It’s very easy to feel very stressed over the holiday season. After all, there’s so much to do on top of our regular responsibilities. There’s also pressure to have a perfect holiday—and to give lots and lots of presents, which for many of us busts budgets and creates or deepens debt. And if you’re doing all the shopping, wrapping, cooking and cleaning, you may feel more resentment than joy.
This is where minimalism can help.
People have many misconceptions about minimalism—it’s stark, sterile, cold, and the complete opposite of cozy; it’s about paring down to a specific number of possessions; it’s about deprivation and no gifts. And, of course, all these things seem incompatible with the holiday season.
But minimalism isn’t any of the above. And it’s certainly not empty of meaning or magic, which is what the holiday season is really about. In fact, minimalism prioritizes both. Because minimalism, at its core, means “removing excess [and] making room for things that are truly important in our life,” said Brooke McAlary, author of the book Slow: Simple Living for a Frantic World.
For instance, what’s important to McAlary is focusing on people, presence and connection during the holidays—“as opposed to stuff, crammed schedules and excess.”
“I love the holiday season and minimalism helps me enjoy it even more,” said Rachel Jonat, who writes about simplicity and minimalism on her website The Minimalist Mom. She and her family keep a lot of white space in their calendar and limit the number of events they attend. “You can’t enjoy the season if you’re tired and stressed out.”
Denaye Barahona, Ph.D, founder of Simple Families, views minimalism as “prioritizing the things that matter most, and giving your time and attention to those things.” For Barahona, Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus, and spending time with family.
She and her husband focus on meaningful traditions with their young kids, such as buying an ornament (or something they can make into an ornament) every year related to an important event, vacation or change (e.g., moving to a new state). When it’s time to decorate the tree, they talk about the memories connected to each ornament.
Barahona also isn’t big on tangible gifts because they can easily become the focal point of the holiday, overshadowing relationships and meaningful events. For instance, the excitement shifts from seeing and spending time with grandparents to the unknown in the pretty wrapped packages. This is a natural human reaction, she said, as we get rushes of dopamine from opening up presents.
So what do you do? What do you when everyone is so focused on things, and stress runs rampant? Below are tips to help, and have a minimalist, meaningful and magical holiday season.
Question how you currently celebrate the season. “By questioning our current standard, we start to gain a sense of what the holidays actually mean to us and how we can create new traditions that reflect that,” said McAlary, who also pens the blog Slow Your Home.
For instance, do you want to attend every end-of-the-year party, or can you suggest a New Year catchup in January? she said. Do you want to cook a three-course meal by yourself or can you ask friends to bring their signature dishes?
McAlary also suggested focusing on how you’d like the holidays to feel. How can you make this happen?
Have honest conversations early. Start talking to your family now about expectations for gifts and events, and any new ideas or changes, said Jonat, author of several books, including The Joy of Doing Nothing: A Real-Life Guide to Stepping Back, Slowing Down, and Creating a Simpler, Joy-Filled Life. And start small. If your family is big on gifts, suggest trying secret Santa, or contributing time or money to a charity together, she said.
“When my siblings and I switched to buying gifts for a needy family—instead of each other—we started to have more meaningful holidays together. It was wonderful to no longer have to find gifts for people that have everything they need.”
Rethink gifts for loved ones. “I still buy gifts for people in my life, but instead of buying stuff just for the sake of it, I prefer to gift experiences or consumables and not perpetuate the cycle of mindless gift giving,” McAlary said. For instance, she gives movie tickets, massage gift cards or bottles of wine. She also gives charitable donations in loved one’s names.
Jonat has eliminated a lot of gift giving with family and friends in favor of quality time together. “It could be as simple as a long phone call or as elaborate as a multi-family potluck gathering.”
McAlary suggested reflecting on these questions when thinking about what to give family and friends: “What do they love to do? What can you gift to them that will help them enjoy more of it? Can you give them time or expertise? Maybe you could give the new parents some free babysitting and a restaurant voucher, or the novice gardener some seeds, time and energy? Can you cut their hair or declutter their wardrobe?”
Plus, when we make the holidays all about stuff and consumption, she said, we remove opportunities for sincere connection—even though this is exactly what we crave.
“So much growth and understanding comes from deep, unrushed conversations and given how stressed many of us feel throughout the year, I can’t think of a more important gift to give the people we love than our time.”
Rethink toys and gifts for kids. “We, as adults, get really excited about giving gifts,” and seeing our kids’ happy faces, said Barahona, author of the forthcoming book Simple Happy Parenting: The Joy of Less for Calm, Creative Kids. But this only feeds into what we’re trying to avoid: making it all about the gifts.
The key is to change how we approach gift-giving. For instance, you might refocus on getting things that your kids will use and love for a long time, items that help them learn, develop and innovate, she said. These items might not grab their attention or make their faces light up—but often the toys that do, the sparkly, loud ones that provide immediate gratification, end up in the corner of their room an hour, day or week later.
Barahona also buys her kids simple, high-quality toys throughout the year—instead of waiting until Christmas. Because it’s very hard to focus on the deeper meaning of the holiday when you’ve waited all year for certain things. Plus, kids learn through play, and her kids use these toys in all sorts of imaginative ways every single day.
McAlary and her husband also are intentional about the gifts they give to their kids, which include books, art and craft equipment, and tickets to the zoo or a show.
If you’re trying to minimize the number of gifts given to your kids, Barahona suggested sharing your why with your loved ones. For instance, she said, you might say, “It’s hard for our kids to focus on you and your relationship when there’s a lot of toys and gifts,” and “We want you to be what our kids get excited about.”
Be intentional with your time and energy. Remember that your time and energy are precious (literally, they’re finite, after all). Think about the events and engagements you’d really like to attend. Think about the traditions you’d like to create and savor.
Jonat suggested getting comfortable with saying no. “It’s no one’s business why you can’t attend their event but if they ask, simply say you need a quiet night at home.”
Honor yourself. “For some of us the holidays are a difficult time no matter what we do,” McAlary said. And all the focus on connection and giving can leave you feeling less than, she said. “[T]ry letting go of the importance of the season altogether,” and “spend the day doing something you really enjoy”: watching a movie, making your favorite meal, focusing on what you do have in your life (versus what you don’t).
The tradition of gifts, elaborate meals, and swelling to-do lists is very strong. And “it’s very easy to lose sight of what’s important,” and focus away from your family’s values, Barahona said. The key is to be confident in the choices you’re making, she said—whether that’s limiting gifts or saying no to a party you’ve been attending for years (because it’s been years since you’ve actually wanted to attend it).
The holidays can be meaningful and magical, particularly when we remove the excess, and genuinely focus on what’s meaningful and magical to us.