic to scented candles, so that’s not really on my list but yes, I like special Christmas stuff. If you don’t like keeping it simple, don’t!

  8. Susan says:

    I don’t expect my Christmas to be crazy busy either, since I’ve managed to fit work and school into my schedule. After my final exam in mid-December, Christmas shopping and gift-wrapping will be a piece of cake! I don’t decorate my apartment either but help my parents put up their Christmas tree at Thanksgiving break. I look forward to Christmas!

    • Laura says:

      @Susan – it’s funny how it’s become cool to “dread” the holidays. I really do look forward to it. Thanksgiving is the only time all year I cook for tons of people so why not revel in it?

      • Susan says:

        Yeah, really! Holidays are supposed to be a joy. The meal preparation is a little work, I help out my mom and we drink champagne while the bird is roasting. Have a happy Thanksgiving!

      • Karen says:

        The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is my favorite time of year too. My birthday is in early December, so it falls right in that time, and I think that plays a role. My husband and I usually go out somewhere for my birthday, to a concert and/or a nice dinner and everything is decorated. It seems like everyone and the whole city is celebrating, not just us. I love advent and the Christmas season. I love baking cookies, and I even love thinking back over the year and writing the family holiday letter, with pictures and layout.

        I really dislike cooking meals, though, and I don’t even really like eating most traditional Thanksgiving foods, so I have a harder time getting interested in that holiday. Most of the advice about how to simplify Thanksgiving, even from Real Simple, doesn’t strike me as simple enough. In recent years we’ve gone on a hike, or out to a movie. But if you enjoy cooking for a lot of people, then sure, why not revel in it?

        • Susan says:

          Thanks for mentioning Advent. It’s why I think of this time of year as more of a preparation for Christmas than a time to get crazy with Christmas crafts and decorations.

  9. I love Christmas and Thanksgiving. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is my favorite time of year. As far as simplifying goes, I think it depends on how you define simple. My idea of a simple holiday is one where I avoid doing things I find pointless or unpleasant in favor of things that bring real meaning to my life (or the life of my family). So I wouldn’t say that we are simplifying, but we may have a simple Christmas, focusing more on what matters most to us, even if it involves less stuff or hoopla and more family quality time. (Not that those two things have to be mutually exclusive).

  10. Cara Marcano says:

    Honestly as a mom and small business owner I just shoot for holidays that involve real vacation days — that is if most of the world is off black friday this year.. I am really going to try to just be off with my kids. Grounds For Sculpture’s winter wonderland (NJ) is on my list. anything with santa, the trains, the xmas cartoon movies. the holidays with little ones are a real blessing. I want to get my kids an indoor trampoline but they range in price from $59 to $359 at wal mart — anyone have any suggestions or thoughts on if I really need to spend $359? GREAT post.. !
    Cooking will go on but I will do NONE of it.

    • Twin Mom says:

      My 3 year old twins are getting the one that’s $65 shipped from Target. It will go either inside or on the deck depending on weather. It has a bar to hang on to (makes them feel safer) and they love it at the indoor park. If you have an older child/live in a more urban area, craigslist could be a good choice too.

      I doubt we’ll ever have a larger outdoor one, in part for insurance liability reasons.

  11. Cloud says:

    I wouldn’t say I’m simplifying, but I did resolve that this year, I wouldn’t do any holiday things I don’t actually want to do. So goodbye work party and hello tour of the Christmas lights at the Del Mar race track! We made a list of fun things we wanted to do this summer, and that really helped us enjoy our summer, so we’re trying the same thing this Holiday season, too. It seems sort of sad to have to make a list of fun to have, but I think it helps us remember to prioritize the fun things and not just keep putting them off for later.

    • ARC says:

      I don’t think making a “fun list” is sad at all – first, it gets the whole family involved and lets you off the hook of having to be the cruise director quite so much, and second, we can never remember what we intended to do when we actually have free time to do it. If we have a list, we can add to it gradually, then just look at it and pick when we’re planning an outing.

  12. The only people I know IRL who are stressed out by Christmas are the subset of my husband’s lower income relatives who don’t have enough money to buy the gifts that are expected of them. (Even folks with crazy relatives have stopped feeling the need to visit them every holiday.) For Real Simple’s target demographic, I suspect it is a manufactured problem.

  13. ARC says:

    I LOOOOVE Christmas and I’m not at all religious. And it is so much more fun with little kids, as my hubby doesn’t share my crazy enthusiasm for the holidays, though he’s starting to come around a bit.

    I think “simplifying” a la Real Simple really comes down to “don’t do things you don’t want to do”, like Cloud mentioned above. I think a lot of people have extended family obligations around these holidays and they go through the motions without ever having a conversation about what they’d rather be doing, or how to make difficult situations better.

    I am a huge fan of cookie baking, all things crafty, and putting up the tree right after Thanksgiving so we can enjoy it for as long as possible. I don’t care much about decorating the outside of our house because it’s a pain, and we live at the top of a dead-end street, so random people don’t drive by anyway.

  14. Sarah says:

    So well put Laura!
    I really agree with everything you have said here.
    If making Christmas a special season for your family is not worthy of your time and energy, what is really?
    Three cheers for stockings bulging with trinkets, kitchens dusty with flour and covered in small handprints, and for boozy Christmas parties for us grownups!
    I too don’t have much social activity at night time, and really look forward to my employer’s Christmas party! A good excuse to wear a nice dress and perhaps motivation to reign in my holiday eating. haha