Every year, I make the same pledge: to simplify the holidays and make them easier. I want holidays that are warm and glowy, like the lights strung everywhere I go. I don't want to be stressed out, running here and there, yelling at the kids, and spending so much that I'm in a payoff hangover until February.
And every year, it seems, I still fail in some if not all these areas. But every year I fail a little less miserably.
My mother, a psychologist, has always reminded me that even good change is stressful, which means that though the things we add into our schedule during the last part of the year may be fun, they can also cause us to be more harried.That may be why everyone I talk to seems to find this time of year stressful. But y'all... it should not be that way. It just shouldn't. Thankfully, we can take it back, one mindful choice at a time. Here are some ideas I have either tried or want to try in order to make it less so.
1. Spend less money.
This one just seems so obvious, and it's a big one, but it's hard to stick to. But really, if I just set a budget, and stick to it, it simplifies so many things. Doesn't make it easier--just simpler. And it's really important to have a budget for just about everything right now. Gifts, groceries, clothes--it all gets tempting in December.
This year I am considering doing the envelope thing, especially when it comes to restaurant outings and grocery shopping. This is where I tend to overspend, because everything right now should feel special, right? Well, no. Not EVERY outing has to be EXTRA SPECIAL between now and January 1. If I'm honest, it is the time I will spend with people that will matter far more than the spread I put on the table. We are Americans. The vast majority of us eat pretty well, or at least pretty generously, at all three meals every. single. day. So why the pressure over the Christmas dinner? With a little planning and resourcefulness, I feel confident I can still make a beautiful holiday meal that everyone will enjoy--and not have to spend like it's only meal I'll eat this year. Now, I just have to figure out what the right combination of deliciousness and conscious spending is. When I've got it, I'll let you know.
I also intend to spend less money on Christmas attractions and decorations. Sure, I could spend $80 to take the kids to the lights at the local Gardens. Or I can spend $6 in gas and homemade hot chocolate and take them around to see the lights that ordinary, festive folks have put up on their homes. I don't have anything against the big light displays, and we've certainly enjoyed them very much in the past, when we were sweetly gifted with tickets from a friend. But when I consider paying to revisit them, I see an opportunity instead to simplify. Frankly, if our family is together, we are all pretty happy, regardless of what we've spent. As for decorations, I plan to make my house feel festive by playing music and having things that smell good around--something delicious on the stove or one of those four-dollar cinnamon brooms from the grocery store will do. So simple and doesn't require all new tree decor or dish sets from Target. And then I'll have the time and energy to sit back and enjoy everything else.
I'm not planning to host any parties this year, but if I were, I'd potluck it all the way. Thankfully lots of people I know are comfortable with potluck parties--where everyone pitches in and nobody is stuck footing the entire bill for the thing. If you're planning to hostess an event, this will take a lot of stress off of you. Even Evite knows that pitching in is cool--I got one last month with a new(-ish?) option to ask people to bring items to round out the menu.
2. Fewer 'Thing' gifts for the grownups.
So, I just spent a solid week decluttering my home. My hunch is, most of you could do the same. I can tell you that after you do, you will think "I never want to bring another Thing into my home again." We need so few Things. So many of us buy the Things we do need or are of the means that when a good mid-year deal comes along, we pick it up then. I'm over it. I would honestly rather have a good cup of coffee with my husband or my friend than any Thing you can get on Amazon. My hunch is, most of the people you know feel the same way. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
a. A pound of good coffee, some K-cups or some nice tea.
b. A race or athletic event registration.
c. A gift card to a new (or old favorite) local restaurant.
d. Pitching in with other family or friends for one big-ticket, long-lasting gift. Case in point: Thanks to my husband, my mom and my sister, plus a great deal at a factory outlet, I'm getting a much-nicer-than-I'd-normally-buy purse that should last for years, if not decades.
Also, consider drawing names if your family is big and setting a limit on the cost.This is especially helpful as your family grows with marriages and children.
(A note, I know some of these ideas will not sit well in some families, so just remember that you don't have to convert everyone to the Simplicity Train all at once. Little changes this year will make a big difference, and set a precedent for years to come.)
3. Mindful gifts for the kids.
Our kids are overrun with toys, and certainly don't play with everything they do have. Don't give in to the commercials, the circulars, the idea that now is the only time you will have to get these great deals, or that you need the Things that are on sale anyway. If you don't need it, or if it will cause you too much stress later--it ain't a good deal. I think it's also important to remember that Christmas is not the only time of year you get to make memories and do things for your kids and for other people. You are also not going to resolve your own issues from childhood by overdoing Christmas for your kids. I'm not sure they could articulate it, but I'm pretty sure most any kid would rather have 12 months of good times with happy parents than 11 months of mediocre times and one month of Things and Stressed Out Parents.
Here's how we are handling the children. This year, my kids are getting one gift from us--a doll desk for each of them that my thrifty friend Tina found at an estate sale last summer. We will probably stuff their stockings with clementines and gum and maybe drawing paper and Scotch tape (I know, I know. Who can explain kids? But we gave them tape last year and they loved it. It got USED and that made it a gift worth re-visiting). Now, lest you think I'm a complete curmudgeon and that my poor kids will be chewing Trident and scotch-taping fruit peels together while everyone else rides their new Huffy around, please know that part of this decision comes from the fact that they have generous grandparents and aunts and uncles who give them thoughtful gifts, too.
Here are some other ideas for more meaningful gifts:
a. Memberships to the local zoo, aquarium, museum. Then you have something to do--together-- all year long.
b. A gift card to the local bounce-house or trampoline place, restaurant they love, or doughnut shop, that the child can decide when to use. Then you make a memory--and don't add to the stuff. And giving THEM the power to decide when to do something--that is sheer glee to a child.
c. A classic read-aloud book. My English teacher sister-in-law recently told me about a study that children NEED to be read aloud to until they are 12. And what holiday wouldn't end up better with family time centered around a great book? (And yes, just one. Not this 'Book a Night for 24 Nights business.' Too. Much. Stuff. If you want your kids to love to read--take them to the library!)
d. Popcorn-and-movie gifts. A favorite movie on DVD and a popcorn bucket with the promise of family time to come. Preferably in your jammies--(but jammies need not be part of the gift! You probably do not need new jammies. Especially Santa jammies that you won't want to wear in a week.)
4. Limit the parties. Oh, I have the worst time with this. I do love the parties, and my kids feel the same. But I find my limit, per week, is probably about one weekday event and one weekend event before the stress starts to outweigh the fun. I have not done a good job so far of limiting this for this year, but knowing that I am already overcommitted for some weeks, I will simply have to manage my schedule for those weeks better in other areas. Thankfully none of the parties I'm attending are forced-gift parties, so that makes it simpler and less costly. I am intent on not spending any money on new holiday clothes for these parties; we will use what we already have to make our current wardrobe a little fancier (I may let my children borrow some of my costume jewelry, for example), and be done.
5. Take care of yourself.
It's a vicious cycle, isn't it?--you get busy, you eat garbage either while you're running around or at The Parties, plus you don't exercise, and you definitely don't get enough sleep. Then you're still busy, but now you're cranky and don't feel well enough to take care of yourself. I got in this cycle just before Thanksgiving and I'm determined to fight my way out before it become a six-week long Experiment in Misery. It will take a lot of self-control, to continue to cook healthy food, hit the gym, and limit the holiday sweets. But self-control is better than self-loathing, in my book (and way better than being laid up in bed).
6. Give of your time, to someone you know.
This is probably an extremely unpopular opinion, but I'm not a big fan of outsourcing my good deeds. And by that, I mean that I think my greatest opportunity to affect real change in people's lives is by ministering to the Real People that I know. Then I'm there to follow up and make sure they also get help after the Christmas tree has been taken down and the wrapping goes in the trash. I'm not saying that an Angel Tree gift or something similar is a bad thing to do, but it is absolutely not a substitute for getting involved in the life of a person that you can continue to follow up on. Maybe it's a kid in your congregation or school whose parents are having a rough time who would love an afternoon with you. Maybe it's a widow in your congregation who doesn't see her grandchildren enough who would delight to bake some cookies with your kids. Perhaps it's a college-aged student who can't go home for the holidays because they have to work who would appreciate a home-cooked meal. The real gift to them will be the follow-up you do throughout the rest of the year and their lives. It is more of an emotional investment to do this, but it's also a bigger payoff for them, and for you, and it truly is a gift that keeps on giving--for years.
Of any gift I could give my children, I am shamefully, 100% certain that a day completely unplugged from technology would be the best gift of all. I know my husband would appreciate it, and I would love the same from him. My mom has said repeatedly "Y'all sure were a lot more fun before you got iPhones." But best of all, it would be a gift to myself--a day away from information overload, marketing schemes, and envy-producing humble brags from the masses. And the clear way I think after even a couple of hours without my phone--it's great. I'm not ready to give it up every day, but I'd like to try for some larger chunks of time this holiday season.
Listen, I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with many of the traditions out there. The things you may choose to spend money on that may simply be different from what I choose to spend mine on. What I'm saying is--be mindful about how the holidays can affect us. We need to stop feeling like we have to do it all and buy it all, all in the span of 25 or so days. Take back your time and use it in the way that truly benefits those you love, by giving you time and space to breathe and enjoy your loved ones.
I'll leave you with this: The most treasured holiday memories of my youth are a blurred mixture of warmth, and food, and the presence of my family at my grandmother's house. I cannot tell you a thing I got, or what clothing I was wearing, or how much money any of us spent in those years. But I remember my Nanny's voice, and my Grandaddy's popcorn, and the most clear part of the memories is that no one was in a hurry to be anywhere else. I think of my Dad poring over a new book by the tree, and I hear my mother's big laugh, and that is where I want to be. May we all make memories like that--memories that are worth revisiting, this season and always.
Last night I spent some time on the phone with a woman I haven't spoken to in years, but who reached out to me to ask me some questions about homeschooling. I've heard her story before:
"I think this is right, but I'm overwhelmed."
"I have parts of it figured out but I'm worried about academics/socialization/support."
"I need to choose curriculum and there are so many options!"
I wanted to take a few minutes and tell you some of what I told her, and what I tell anyone who is considering homeschooling.
1. If you are thinking of doing it, you probably can.
The fact that you are interested in it, that you are researching it, that you are reaching out to others who do it indicates that your desire is strong. And if you desire to do it, you will find a way. So many parents are intimidated by teaching because they are not teachers by trade. But the beauty of homeschooling is that you don't have to be. You are dealing with very small student-teacher ratios, and so many curriculums walk you through step-by-step on the things you may not know. Plus, you have the irreplaceable bonus of being their constant guide, and the lessons they'll learn from you being there, loving them, helping them when they stumble--as only a parent can--are valuable beyond words. The teaching skills will come as you grow into the process. I will add that you will want to search out a mentor. They can be your cheerleader and practical support, and are especially valuable if not everyone in your current circle is down with homeschooling. Lean on them; they will be a great help to you (and soon enough, believe it or not, you may find yourself mentoring someone else!).
2. Commit to a year.
JUST ONE YEAR. Want to know a secret? When I think of homeschooling a kid who is a senior in high school, prepping for college and SATs and doing extracurriculars and DRIVING and about to leave home and be on their own and without me and reading Beowulf and using those big fancy calculators for calculus or whatever it is...I GET INTIMIDATED TOO! But then I remember: I'm not homeschooling a senior in high school! I'm homeschooling a kindergartener and a 2nd grader. I don't have to think about those things right now. I can deal with those when we get there. Right now I just need to think about things like memorizing the Beautitudes and segmenting spelling words and doing the Doubles Plus Ones. We will get those things down and then we will move on to the next step. And all those steps will, Lord willing, lead us to Beowulf and the Big Calculator, when it is time to deal with Beowulf and the Big Calculator. And driving. Oy.
3. Go to a Convention.
Know who goes to conventions? People who have been right where you are, and are willing to help you through it. You will be encouraged by their stories. Know who else goes to conventions? Curriculum vendors. That means you get to see and touch the curriculum, and ask questions. I will caution you to not stress out over making it to every single session or learning everything you need to know in one day or weekend, or even buying all your curriculum then. It can be information overload, so measure your time and spend a lot of it on the expo floor, asking questions. (Just remember that while vendors' answers can be helpful they are trying to sell you things that you may not need, at least not yet. I recommend making a budget before you go. They'll always be happy to take more of your money later, right?).
4. Re-think True Socialization.
If you've mentioned that you are considering homeschooling to more than 1.2 people, you've probably gotten that worried look and The Question: "But what will you do about socialization?" I could say a lot about this, but here are just a couple of things to consider: If kids in institutional schools are so well-socialized, why are there local, state, and national initiatives designed to stop the massive problem of bullying? And, even if a child manages to escape the bully's taunts, is it really socialization if the only people they are interacting with are their same age? When you homeschool, you have the ability to influence their concepts of respect, politeness, and hospitality. You can (and must) teach them those things in the home, then model and oversee them in practice. You are the one at the grocery store who teaches them to watch out for others in the aisles, to help the person who dropped a can of beans, and to look the cashier in the eye and say "Thank you" when complimented. You can have an elderly woman, a woman with younger children, or a friend their own age into your home at any time of day, and teach your child how to make someone feel welcome, warmed and loved. You can visit others, serving them and teaching them to respect other peoples' rule and possessions. You can make corrections in real time, help them navigate interpersonal problems with other kids and deal swiftly and intensely with real issues concerning how they treat others. And if they still need to learn things like how to stand in line, take turns and wait for you to stop talking, take them to the post office and the children's museum and on play dates where you'll be talking to other adults--those are prime opportunities to teach all those things. THAT is practical socialization that will serve them well all their life, and far more skills than what they would learn from 8 to 3 in the school room.
5. Do Bible first.
As you get into the practicalities of homeschooling, there will be days when Life will interfere with School and you will have to make choices on what academics you will accomplish that day. I say, always do Bible, no matter what. It teaches your children that yes, knowing God and serving Him truly is the most important thing, every day. Also, it will help keep all of you rooted in scripture for whatever else the day throws at you. Pray with them. Read from the Bible or their Bible lesson book (I'm a big fan of Egermeier's), sing a hymn (or lots of hymns, especially if you are in the car!). Work on memorizing verses. Talk about God's will for their lives as you start and go through your day. Eventually, the math curriculum will get done. They will learn to read one day. But the time to impress on their young hearts what will truly matter at the end of their life is short. Use it.
Obviously I am thrilled with the homeschool life, and will always encourage people who are interested in doing it. These are the things that helped me when I was starting out, and I hope you find them helpful as well! May God bless you on your homeschool journey.
For more good stuff, you can check out my Homeschool Encouragement Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/lbwolfgangmast/encouragement-for-the-amazing-homeschool-life/
Encouragement Spoken Here
"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver." Proverbs 25:11