Simple Holidays: What Worked Last Year?

I know we’re still a few weeks away from US Thanksgiving so some of you may be irked that I’m already writing about the big winter holidays. But if you’re preparing for turkey-fest 2012 you can still put a bit of thought on what will happen in the weeks after.

I’ll be writing about the holidays, celebrating simply and gifting with intention, on Mondays from now into December.

Last year we had the simplest of Christmas and winter holiday celebrations. We attended a few small parties and my husband’s big winter work gala, met up with friends to take our children to meet Santa (Father Christmas as they say here) in a medieval castle and then we went to Edinburgh for five days.

On Christmas day our son opened one present and we went to the zoo.

I can’t recall what dinner was but it was homemade and it wasn’t turkey.

It was a wonderful and stress free holiday season.

I’m thinking back to last year as I make plans for this holiday season. Even though they will be quite different experiences.

We’ll be on island, I’ll be very pregnant and we have a three year old that understands gift giving and receiving. There are lots of Manx events we want to see and go to. We should, fingers and visa permits crossed, have a visitor here for the holidays. We’ll have our first real Christmas tree to decorate.

What worked for us last year:

  • Planning meals: I preordered a grocery delivery for our stay in Edinburgh and meal planned for our five day holiday. It was nice to just enjoy our surroundings instead of hunting down a grocery store that was open Christmas Eve. I’ll do the same this year making note of the evenings we’ll be out at events and parties.
  • Spacing out gift opening: Henry opened one gift on Christmas Day and when we returned home he opened one gift, or set of of gifts, once a day (he ended up with three days of gift opening).
  • Connecting with our families: I love you, Skype. It was so nice to see and hear our families back in Canada over the holidays. It’s when we feel the distance, and the downside, of our ex-pat life most.

What could have gone better last year:

  • Decorating: we had a few decorations left from the previous tenants in our old place but the festive look to our little flat came from sound more than sight (I was playing the Micheal Buble Christmas album on repeat). Because we were going away I didn’t feel a huge need to decorate and while I made good use of our mistletoe spring, I missed having a tree. We’ll have a real! live! Christmas tree this year and Henry and I will make some homemade decorations.
  • Researching Holiday Events: I found out about the mini Santa Train after the tickets had sold out. Not this year. I’ve looked through the local calendar and made a list of the things we’d like to see and do. We won’t get around to all of them obviously but I’m excited to fit in what our schedule and stamina allows.

With this in mind I’m crafting out our holiday plan and calendar.

Nothing is set in stone but I hope to watch Operation Petticoat with my sister whilst nibbling on homemade Poppycock.

We’re researching where we can give locally to help other families have a great holiday season.

I’m ambitiously taking on making a cardboard playhouse as a big gift for Henry and working on a Christmas Day meal plan that doesn’t leave me chained to the kitchen for eight hours on the day of.

This week I am posting off a package of holiday treats to family in Canada.

Small tasks and goals that should leave us with lots of relaxing time as the winter holiday season ramps up.

Did you simplify gift giving and events last year? What worked for you? What will you change this year?

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  • Last year we were also out of town, and it was fabulous. We visited my husband’s parents across the country, and it was actually really relaxing. We had plenty of help with the kids and actually got to sleep in a few mornings (!), we didn’t buy many gifts for the children because we knew they’d be getting spoiled by grandma and grandpa (and all their aunts and uncles and great grand parents too!), and we didn’t have to do any entertaining! We had lots of simple fun while we were out there–we went to see the big lights display and went sledding.

    This year we will be at home, but we are hoping to keep things similarly low-key. Just a few presents for each child (and we may try having them open and enjoy them one at a time, as you do), my parents are invited over for a simple Christmas breakfast, and we will still go out for some simple family fun over the holiday season. I love your idea of checking the community calendar in advance–I need to go do that!

  • Last year we visited family for over two weeks so we didn’t decorate either. This year our plans are similar to yours. We plan to get a real tree (looking into cutting down our own). We already own a small box of decorations. We are keeping it simple by staying home and enjoying the local events. I’m really hoping for our first white Christmas this year! We are getting our daughter a play kitchen and any family who asks for recommendations, I’m suggesting play food. My daughter’s birthday is on Christmas so I’m combining gifts as long as I can pull it off!

  • Last year was my youngest daughters first Christmas (at a whole month and a day old). As a result, we bought her one gift, and one stocking stuffer. We figured if we didn’t do at least that our oldest would notice and be upset. Looking back, I don’t think she would have noticed. Although, I’m glad we bought her those two gifts, since those are the two items she plays with and treasures the most now at almost 1.

    We were limiting our oldest in gifts and she got 5 gifts from us, but then came in the gifts from the relatives. It ended up looking like presents were coming from everywhere. It was a bit overwhelming for even me. We had the gift opening go at her pace so we spent several days opening gifts and she enjoyed everything in between. Not exactly sure what we’re doing this year, but I would like it to be more simple and laid back than last year.

    We have decided to do Want, Need, Wear, Read + 1 and a joint gift, but we are hoping to take the focus off of the gifts. Not sure how yet. And we’re also not getting a gift, just to get a gift. If a category comes up blank (especially for our 1 year old, since we’ve already purchased everything for our 3 year old) than so be it.

  • Last year was very stress free and our cheapest holiday season yet. It was just our immediate family at home, (my hubby & 4 boys) . We had just moved across country and had sold 99%of our decorations. We did find a small live tabletop tree and decorated it naturally with paper chains. Super simple. Our boys were given money on Dec.1st to decide how they wanted to spend. They researched their selections and we ordered most online and had them shipped. The only requirement was that they had to wait until Christmas to open and play with their toys. Most of that will stay the same this year, except for the date of opening. We have decided to move our opening up to Dec. 22nd- winter solstice. The reason is that most of my boys only got 1 or 2 items. And some items didn’t work. I would like all kids to have working toys to play with and I can resolve concerns immediately on Dec. 22nd when all stores are open. It will make for a very happy Christmas rather than s day of disappointment. We will reserve Christmas Day to celebrate with friends and family!!

  • Last year our Christmas was even more laid back & relaxed than what we normally do and normally we have very simple Christmases. We didn’t do much decorating either. We had planned to decorate but our van was struck head on and we had other things on our mind in the few weeks leading up to Christmas. The young man who hit us had no insurance so the Christmas money was redirected to paying bills from the accident & higher food costs because I couldn’t cook being immobile for 6 weeks. We got each of the children 1 gift. The oldest boy, 11 at the time, was sad. He was used to 3 gifts & a Santa gift but understood why. The other two children didn’t notice a difference.

    This year we are planning to do more Christmas Spirit story reading and holiday baking. We give edible gifts to our friends & family. Next weekend at the local Holiday Craft Fair we’ll take the kids to get their picture taken with Santa. The day after Thanksgiving we’ll place a 10 ft tall 4 ft wide piece of paper on the wall & draw our Christmas tree, then decorate it. If we had enough space for a real tree we’d have one but we don’t.

    We made a claim on our insurance for an uninsured motorist claim, so after medical bills are all paid off ($106,000USD!) we’ll have a very small amount of money left. The oldest boy wants to be a Secret Santa for a family we know with that money. I told him that sounds like a wonderful idea to me.

    • That is so wonderful that your son is already interested in giving to others. I hope I can raise my children to be so conscientious as well.

      I’m so sorry to hear about your accident and the issues caused by someone driving without insurance.

  • I’m so happy that you will be writing about how you plan on keeping your holidays simple but special. Last year was such an overwhelming holiday season for me. That I promised this year would be different. So I look forward to reading what you and others will be doing, I hate crowds so I’ve started my shopping early. I would love any recommendations from anyone on a Santa gift for a 3 yr old. I really want to find something that will get continual use and he will cherish through the years.

  • Last year (our sons first Christmas) we started a 3-gift rule for our presents. Everyone in the family gets 3 presents (with a little leeway – we do small fun gifts in stockings and christmas eve pj’s); this doesn’t include what he might get from our relatives, but it helps control the present clutter if we don’t add to it for the get-go. 3 presents x 3 people (plus a few of the gifts for grandparents) and under our tree never looked like we were trying to control presents.

    Most of my sons presents were thrifted for last year and this year I’ve been buying up thrift/consignment wooden train sets, buildings, bridges, trains, etc. all year and we’re making him a train table topper for our coffee table. We plan on setting up a mini-train track city in the living for him on Christmas day and that will probably be the extent of our presents for him. I really can’t wait to see his face.

    We’ll start working on planning our advent activities in another week or so, too – not presents, just activities to take a moment for each day – it will range from bigger activities like the free holiday show here in town to making a fire, reading our christmas books and making hot chocolate and some charity activities.

    • Those train pieces are so expensive new. Well done on patiently purchasing your set second hand :) I am sure he will love it.

      Advent activities: I am making a mostly clutter-free advent calendar this year. Will have a post up soon with clutter-free advent gift/activity ideas. Adding making hot chocolate to the list!

      • So far I think I’ve spent about 40 dollars (US) tops, and have two bags of train tracks, bridges, signs, buildings and a few trains. Well worth it, I’m hoping this will be a cherished toy for at least the next 5 years.

        • Hope we get another 5 years out of ours too! So far so good. I can really see how a good set grows with the child. They start off just pushing the trains around, then are into make believe and adding their own noises. Later they get into the building phase.

  • The thing that works best for me: Do things only from a place of wanting, not from a place of obligation. That doesn’t mean doing only things I find enjoyable. It might mean driving 5 hours to see family at some point during the holidays. But I’m only doing that if it’s because it’s truly what I want to do. Makes all the difference in the world.

  • Upset about you writing about the holidays this early? Never…. We went on a vacay in mid July to SC with my inlaws, and in one of the big chain craft stores (Hobby Lobby) they had 1/6 of the place completely decked out in CHRISTMAS decor. Wreaths, ornaments, STOCKINGS AND CRAFTS! I was shocked. And every store I went into around mid October had about 2 isles dedicated to Christmas already. This year commercialization of the holidays has gone into overdrive. All I could think was that I can’t imagine that people think this is OK. Surely it sends a bit of disgust through the majority of the US population! I hope it does, because that’s the only way things are going to change. I suspect that since the recession retail sales have low and these companies feel this might solve the problem? They have to be doing it for a calculated reason, as that much retail space is worth a LOT Of money. If no one was going to buy Christmas lights in July, or even October, they certainly wouldn’t put them on the shelves. They would put things there that they could sell, because that is their business. Someone is buying the stuff.

    • In Rachel’s defense, she’s not writing about consuming and shopping; rather planning ahead on how to spend quality time during the holidays, as it will come and go so quickly. I wanted to take my sons on a special Polar Express train ride, but apparently it sold out last month.
      I agree the stores are frustrating. Someone asked my 5 year old recently what he wants from Santa, and he replied, I can’t talk to Santa yet, we still have Thanksgiving!

  • It’s so easy to get caught up in the “should be doing this, seeing this, giving this” of the holidays. In the past, I’ve felt so stressed keeping up with it all that I don’t even end up enjoying any of it – which is the whole point! My best holidays usually involve being inside with a few great people, hot cider, and the smell of a Christmas tree. I’m going to do more of that this time.

  • It’s summer here, so not at all christmas-y that time of year. It’s very weird to try to celebrate christmas in summer. I’m used to snow and cold.

    As such, we actually just focus on the fact that it is summer, and we don’t celebrate christmas until June. Our friends have a traditional swedish Jul party which we attend. They have several little parties leading up to it — making paper ornaments for the tree, cookies, etc. DS participates in these even if I don’t. It’s great for him.

    In our own home, we make a tree on the wall out of washi-paper colored tape. Then DS and I make origami ornaments which I then affix to the wall with a bit of tape. We also collect pine cones and pine branches from the pine forest near us. and put them in a basket on our table.

    We do not give gifts at the holidays or on birthdays. We use gifts as “surprises” which are given for no other reason than thoughtfulness and care. When we visit friends on holidays, we take flowers to “show our love” to them (this is DS’s phrasing of the situation), and when people come to visit us, we give them flowers as a going away gift to show our love and thanks for having them come.

    He does get presents — usually not from us because he’d be saturated otherwise — but we make sure that he opens them at random times, rather than on specific dates.

    We also give gifts, but we do it randomly. DS calls them “Thank-you Gifts.” He said that when he sees something that he thinks a friend or family member will like, he’ll ask to get it for them and send it to them. If we have the financial capacity to do so, then we do it. And he often includes a card such as “I was thinking of you and I am thankful that we are together.” He has an interesting sentiment around these things. Everyone lives in his heart, you see.

    Anyway, it works out well for us. At actual christmas time, we are travelling and enjoying summer. In winter, when we celebrate christmas, it’s divorced from the cultural pressures of christmas.

    Also, there isn’t a santa here. I mean, there is — of course. But, we don’t praticipate in it as an active process. DS knows that Santa is a very nice story, and that some people like to reinact Santa as part of their christmas ritual. DS “played Santa” last June with his friend. They basically traded objects that they already had. Neither child has a santa ritual in their home that the parents do.

    We mostly focus our holidays around being together, gratitude, and experiences.

  • Last year worked well for me. I now have a set of simple traditions that I’m repeating. The Chutney is made, Operation Christmas Child boxes packed up and ready to be shipped. Christmas puds are on this weekend’s list, and the scarves I’m knitting are well underway despite a few failed attempts.
    p.s great minds think alike ;-)! I love the playhouse! I’m making Leah a Monster High High-School for her dolls out of a box also. The plastic one is £90 – but regardless of the high price, that’s not the point. It’ll be a great project and one that she’ll be involved in. I love love love a bit of creative recycling. Excited to hear how you get on!

      • :) I know… our little heart hangs off the pen cup in the kitchen year round. I’ll move it to the tree for December.

        Post about the doll high-school if you get a chance. Would love to see it. The good thing about this cardboard playhouse is that he’ll use it and be happy with it even if it just looks like a big box. At a great age for grand appreciate for little things.

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