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Simplifying the Holidays

Do you want to manage the holidays with less stress? Simplify!

Magazine covers trumpet feature titles like: “More love, less stress.” “Ten Ways to Make Decorating Easy.” “Keep it Beautiful. Make it Simple.” “Holiday Shortcuts.” Talk shows are full of helpful hints for cutting down, cutting out, and making the season more relaxing and reasonable. Rachael Ray is now hawking coffee, telling us that a shared pumpkin donut simplifies the holidays. It all sounds good. It all makes sense. In fact, it all makes so much sense you probably could have written the articles, gone on the talk shows and shared that donut. So why can’t you do it?

Stop feeling guilty. There are reasons; some good, some not so good, but reasons all the same. You won’t be able to follow through with whatever good intentions you have for simplifying and de-stressing unless you get to the bottom of why you sabotage yourself time and again. Try these on for size:

  • Simplifying risks disapproval. “Sure, I’d like to use paper plates for Christmas dinner. But I can hear my sister-in-law now.” Melissa has been hosting Christmas dinner for the extended clan for years, setting a holiday table for 16 people with antique linen and Grandma’s fine china. It’s traditional. It’s beautiful. It’s stressful.

    She worries about somebody breaking a dish. She worries about someone spilling wine on the damask. She’s so concerned about the dishes, she insists on hand washing everything herself after everyone goes home. As exhausting as it is, she can’t let it go. “Paper tablecloths and paper plates, even pretty ones, just won’t cut it with my family,” she says. Melissa is convinced the women in the family would gossip about her inadequacy as a hostess behind her back and give her a hard time about it for years. It just isn’t worth it.

    If Melissa talked to some of her relatives ahead of time, she might be surprised to find that at least some family members would love a switch to paper plates. The parents are so worried that their kids will spill or break something that they can’t enjoy the meal. Adults who tend to be klutzy have the same fears. Paper plates? What a relief!

    Then again, Melissa may be right that she’s in a family that measures one’s worth by how fancy the table looks and how well the hostess hides her sense of panic. In which case, she needs to work on declining judgments on her character based on table service or at least suggest that other family members rotate the event — and the anxiety.

  • Simplifying will let someone down. Every year Marney starts making Christmas cookies in October. By Christmas, she has at least 30 kinds in the freezer: bars, rolled, pressed, dropped, you name it. When family and friends visit during Christmas week, she sets out beautiful trays of cookies she has made with love — and stress. With four children under 12 and a full-time job with increasing responsibilities, pulling off the cookie extravaganza each year gets harder and harder. Buying cookies at the Church Christmas Fair would save her time and energy but she can’t bring herself to do it. “The kids expect it by now. It’s part of what makes our family’s Christmas special. On Christmas Eve, we all eat cookies and make a plate of the ones we like best for Santa. If I didn’t make the cookies, I’d be letting my kids down.”

    Marney is a victim of her own all-or-none thinking. I doubt the kids would notice if she cut down on the number of kinds of cookies she makes herself. A half-dozen varieties is still “lots” and would reduce her late-night baking by 80 percent. If she insists on having more kinds, she could mix in some cookies from the fair. By reducing the number she makes herself, she could get off the cookie conveyor belt and instead recapture the joy in baking that got her into this in the first place.

  • Simplifying could make me look cheap. Bob really wants to take the commercialism out of the holiday. He doesn’t see the need to put himself in hock for months to get gifts for everyone in the family, at the office, and in his circle of friends.

    “People are losing the meaning of Christmas and I don’t like it,” says Bob. “I’d rather be focusing on being with people but there’s so much pressure to spend, spend, spend. At the office, there’s a Secret Santa thing that requires a $20 gift. Even though the adults in my family draw names for gift-giving, there’s a kind of competition for who can find the most impressive present. Friends keep giving me presents and I feel like I have to give them one in return. I’d like to stop, or at least give people small rather than big deal gifts, but I don’t want to look cheap. It’s not about cheap. It’s about wanting to keep things in bounds. That’s hard to do if no one else is playing by the same rules.”

    This kind of problem takes time to solve. Bob could start looking for allies shortly after New Year’s when the credit card bills are coming in and people are in delayed sticker-shock. That’s the time to start talking about how to reduce the annual round of gift exchanges. Maybe he could suggest that the family or his circle of friends all contribute to a cause together next year. Perhaps the office could agree to drop the Secret Santa thing for a toy drive for needy kids. Commenting on other’s extravagance or giving lectures about the meaning of Christmas would only make people feel defensive or judged. Offering alternatives when there is plenty of time to talk about it and make a group decision accomplishes Bob’s goal without alienating others.

  • Simplifying can make me the spoiler. Tammy is one of those 20-somethings Susie Orman talks about: Young, fabulous, and broke. She’s the youngest person by a lot in a 12 person office of long-timers. The office culture includes kicking in 40 bucks for a holiday dinner at a fancy restaurant. “I’d be a whole lot happier with a potluck,” says Tammy. “But the whole office seems really excited about going out together. I think if I pushed it, they’d have to give in but they’d secretly resent it. It’s something they all seem to look forward to.”

    This is a hard one. Tammy has joined an office with an established culture. She could talk to her supervisor about whether she has read it right. It might be that there are others who would just as soon forgo the expensive dinner. In that case the supervisor should be the one to bring it up at a staff meeting. If, on the other hand, the staff really value this annual event, Tammy may need to figure out a way to save up for it during the year so she can take her place as a full member of the group.

  • Simplifying can be expensive. Lots of the ideas in those December issues of magazines actually make Christmas cost more, not less. “Hire help for the party so you can relax,” declares one. “Buy platters at the deli instead of making a turkey,” says another. “Send flowers to the special people on your list so you won’t have to spend time wrapping or standing in line at the post office.” “Buy cookies at the bakery instead of making them.” “Take advantage of the gift wrapping service at the mall.” Yeah. Sure. Do these people think we’re all made of money? Simplifying by buying our way out of it may work for the wealthy but it’s beyond the reach of most of us.

    It can feel like a tradeoff: Do it labor-intensive but affordable or simple and expensive. The third alternative is to decide what is worth your time and to cut out, or at least cut down, what isn’t.

  • Simplifying means letting go of my culture. Every year Shelly and her mother and her aunts make homemade tamales for Christmas Eve dinner. It’s a labor of love that brings all the women together to celebrate their Mexican roots. All afternoon, the women tell stories and joke and laugh as they turn out dozens of tamales made from a recipe that’s been handed down for generations. Christmas Eve without tamales would feel to all of them like a betrayal of the past.

    This yearly ritual is an affirmation of culture and family and love. If Shelly is stressed, it would be more beneficial to her mental health to think about a number of smaller things she can eliminate so that she can fully participate in this big one.

  • Simplifying would make Christmas feel like just any other day. My friend David sometimes finds it hard to fit in. “So many people complain about the season that it’s almost bad manners to be having a good time. I know it’s not PC, but I love the whole over-the-top-ness of the holidays. Christmas is a month long Event with a capital E. I love the crowds. I love the lights. I love decorating the house. I love going to the huge Messiah Sing in our town and watching the Sunday School pageant. I wouldn’t miss the midnight candlelight service at our church for anything. I love buying and making presents and seeing people’s surprise and excitement when they open them. I can’t imagine cooking a less than 24 pound turkey or having fewer than 15 at Christmas dinner. The only thing missing is fireworks! Christmas is a celebration!”

    David isn’t interested in simplifying. He just doesn’t want to make others to feel bad when he’s having so much fun. He’s learned to listen politely to the bah-humbug folks and to save his enthusiasm for people he knows are as crazy about December as he is. Ask him what time I should be there for dinner.

Simplifying the Holidays

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Simplifying the Holidays. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 12, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.