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How Parents Can Simplify the Holidays

by Katrina Kenison

Katrina Kenison

Katrina Kenison is the author of Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry and The Gift of an Ordinary Day. Read more »

Much as we love the winter holidays, by the time Thanksgiving has come and gone, many of us are feeling a little anxious as well.  We want so much to create memorable celebrations for our families, that it can be hard to separate our sense of duty and obligation from our own intuitive sense of what our children really need, and what we most want for ourselves during this hectic time of year.   

Christmas carols ring from every storefront.  Fat catalogs arrive in the mail, urging us to hurry and place our orders before it's too late. The children produce lists of must-haves.  Meanwhile, an insistent inner voice whispers, "You should do this. . .You should do that..."
We can quiet that voice, and embrace the season, by seeing the month of December as an opportunity for connection, rather than as a series of obligations to go and do and buy.  As the holidays approach, it helps to pause and ask:  What part of this season is most meaningful to me?  What message do I want my children to absorb from our celebration?  What brings us true joy?  What activities and expectations are we ready to let go? 

The holidays invite us to change the pace of our lives, to slow down and focus on what matters most, to draw loved ones close as we share good food and cherished rituals.  We can consciously choose simplicity over complication. And there is a real sense of relief in saying, "This is enough" -- whether it's enough holiday parties, enough guests at the table, enough presents or simply enough activities for one December Saturday.   

When I find myself wondering, "Can I pull this off?" rather than looking forward to a special day, chances are it's because I've allowed an event to become more extravagant or ambitious than it needs to be.  But when I opt instead for the kinds of simple, heartfelt celebrations that really do enrich our lives, I feel joy instead of stress, and my children relax as well, finding contentment with what is, rather than demanding more. In our quiet times together, we make room for the true spirit of the season.  You can too. Here's how:
Downscale holiday plans and expectations.  Keep the focus on family, on meaningful traditions and simple activities that replenish rather than exhaust. 

Have a family conversation about why fewer gifts doesn't mean less of a celebration.  It might even mean allowing more time to enjoy a couple of special things.  A gift of a sled, for example, could also include the gift of an afternoon of sliding, followed by a picnic dinner in front of the fireplace. 

Ask your children what they most love about your family's holiday.  You may be surprised by their answers.  For my sons, it was:  reading our Christmas books aloud, opening the doors on the advent calendar, our annual carol sing with the next-door neighbors, lighting the ting-a-ling on Christmas Eve. . . 
Set a limit at the outset on holiday activities.  One Christmas party is enough. 
Don't feel guilty about skipping events that everyone else attends.  Your children need you and your attention, not more activities.  It is not written anywhere that children need to attend the tree-lighting ceremony downtown, or sit on Santa's lap at the mall, or go to the midnight service at church. . . 

Whether you're decorating the Christmas tree, baking cookies, or making gifts for grandma, remember that the process is more important for your child than the outcome.  Keep it simple, and you and your child will enjoy it more. 

Create small special moments in every day. Open the advent calendar at breakfast time.  Turn off every light in the house at dinner time, light candles, and invite everyone to be perfectly still and perfectly silent for a minute.  Go around the table and ask each family member what they feel grateful for.  Before bed on December nights, gather as a family around the Christmas tree to sing one song or read one Christmas story.   

Celebrate the holidays as a season of giving and doing for others.  Grab the kids and head next door to shovel an elderly neighbor's walkway; make Christmas cards together for the newsboy and the mailman; deliver soup to a friend with the flu; keep a stash of chocolate Santas in the car, and hand them out to the gas station attendant, the doorman, the barber, the dry cleaner.  And watch as your children begin to discover the secret pleasure of small kindnesses, offered with love. 
Remember, once we take the pressure off ourselves to do things in a big way, we find more reasons to celebrate life's little moments.  And it is in these moments that the gift of real joy is offered and received.   

What part of your family's holiday celebration embodies the spirit of the season for you? What are you choosing to let go of this year?


Trish writes...

Love this!!! I needed to hear that it is ok to slow down and enjoy the holidays. Thanks!

Lyn writes...

My children loved the ting-a-ling lighting too. Now you've reminded me to get it out for my grandchildren. It's great to intoduce the young ones to old favorties and keep the traditions going through the generations.

Meagheanne writes...

At our house we do "10 presents and a goat". I started this a few years ago for my son, now age 6. Santa Claus brings ten presents, nothing big - no gaming systems or eighty dollar toys, just ten relatively small items (CDs & movies are big on his list this year). Then, we go online to Heifer International, an organization that helps provide families in need with livestock, seeds and training, where my son gets to choose which donation to give. He usually picks two shares of a goat -$20. We do not have much money, but it's important that my son realise how fortunate we are for what we do have. And I have to say, each year he has been more excited about giving "the goat" than the stuff under the tree. This year we are giving shares as gifts for his teachers as well.

Lisa writes...

I love the goat idea, but what on earth is a ting-a-ling?

Katrina? writes...

A ting-a-ling is a little brass chime, easily assembled, available for a few dollars. Four small candles sit in holders on the base. Above that, 4 little metal angels hang from spokes arranged in a circle. Light the candles, and the heat causes the angels to spin, so that the little tines hanging down from each one "ting" against two small metal discs. This is a hard thing to describe--but a very simple, homely decoration. On Christmas Eve, my mother would light the ting-a-ling and read the Christmas story from the Bible. So I wanted to carry on the tradition with my own children. I think I bought ours at the hardware store--it might be called something different, but we always knew it as the "ting-a-ling." Hope this helps. Wish I could send a photo. . .

CAROLYN writes...

What a great article - thank you for the ideas!

We have toned the gift-giving down (our family was getting a little too far away from the "reason for the season") and now handmake gifts for our family and friends. It is so safisfying to take quiet time in November and December to sit down as a family and make something with our own hands...and our family and friends seem to appreciate the gifts more where time is involved rather than money.

Katrina? writes...

You are so right. The gifts I treasure most, and have held on to through the years and moves are the ones that were handmade. And in my own mother's jewelry box is a button bracelet I made for her when I was in kindergarten--45 years ago!

Carol writes...

The ting-a-ling sounds like the angel chimes my family had (and the grown-up kids have them in their homes now.) It's been a tradition that's meaningful, inexpensive, and fun to watch/listen. I found pictures by doing a Google Image search for Scandinavian Christmas Angel Chimes.

Katrina? writes...

Yes, I think they are sold as Angel Chimes. Thank you! And they are available for $12.95 online at Plow and Hearth. (plus $4.95 for the candles)
Here's the link, with a photo:

Jeannine writes...

Katrina, What a wonderful article! I've been a fan of yours for a few years and so excited to read your words on PBS Parents too.

I keep Mitten Strings on my bedside table and refer to it often when I feel things are getting a bit out of control.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

Tarra writes...

Thank you Trish,
That's good advise, I do fell pressured during the holiday season. Now I don't feel so guilty after reading your blog!

simone writes...

I have been living outside of the US for the last decade (Germany and now Paris), and am grateful to escape by default some of the American holiday frenzy. When schools close, we spend time at the park (if there is snow as we've had recently, we build little snowmen) and sightseeing. If we pass by a beautiful church like Notre Dame, we'll go in and look at the nativity scene. We try to improvise, stay loose. We find big plans stressful. My husband's French and I'm Korean-American, so we try to mix our traditions for our family, explaining where they come from. We definitely get less done (we both work from home), but we try to limit what we put on our plates during the season.
Thanks for your article!

Bookmark writes...

You are so as it should be. The gifts I treasure on the whole, and take part in held on to through the years and moves are the ones so as to were handmade. And in the field of my own mother's jewelry box is a button bracelet I made in support of her as soon as I was in the field of kindergarten--45 years in the past!

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