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.
I am not a mathematician. Oh, giggling peels of laughter, I am not a mathematician. But today is one of those days when I wish I knew how to make an algorithm. Or an algebra problem. Or… something… that could help me to prove something.
See, I have a theory. Let’s call it, oh, the Theory of Collective Christian Distraction. And it is one that pops into my head well, just about every time I get on Facebook. For there, undoubtedly, I will see an article or a blog post that someone has shared. Sometimes (not often) they are written by someone I actually know. Sometimes they are shared from the blog of someone I don’t know. The sources are varied, but the intent is often not: They contain religious or semi-religious content and opinion that will inevitably spark conversation and debate about some gray matter among Christians. Let me be very clear: I am not talking about scripture-based devotional writings or videos—the posts I’m speaking of rarely drive us to open our Bibles, but rather to open our mouths via the keyboard.
And then, if you want to, you can actually spend the better part of an entire day watching the responses of people who you don’t know… who the author of the blog post likely doesn’t know… who, quite possibly, your Facebook friend doesn’t know. Sometimes the numbers will go into the high double digits, or even triple digits. It is clear that all of them put (some) thought and time into crafting these responses, whether right or not. This, despite the fact that it will simply disappear into the ether when on the following day someone posts something about the government or –oh look! A cute cat!
WHAT. A. DESTRUCTIVE. WASTE. OF. TIME.
That’s pretty much the Theory of Collective Christian Distraction. I just wish I could figure out a number that would do something like this:
Add time spent reading such articles to time spent by poster crafting an initial comment.
Subtract time spent in Bible study on the matter (this rarely appears to happen, at least between first reading and sharing).
Divide by amount of confusion experienced by new Christians or struggling ones.
Multiply by number of people who may be lurking on the topic but not posting.
Multiply again by negative perceptions of ‘argumentative Christians’ who are no longer really all that hip to spending time with you inside or outside of worship because of how feisty and outspoken you and your church buddies are.
Can someone help me quantify this? Because really, I’d like to compare it to the amount of time we’re spending in the actual ministering to the spiritual needs and in study of the Bible with people who need to know about Jesus. The real lives we could touch if we’d get off the computer, stop arguing non-binding matters, and focus on all the people who are hurting.
Me, I’m trying. I don't want to get distracted from my real work here as a servant of God. I’m getting better about letting the arguments go. It’s not always easy. But I am instead making a conscious effort to do what is productive in my own personal service to the Lord, instead of engaging online. I’m a mom, and let me tell you, there is no shortage of what is in the Bible that I need to learn myself, and teach my children. That’s where my focus needs to be. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be aware of what’s going on in our culture or what our brothers and sisters are concerned about—I think that’s part of the warning Jesus gives in Matthew 10:16.
I’m saying we must be on guard about the time and effort and good will that all this ‘discussion’ eats up. And I’m saying it’s harder to do my actual work when I’m distracted and distraught about what everyone thinks today about Blog Post X. And far harder when I’m upset about something someone clear across the country said that truly, has no bearing on how I will worship God come Sunday.
So. Instead of using my emotional energy on those things, I might invite a college-aged girl over for lunch. Instead of writing out something thoughtful but soon-to-be-buried by other posts, I could be texting a friend to see how she’s doing today. Instead of reading responses, I could be reading my Bible.
Of course Facebook can be a tool for good. Of course it can. But public division, I’m pretty sure, is not the best way to use the tool. People who need God don’t need more useless fighting. They are already in the fight of their lives. They need an introduction to the peace of Jesus. But sometimes we feel like our opinions must be heard, and let our lack of humility and meekness make us terrible advertisers of God’s gifts. And yes, I have struggled with whether to even put this post on Facebook as it could be perceived as a hot-button topic post. But, I'm asking specifically that you not make comment or argument publicly, but merely that you give it your consideration (and of course feel free to message me personally if you feel the need to discuss further).
If you post the stuff, please think seriously and honestly about why you’re posting it. If you follow or respond, think about whether it is the best use of your time and influence. If you are discouraged by it, get out your Bible and read God’s words, not someone else’s. Ask a trusted older Christian to help you make sense of it all—in person if you can.
“ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” Eph. 5:15-16
Encouragement Spoken Here
"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver." Proverbs 25:11