our first minimalist Christmas

Source: scout.tumblr.com via Meg on Pinterest


Have you ever thought, in the middle of driving from family gathering to family gathering on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, wouldn’t it be great to just go away for the holidays?

That was us the last two years. We were toting our son around from my mom’s house to an in-law gathering and feeling tired, cranky and guilty. We felt the pull of both sides of the family and it was always a stressful series of back and forth phone calls and emails to figure out where and when we would see everyone. I planned a quiet Christmas breakfast for all of us that always ended up a rushed shoveling of food as we got the baby ready and all our bags of presents, side dishes and baked goods packed sorted for transport.

While what I mostly remember is great family time, watching my nieces and nephews put on a play, eating too much and watching movies, I still recall the driving, the hasty goodbyes and feeling like we just weren’t giving each side of the family, or ourselves, enough time.

In fact, the year before last Chris actually said, let’s skip this next year and go to Hawaii. We never ended up booking that vacation but the thought lingered.

And now we’re doing it. No obligations. No real plan. Just a lot of downtime and the three of us.

This wasn’t our first choice. We had planned to go back to Vancouver for two weeks and squeeze in as much family time as possible. The universe, and Customs Canada, conspired against us and we just had a two week unplanned visit to Vancouver in November instead.

Now we’re free as birds for the holidays. It’s exciting. And scary. I’ve never spent Christmas without my in-laws or immediate family. No sausage stuffing. No cauliflower puff. No cousin time for Henry.

We’ve decided to have a little getaway to mark the occasion and celebrate. We’re heading off island for some sights, to see some extended famil and spend a lot of time just the three of us. Here’s our plan:

Destination: Scotland!

Activities: walking, reading, watching movies, speed scrabble, sleep, enjoying city ambiance and possibly a Starbucks or two.

Gift Plan: Grandmas have now both sent large packages for Henry that will be opened when we return from our trip. Santa will be delivering stockings to us on Christmas Day filled with a few goodies. We’ve arranged presents for those that we exchange gifts with in Canada. Chris and I have agreed that this trip will be our gift to each other (which is great because I had no ideas on what to get him or anything that I wanted myself!).

Meals: we’re staying in a furnished apartment and I’ve already booked a Tesco grocery delivery for the day we arrive. To keep it simple, and stress free, we’ll have a special Christmas meal out on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Maybe we will have our own A Christmas Story Chinese Restaurant memory from this trip…..

It will be our first very simple and, hopefully, stress-free Christmas. I’m hoping this different approach takes the edge off any melancholy or homesickness. If not I have ordered a bottle of Bailey’s so that should do the trick. Kidding!

I’m still relatively new at managing extended family and expectations over the holidays. For those of you with a lot of family near by, how do you decided who to see and where to go over the holidays? Do you alternate years with sides of the family? Do you have tips for keeping it simple and enjoyable?

PS. Anyone in Edinburgh? Arranging a meet-up for coffee or tea while I am there. Any simple living aficionados that want to come are welcome. Email me and we will figure it out: the minimalist mom at gmail dot com.


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  • I love the new site design Rachel!

    Your Christmas plans sound amazing. Especially the speed scrabble. :) I’m willing to bet this will be one of the most memorable holidays you’ve ever had.

    We spend the holidays rushing from my husband’s parents’ place to my parent’s house. It’s stressful. I love Christmas Eve when we don’t have a bunch of places to go and time with family isn’t cluttered with gifts and expectations.

  • I find the whole Christmas with family, scheduling, who goes where and spends how much time with whom to be totally overwhelming. I said for years that I would much prefer to just get away from all the obligation that comes along with it all. This year, we’re not going away, but the hub, daughter and I are staying home. That’s not to say that visitors aren’t welcome, just that we’re not going anywhere.
    We’re doing what is right for our family rather than what we “should” be doing.

    • This is lovely tor read. Do what is right for you! We get so worked up about seeing people in this very small window of time. Why can’t we just make the effort to see people that matter to us during the year. So much expectation for just a few days.

      Have a lovely holiday and thanks for commenting :)

  • I can’t remember if I have ever commented here before, but I’ve been reading for a while. I live in Edinburgh, but I won’t be here at Christmas (heading back down South for a week) so I doubt I will be around when you are here, which is a shame, because it would be lovely to meet up! I’ll be absent from Edinburgh between 22nd-30th December, which is when I am guessing you will be here? Having said that, if you have any questions about the city I’d be happy to try and help! x

  • Have a great time in Scotland! It will be my first time away from Canada at Christmas in 20 years. Montana will be beautiful of course, but I’m a little sad the kids won’t be seeing their Grandparents. Cheers!

  • Rachel,
    Your Christmas plans sound wonderful! We spend every Christmas Day with my husband’s family, and my family comes to our house the day after. We’ve never alternated years. My ideal Christmas would be just the 2 of us with our 5 kids – 3 are married and we have one grand-daughter with twin grandsons on the way – meeting somewhere for a few days to celebrate and relax.
    Every year it gets more difficult to do the things I should do, like decorating, sending cards, and buying gifts. Perhaps next year will be easier because I will have gotten rid of a lot more stuff, which will give me a whole new perspective.
    Why don’t you come to Indiana instead of Scotland, and we’ll drink Bailey’s together?

  • Since having kids, we’ve been embracing minimalism around our Christmas plans too. It’s just not that fun to deal with exhausted, miserable children around the Christmas holidays, so we limit our visiting to one large family event on December 25. Whereas we used to run to as many as four or five different homes on Christmas day, now we go to one, and everyone goes home happy. We visit the kids’ great-grannie a few days in advance of Christmas, so we don’t have to feel like we have to visit everyone on the same day. Also, we decided that we won’t travel at Christmas (unless of course it’s to a sunny destination! :) ) and the grandparents are welcome to come to us for a visit if they want to (and they do!) Of course I’m sure things may change as the kids and the grandparents get older, but for right now, we’re loving having minimal plans around Christmas and focusing more on spending time together, listening to Christmas music and reading holiday stories to the kids.

    • So true, exhausted miserable children up the stress level ten fold. Ditto for exhausted parents. I barely remember Henry’s first Christmas. He was two months old and I was wrecked from all the late night feedings. We’re going to enjoy this new to us quiet Christmas! Happy holidays to you and the kids. PS. Vancouver looks COLD!!

  • Ah, the family juggle. Not an easy thing. We are still trying to figure out this year ourselves. Being married to a Catholic Deacon means we are involved at church and there are several masses to attend, children’s mass where my children will sing and Midnight mass where my husband will serve with the Bishop. Our families are spread out with my children being the oldest, so my brothers and brother in law typically stay home for Christmas. We all live more than a plane ride away. Grandma’s have come to visit us but in the past it was command performances we loaded up all the gifts including Santa in the car and drove the 2 hours to the closest grandma to have Christmas at her house. Now the kids are older and as I said involved in Christmas at church, yet we are still trying to figure out a way to see Grandma on the 23rd. I am thinking we met halfway.

    • I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants book a while back. She had a short essay about the holidays and said her family eventually to a ‘meet halfway’ celebration. They went to a hotel, no one had to cook, and they all loved it.

  • My parents live in Mexico and we live in the USA so it’s been easy for us just not to go to visit during the holidays. We like it just the 4 of us. We celebrate Christmas in a very spiritual, non commercialized, calm and quiet way. Not the way they do it in Mexico at all. I do feel guilty sometimes for not visiting my parents, but then I get over it. It’s just one day and my parents get over it also.

  • Your plans sound good Rachel. Do you know all your relatives in Scotland?

    In some ways I miss not having a big family and not having family around at Christmas. Not having cousins for my kids around etc.(It’s only DH’s disfunctional part of the family that is still in Ire., the others, as well as my family are scattered arouds in Europe.) Yet, I am looking forward to just the four of us spending Christmas together. Not very often that we can just laze around enjoying each others company for three-four days. :)

    • I know all my first cousins and Aunts and Uncles. Actually, Chris and I visited that side a few years back before we got married. So it’s nice that they have already met each other.

      We didn’t grow up with extended family around either. The upside was a very close and quiet holiday season. Downside: I would have liked to have that connection to my cousins and aunts and uncles. Of course, there are six children in my family so it always felt like there was a lot of people around and the quiet was relative. :)

  • We tried alternating back and forth between our parents. We go to my parents one year and the next his parents. It got to be too much. Some one was always sick and the trip to my parents was 12+ hours, his parents didn’t like that we weren’t with them every year even though we would celebrate Christmas on New Years day with them the year we spent Christmas at my parents. So the way it works now and has for the past 8 years is: we do what makes us happiest and is easiest for us. We have 4 kids that require a special diet and if we can’t find an easy way to take care of that and visit, then we just stay home.
    We can make our own Christmas memories and celebrate Christmas on a more convient day with my in-laws. It gets easier as the years go by to make your own memories(at least for me it does). I am just happy and content that all of my kids are healthy and happy. For me, I had to have a conversation with myself: “I am going to be happy with my decision to stay home and make memories with my husband and kids. What is the point of being unhappy, where does it get me? It gets me no where, I don’t want to be discontent. I want to be happy and have fun.” We mostly go to my in-laws, but there are times that we have spent Christmas alone. For me it was a mind over matter kind of thing.

    • I want to be happy and have fun.

      Isn’t that what the holidays are for? Being happy and having fun. That’s what I remember from my youth. I was excited about the time away from school and the freedom of nothing much on the schedule. Glad you have made peace with your choices and wishing you a wonderful Christmas with your family. :)

  • Oh this sounds WAY too familiar! Not only do we live near our parents, but we also live near the majority of my husband’s mom’s family along with the boys’ great grandparents. Weekly commitments are already stressful, so holidays are horrible! I always feel guilty when we don’t see everyone for every gathering. As much as I love our families, the expectation to be with the weekly, then almost daily during the holidays is just too much! I commend you for doing something simple!! I hope you have a fantastic, relaxing holiday!

  • After 10 years away, we are close to family again. But I’m selfish…we just, DON’T go anywhere! We’ll most likely head to the inlaws whenever the weather is good for a day between Christmas and New Year’s, but the actual holidays are spent just the three of us. We threw that expectation down and held tight to it! We like it simple and are hoping that’s what our son remembers.

    • I’m sure he will remember. One of the things I loved about our Christmas ‘schedule’ growing up was that there wasn’t really one. We had to wait until a certain time to open presents, and dinner was served at 4pm, but otherwise we were allowed to eat chocolate for breakfast, read books all day, watch movies or go play outside. We’ll be un-scheduling Christmas for ourselves this year!

  • sounds AMAZING! How I long for this…..
    we are surrounded by extended family and it is very complicated. Every year I try to figure out a way to make it simpler and less stressful, but alas, I am still trying to figure it out. You are the trail blazer, and I will be watching and learning from you in the years to come :)

    all the best to you and I hope you have a fantastic Christmas this year!

  • I’m not really sure what to do for Christmas this year.

    I live with my ILs and my sister-in-laws will be home for Christmas but .. no one in this house celebrates Christmas. My MIL will actually be working and I fathom my SILs will be studying for their January exams. My husband will also most likely be working.

    What am I to do?? This is the first year I’ve not spent Christmas with my parents.. so very odd.

    • Brandi — that does sound like it would feel very odd. Are you connected within your local community? Might you be able to find a church or other group that is having a celebration and/or working to connect those who are otherwise disconnected from celebrations (e.g. elderly, homeless, hospitalized) and make that your Christmas for this year — hopefully to good effect for all involved (you and others)?

      • I’ve tried to find places (non-religious based) to volunteer but everywhere I contact doesn’t need volunteers at this time.. You’d think with a degree in social work SOMEONE would want me! :)

      • I can’t find anyone who wants me as a volunteer at all! I’ve looked and looked but it seems the student population has swarmed and nowhere needs anyone..

        And sounds great! Do email :)

  • Huh — I guess we’ve been lucky in that we’ve always divided Christmas across different families, different years. So one year we see one part of one family and a different one the next — everyone is just too spread out (and we are just too recalcitrant) to do differently. This year we are spending Christmas day at our home and will celebrate Christmas eve with local family at their home, then serve a light (no, who am I kidding, a heavy) brunch to all interested (but probably no more than 6) before taking something approximating a traditional Christmas dinner (but likely store-bought) to the nursing home where my dad resides. His mobility is limited enough that “springing” him would be somewhere between difficult and dangerous (to him), so this seems the better option. And then Boxing day we’ll get on the road for a 10-day trip visiting family a few states over, but calmly and unhurriedly.

  • I hope you have a wonderful time. :) I just wanted to say that my husband and I did this one year…we chose to go away and spent Christmas alone in Italy and honestly, it was the very best of my life. We were so so relaxed and had none of the usual pressures…we didn’t do any gifts, we just had a long leisurely meal on Christmas eve in our jeans and sweaters and found a church open for midnight mass and that Christmas remains in my mind as THE Christmas that touched me the most. Simple, special, full of everything except worry, stress, rush and expectations. I’m not saying this to try to compete with your coming experience, just a friendly word to let you know it is wonderful and I think you will treasure this time. :)

  • This sounds so wonderful! I am jealous!
    My family lives close, but my husband’s family is farther away in Pennsylvania and NJ. At Christmastime, we visit both sides, but when it comes to Easter and Thanksgiving, we alternate (I keep an Excel spreadsheet – not a joke. Maybe a sad commentary?).
    May you have a very memorable time and enjoy some good Chinese food! Fa-ra-ra-ra-RAh…ra-ra-ra-ra.
    XO, Rayna

  • We decided a long time ago that we would alternate families each year. One year my mom gets Thanksgiving and my inlaws get Christmas and the next year it’s the other way around. It is still not ideal, but there’s no guilt if one set of parents gets “more time”. My husband and I would LOVE to travel for Christmas, but he has never had a job that granted him any reasonable amount of vacation time at all, much less around the holidays. I think my son would be happy as long as Santa comes (or he gets presents…I think he could care less about Santa)

  • I’m so excited for you. Scotland sounds lovely. We booked Hawaii this year. We’re actually doing a house exchange with friends who moved to Oahu. I’m a little nervous that my boys will miss a Whistler Christmas as my oldest is addicted to snowboarding, but I’m also looking forward to a “no-hotel” holiday. Enjoy your time together!

  • Thanks to my husband, we have completely minimalized our Christmas traveling. Early in December, (this past weekend) we host a Christmas get-together for most of the family and after that people may trickle in here or there. We make sure to share the burdon of travel by visiting others throughout the year. Christmas Eve and Christmas day are completely spent at home with our two young children, a trip to church, a wonderful dinner and a calm relaxing Christmas Day. The holiday season is really the only vacation my husband has and we don’t want to spend it traveling! We are looking forward to making many more happy christmas memories….

  • I bet Scotland will be so beautiful, all snowy and decorated for the holidays!

    I don’t have children of my own yet, but I am already feeling the mounting pressure, logisitics, and stress of the six hour flight that separates me and my family. It’s a long and expensive trip, and sometimes I just feel like all that is waiting for me at the other end is expectations and guilt trips about not spending enough time with either of my (divorced) parents. I know when I have kids and a family I will do Christmas in our own home, but for now I continue to feel sort of obligated to fit it all in- including flying BACK across the country before New Years to spend time with my in-laws. It’s hard to find the right moment to stop going home, it takes guts- I admire you for making the choice to keep things merry and light :)

  • Totally useless to you but Edingburgh is my birthplace, such a beautiful city, soak in the atmosphere and make sure you eat some tablet!!

    Oh how i envy you getting away. I had my sis in law basically telling me that we are havin mum in law boxing day, and to be honest i don’t want too. so i have no answers to the whole family thing!!
    Sharron x

  • Our family was lucky right from the begninning – my first child was born on Christmas eve – so right from the start we deemed Christmas a family holiday to stay at home and have time for just our immediate family. Even though my son is turning 10 this Christmas Eve, we still keep the ‘just our family at home’ tradition and we love it! I especially enjoy the snow and ice from the comfort of our house, and not having to stress about driving on icy streets, or cancelled flights, or any of that. We visit with family at other times of the year.

  • We have three sides of the family to visit each Christmas all in the same city as us, and things have become quite hectic and unpleasant in the past trying to fit everyone in on Christmas day (which was the expectation). Now we have a three year rotation where one family sees us on Christmas Eve night, one on Christmas Day night, and one on Boxing Day night. Christmas morning is always just us and our two kids at home, but any relatives that want to pop in and see the kids are more than welcome to do so. It seems to be working well so far, and this is the fourth year that we’re trying it out. Still hectic, but at least now we have boundaries drawn.

  • I just realized that you’re in our parent’s birth country for Christmas. Kind of coming full circle. I like it.
    We will miss you but I’m excited for you guys and your first away Christmas!

  • Once we’re out of our parents’ home, it’s tough and seems to take many years to find our own groove and traditions. We feel pulled to repeat the traditions that we grew up with but, as everyone here reveals, it’s wearing us out. We feel pulled to create our own traditions but feel the guilt of not following the traditions of our past and the people linked to them. I think it’s all part of the process of growing up, whether we’re in our 20’s or 50’s.

    The important part is that we stick to our own personal values and hope that everyone else understands (maybe they will, maybe they won’t – oh well). Our happiness is up to us and it’s not our job to make others happy.

    If going to the big family gatherings is in line with your values, then great! And if creating your own tradition of being with your immediate family in Hawaii (or wherever) and doing it the minimalist way is in line with your values, then great! It’s all good. Just do what’s good for you and your immediate family (spouse & kids).

  • I am so jealous that you are going to Scotland! That is my dream vacation destination and hopefully I will be able to go in a few years. For holidays, when we were younger, my family would alternate going to our two grandparents homes. Thanksgiving would be with our family in Kansas and Christmas in Colorado. And then switch it the next year. Now that we are older and my grandparents from colorado are traveling the US in an RV, we typically will go to Thanksgiving in Kansas and then stay here and just have a small Christmas with my parents and bro. I like low-stress holidays. Definitely would love to travel to some neat place like Scotland one christmas though, that’s for sure! Hope you have a blast!

  • I am an only child of two different nationality parents, so as a child, we already had varied Christmasses in England or Germany, so I was used to not having a specific tradition. When I had my own family, I got swept into what I thought people expected and although we always enjoyed Christmas it did get stressful sometimes. When the kids were young I wished we could have Christmas at home and be done but at least it divided up fairly: 24th at my in-laws for Swiss Christmas and 25th either at our place or my parents’ for English Christmas and turkey.
    However, since all the older generation are becoming less mobile and the family has grown from our three daughters, things have shifted a little. Usually the 24th is still the in-laws but no gift-giving, thankfully. Then we have to juggle the 25th/26th to fit in the family and the daughters’ in-laws, too – their husbands don’t want to be at our in-laws on the 24th AND our place on the 25th, they want to see their own families, plus one daughter now has 2 small kids and I can see it’s easier to do Christmas at her place!! Fortunately my English mother goes to her own mom in England and my German dad spends the holidays abroad with his wife, so those are two worries less (we have a little get-together with both beforehand). At least we keep the gifts right down with no value pressures, so it actually works out quite well for us.
    I couldn’t imagine not being at home at all for Christmas, i.e. abroad, that would seem really strange but if it works for you (and the situation almost forces it upon you!)…!!

  • Scotland. So lovely. The seaside town of Ayr is beautiful and walkable. Try to get there if you can. Not sure if it has a Starbucks (likely does) but last I was there a coffee house called Bean Scene was pretty great. Enjoy!

  • One of the best Christmas’ I ever had was when pregnant with First-Born. We were trying to get the house renovations done in advance of an April baby, and as such did not even have a tree or have lunch at home. We exchanged a couple of small gifts in bed and went to my parents for lunch. Straight after boxing day we went to Cumbria (the lake district) not too far from Scotland, and spent the week there with lots of friends in 2 cabins. The least stressful Christmas ever!

    It’s no secret on my bucket list is to do Wham’s Last Christmas – a chalet in Saas Fee (or somewhere similar) – a bit of skiing, lot’s of mulled wine, a roaring open fire and copious amounts of snow. One day!

  • We spent 3 Christmases in Edinburgh while there for PhD work. Have fun!! If you go to Princes Street Gardens, there’s a German market and a carousel. :)

  • Husband and I spent our first married Christmas on the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. I was 4 months pregnant, and we knew that Christmases of the future would be family-filled. It seemed an ideal moment to have Christmas just the two of us together. It was lovely. We were living in London at the time, and part of the pleasure of it was the long train journey there and back.

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