Slowing down for an easier holiday season

We’re into December now and I’m feeling extremely Christmassy. The decorations are up, the advent calendars are open, I’m playing exclusively Christmas music, and I might have already eaten a whole Terry’s chocolate orange.

I’m definitely a Christmas person and I always look forward to this time of year with a clichéd sense of excitement. I love the lights in the darkness. I love the season of advent, of counting down the days. I love Christmas markets, light displays, and pantomime. I love the smell of Christmas – pine trees and frost, cinnamon and cloves, gluhwein and hot chocolate. I’m completely unapologetic about this.

But let’s be honest: this time of year is usually just so busy.

Book, mug, Christmas Tree
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If you’re organising Christmas for a family, hosting others for the holidays, or just generally trying to juggle working, childcare and all-round magic-making, you probably have a series of holiday season lists: gifts to buy, events to attend, friends to see, menu plans, cards and wrapping, shopping lists, who has to be where when, who’s coming to visit/stay, various school and nursery dates-for-the-diary, moving the godforsaken elf…and all the rest. It’s a lot. So how can you manage to have a stress-free Christmas?

A Less-Busy Christmas

The calendar is a LOT emptier than usual this year. Ongoing COVID restrictions mean that so many festive events have either been cancelled or moved online for 2020. While I’m totally fine with watching a virtual Christmas carol service, I’m really sad about only seeing my youngest child’s preschool nativity on a video recording. We’ll never get that back.

But seeing the positive is important, and one of the things I’m really appreciating this year is NOT having to rush everywhere. And it has made me determined not to go back to the usual manic December schedule in the years to come.

Ideas for a Less Stressful Christmas Season

If you’re prone to Christmas-planning stress, and feel exhausted by the time the day actually arrives, then read on.

1. Decide what matters to you this Christmas

Honestly, this is probably the most important factor in being able to really enjoy the festive season. But it isn’t easy. We’re conditioned to have a certain idea (or ideal!) of Christmas, based on nostalgia, advertising, and social media to name just a few. The pressure comes from everywhere to do more, buy more, decorate more, give more, eat more. More lights, more glitter, more joy. But potentially more stress and more disappointment if you feel like you’re not living up to it all.

If you can let go of all that pressure and focus on the things that matter to YOU, whether it’s going all out to turn your home into Santa’s Grotto, or paring back your decorations completely. Maybe you want to take a few days with your immediate family to just be. Maybe you’re working over Christmas and need others to step up and help you organise. Whatever it is, figure it out and go from there.

The actual important things about Christmas are not the More things. They’re the Small things. Things like family, and slowing down, and eating too much, and watching the same old movies and singing the same old songs. I’m a firm believer in the mantra that Christmas Isn’t a Season, It’s a Feeling. Work on the feeling.

2. Start by doing one thing to get yourself in the Christmas mood

This is an important ritual to me each year. Late November/early December rolls around and I feel the need to switch into Christmas mode. So I make sure I do one or two small things that never fail to get me into the zone.

  • Buying advent calendars for the family. We love the old-fashioned German paper ones.
  • Setting up my advent candle on the mantelpiece.
  • Getting out the Christmas scents – oils and candles in my favourite pine and winter spiced fragrances.
  • Unpacking my favourite Christmas mugs

These are little things that help me make the psychological shift into feeling Christmassy, but it’s a much-anticipated ritual and helps me to feel excited about the oncoming Christmas madness. You’ll probably intuitively know what that little thing looks like for you.

Candle burning in jar with orange and cinnamon decorations
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3. Opt out of the things you don’t want to do this Christmas

Some kinds of holiday season stress are unavoidable, and for many people it can be a time of increased loneliness, depression, family issues, mental health problems, or financial stress. Emotions run high at this time of year and it can be a difficult time for many.

But there are a whole lot of other stresses that we largely bring upon ourselves in the pursuit of the perfect Christmas and to meet the expectations of ourselves and others. If you always get stressed in the run up to the festive season, maybe this year is the time to set some boundaries ahead of time?

Saying No to the things you don’t want to do can really help you to enjoy everything else much more.

Feel forced to host, or to visit others?
Gently explain why you want to do something different this year. Even if the thought of having the conversation makes you anxious, it can’t be worse than spending your whole Christmas in a way you don’t want to.

Feel under financial pressure to buy too many gifts?
Talk about it. It’s not a dirty subject. Maybe others are feeling the same way but no one wants to bring it up! Suggest a Secret Santa approach, agree a budget everyone’s happy with, or perhaps agree to only buy gifts for the children in your family. (Remember, how much you spend is not an indication of how much you love your loved ones!)

Can’t face all the cooking?
Don’t do it. Cut right back. Don’t just make something because you feel you should, especially if it not anyone’s favourite. Buy something pre-made, or delegate to others. If there’s a family recipe you make every year that takes forever, ditch it and find an easier alternative.

Hate the crowds?
Make a plan to shop solely online, or to support small businesses in your local area. Avoiding the festive crowds definitely makes for stress-free Christmas shopping.

Don’t want to write Christmas cards?
Then don’t. Why not call people for a catch-up instead? Send an email or a text to check in.

You don’t have to do everything. It’s ok to say no. I think it’s also important to be happy with the idea that ditching a tradition doesn’t obliterate any of your happy memories about it.

4. Make a Christmas list of stuff you WANT to do (not have to do)

Back to those all lists… For years, I only ever made lists of Christmas chores, errands to be run, shopping lists, and basically all the stuff I HAD to get done. Boring lists, basically. Then someone mentioned to me that they’d written a list of all the Christmas movies they wanted to watch, which was quite the revelation. Fun lists – who knew? This simple concept had never occurred to me.

So these days I always make sure I have at least one fun list on the go as well as all the boring ones. You could make that list of Christmas movies to watch, winter books to read, create a few Christmas playlists, or think of festive food you want to make (remember: WANT to, not have to).

5. Plan Christmas early so you can actually enjoy December

Plan for a stress-free Christmas! iPad with an Apple pencil and paper stars
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One of the things that’s really allowed me to have a relaxed December and stress-free Christmas over the past few years is planning ahead. Like really ahead. I start in September by booking tickets for things like Santa visits, Christmas experiences, light trails and pantomimes as soon as they open. This helps me plan, get excited for December, and also spread the cost.

I try to spread my gift shopping through October-December too, and before December starts I sit down and write a master Christmas To Do List. It might sound crazy to some people (i.e. my husband, lol), but to me it’s the best way to avoid the holiday season being crazy busy and just plain stressful.

6. Delegate Christmas wherever you can

This is one where I need to take my own advice. When it comes to Christmas, I’m like the irritating co-worker who thinks they’re indispensable. Over the years I’ve unnecessarily decided that it’s up to me and only me to make Christmas happen. And so I put myself in the position of chief cook, cleaner, shopper, decorator, hostess, and head elf. It’s madness and I need to stop.

This year, try delegating some parts of Christmas to others.

7. You don’t need to do all the Christmas decorating at once

I love to decorate for Christmas, but I also don’t make it easy on myself. Hands up if you switch out your entire dinner service, plates, bowls, serving dishes, glasses and mugs for Christmas-themed ones every December? Anyone? Maybe a couple of hands at the back there. I love my Christmas kitchenware, but it does add a lot of extra work, along with decorations in most rooms.

The biggest change I’ve made in recent years is spreading out the Christmas decorating. I used to bust a gut every year getting all the Christmas decorations out all in one day, just so I could say it was done. Then I realised that just made me a bit resentful and the only pressure came from myself.

These days it takes me about a week to get everything out, and we may have to put up with a few boxes in the way for a couple of days, but I actually enjoy the whole process way more. It’s a small change, but it noticeably helps.

8. Turn the Christmas gift wrapping into an enjoyable experience

Wrapping paper and ribbons on table
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If you’re the type of person who stays up late on Christmas Eve feverishly wrapping presents, then there might be a bit of mindset alteration needed here. I’m a big believer in making the wrapping an enjoyable task, and I don’t think it’s that hard to achieve.

Top Tips for Not Hating the Christmas Gift Wrapping

  • Buy supplies early. Have enough paper, tape, tags, ribbons etc well ahead of Christmas. It’s painful scraping around for this stuff on a late-night dash to the supermarket 2 days before Christmas.
  • Buy a tape dispenser. They’re cheap and make the whole operation ten times easier.
  • Also buy some extra scissors because you’ll lose them many times in December.
  • Find a cosy spot where you can listen to Christmas music or a podcast, or watch a Christmas movie while you wrap.
  • Get a suitable work surface. Don’t wrap on the floor unless you enjoy back pain. Lots of people swear by an ironing board as the perfect stand-up wrapping station. I enjoy sitting on the sofa and doing my wrapping on top of an ottoman in front of a Christmas movie.

9. Think of others this Christmas

Slowing down amid the Christmas chaos has other benefits than just saving your own sanity. It can provide the time and space to appreciate what we have and think of people in less fortunate circumstances than our own.

Many charities are particularly in need of donations of money, time, gifts and food at this time of year, so try to find some time to volunteer or items to donate, or contribute towards a charity that means something to you. Helping someone to have a better Christmas is a pretty good gift to give.

10. Let go of the idea of the Perfect Christmas

Most of us have been guilty of this at times. The picture-perfect Christmas is blasted at us from all angles for months leading up to the day itself. And if you buy into it, you could easily make creating it your full-time job.

But if you let go of unrealistic expectations, and don’t expect your Christmas tree to look perfect, your pavlova to look like Nigella’s, and your kids to sit still and pose for an angelic-looking photo in your matching family pyjamas, you will start to enjoy yourself more.

That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t go all-out for Christmas. You totally can, IF that’s what you WANT to do. But it’s not obligatory, and if it doesn’t happen it’s still ok. And you’ll still have a lovely time. You never know, you might even have a better time.

11. Have simple stress-free Christmas traditions for everyone to look forward to

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Christmas is built on traditions. A bit like the old decorations that we bring out year after year: we all have them, and they’re the foundation of many a cosy Christmas feeling.

Starting new traditions, especially with kids, can be a really fun way to get into the Christmas spirit. We have quite a few, and you can check out my post on that if you’re looking for inspiration of some family Christmas traditions [Link to post on that] to start this year.

It also helps to remember that keeping up traditions is not compulsory. If any of your existing Christmas traditions feel more like obligations, or just if your family has just outgrown them over time, then don’t feel any guilt about dropping them.

12. Get ahead for next year – you will thank yourself in about 11 months’ time!

You know what’s worse than Christmas being over? Putting the Christmas decorations away. Ugh. Probably ranks among my least favourite household tasks. (Although, the clean and spacious house feeling when all the Christmas clutter has gone is pretty amazing).

Because I hate it so much, I used to put all the Christmas things away by throwing them haphazardly into boxes with no order. I just wanted to get it done, and fast. But a few years ago I started taking the time to put them away in a much more ordered way, throwing away any broken or unneeded items, and labelling all the boxes room by room. Which of course meant that they take up less storage space, and when it comes time to unpack them, everything is already organised and you don’t need to go foraging for spare bulbs or more tree hooks or additional plug adapters. Winner!

I hope you can take some of these ideas and use them to help have a slower, easier, stress-free Christmas this year.