How to Embrace a Simple Christmas: 7 Tips for a Less-Stress Holiday Season

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Christmas doesn’t have to be big and expensive and hectic to be joyful.

If stress is putting a damper on your holiday season, read on to discover seven ways to embrace a simple Christmas.

Countdowns, Bucket Lists, and a Simple Christmas

First, a quick note.

My last two posts contained tons of ideas about creating a Christmas countdown for your kids and planning your family’s December bucket list. They might seem not seem aligned with a simple Christmas.

But here’s how those two posts and this one fit together: you get to make holiday magic with a recipe all your own.

I love brainstorming and compiling ideas so that you have plenty of options to choose from. (I’m a research junkie and excitement over ideas has been known to give me insomnia.)

But you only need to do a teeny tiny fraction of those activities to give your family a merry Christmas.

(I know I’m not using the term “bucket list” in accordance with its original meaning.

However, the definition seems to have evolved from a “things-we-definitely-want-to-do” list to a “lots-of-ideas” list.

Since “bucket list” is the phrase people use when Googling for ideas, I went with it.)

Use those posts to find a few ideas that speak to you, then start planning your simple, joyful Christmas.

7 Tips to Simplify Christmas

Simplify Your Child’s Expectations

When you’ve done a certain holiday activity with your child in previous years, it’s easy to get stuck in the mindset, “But they’ll be so disappointed if we don’t do that! It’s tradition!”

I love a good family tradition — I even wrote a post on why they’re so important. But the holiday season gets ridiculous. You don’t need to stack tradition upon tradition upon tradition to generate Christmas magic for your kiddo.

The key is to prioritize.

Simplify your kids’ expectations by asking them to name the three festive activities that are most important to them. What you learn can surprise you and set you free.

When I asked my two older boys this question, I found out neither one cares about our annual holiday lights drive. In fact, they didn’t even seem to remember that tradition until I specifically asked.


And when I did, both said, “Nah, I don’t care about that.”

I was a little taken aback because everything I’ve read and heard said that my kids would LOVE the tradition of bundling up and hopping in the car to drive around gazing at Christmas lights.

But turns out my particular kids don’t, and that means we’ve freed up a December evening to do something more meaningful.

Or to just have an ordinary Sunday night — not every single moment of December has to ooze holiday magic.

Foregoing some activities will not only open time on your calendar, but will also distill your festivities to the things that hold the most magic and meaning for your kids.

Think of what childhood Christmas memories you hold dear. It’s often the simple traditions that create the most lasting memories.

Simplify Your OWN Expectations

What’s on your to-do list for this month?

Are you planning to send cards? Make six different kinds of cookies? Deliver handmade Christmas gifts to your kids’ teachers? (More on gifts below!)


Before you start scurrying around trying to do all. the. things., the very first thing you should do is examine each item on your to-do list.

Then ask yourself this question: do you like the idea of the activity, or do you genuinely enjoy doing the thing itself?

For example, I love decorating my fireplace mantel. I see it whenever I walk into the house and its cozy Christmas vibe makes me smile every time. Totally worth the time and effort.

Baking cookies, on the other hand, is one of those activities I feel like I should love, but don’t.

I already spend so much time prepping food for our family of five, and neither of my older boys has much of an attention span for baking projects.

So now, apart from rollout sugar cookies with my mom, I do no holiday baking.

I love beautiful cookies, but I’ll be buying them, not making them! Photo from Pexels.

It’s counter-cultural and makes me feel a little guilty. But not so guilty that I don’t also feel the relief of a giant burden lifted. I’m hoping all the guilt goes away once not baking becomes my holiday tradition. 🙂

Evaluate your own holiday time commitments and routines:

  • Do you love visiting a tree farm to get your Christmas tree, or does it add one more thing to your already packed weekends?  

  • Do you enjoy seeing people’s social media posts about their Christmas festivities, or does scrolling make you feel like your own way of celebrating doesn’t measure up?

  • Do your kids want to visit Santa, or do you feel obligated to get that photo of them sitting on Santa’s lap? (PSA: You’re not.)

A simpler Christmas starts with carefully assessing what brings you joy and what causes stress. For a tool to help your decision-making process, see the last section of this post.

Simplify Decorations

Christmas decorations seem to multiply like rabbits. A cute snowman here, a Polar Express train set there, and suddenly you have bin after bin of holiday decor.

You don’t have to decorate every room of your house to get the Christmas vibes flowing.

Instead, think about where you spend the most time as a family. For us, it’s the living room and dining room, so that’s where we put up our tree and drape the garlands.

If you spend more time in, say, your family room, then make that the space you decorate. You want your décor in an area where your entire family can enjoy it together.

Some other simple Christmas decorating ideas include pine boughs and pinecones interspersed with a few candles or white lights.

The best part about incorporating natural elements in your decor is that you get the beauty without having to store stuff the remaining 11 months of the year.

Once you’ve decorated your family-togetherness spaces, get rid of the rest of the holiday clutter filling up those bins.

You’ll free up both storage space and mental space, plus make your post-Christmas un-decorating process a whole lot simpler.

Simplify Outings

It’s wonderful that this time of year offers tree lighting ceremonies, Christmas parties, concerts, Nutcracker performances, European-style Christmas markets, and so on.

But there’s absolutely no way to attend even a fraction of them.

Pick out two, maybe three events, you’re excited about. Put them on your calendar. Then start saying no to everything else.

It’s easy to come down with a major case of FOMO when you hear about all the festive things going on. Don’t fall into that trap!

Two pairs of feet in cozy socks/slippers, with hot drinks and a fire in the fireplace in the background - a simple Christmas activity

You’ll enjoy the holiday season so much more if you have plenty of downtime to savor the little things, like:

  • Admiring the lights on your tree while cupping a mug of hot cocoa and snuggling under a quilt.

  • Sending simple Christmas cards to a few close friends.

  • Listening to instrumental holiday music while wrapping gifts.

  • Treating yourself to a peppermint latte and sipping it while reading A Christmas Carol.

Make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to enjoy calm, quiet moments amidst all the merry-making.

Simplify Gifts

Few holiday chores generate as much stress for moms as buying allll those presents. It takes a ton of time and energy to shop for gifts, even more so when you’re trying to stick to a budget.   

With friends and adult family members, consider foregoing gifts and instead planning a shared experience. An abundance of research shows experiences result in more lasting happiness than material things do.

You might visit a museum, go to a concert, or try out a new brunch place.

Finding an alternative to mass consumerism is a lot harder when it comes to kids.

When children see those brightly wrapped packages under the tree, it’s easy to get swept up by their excitement.

How can we not? As parents, we delight in seeing our kids giddy with happiness. That’s what can make it so darn hard to rein in gift giving.

Plus, we’re swimming against the current.

From movies, books, and songs to the well-intentioned relative who asks your child what Santa’s going to bring them, kids constantly receive the message that Christmas is all about the presents.  


It’s wonderful in theory and hard in practice to heed the advice to “cut back.”

But it’s 100% worth the effort to push back against the commercial tidal wave, to teach our kids that gifts are only a small part of what makes the holiday season so wonderful.

Here are some of the things our family is trying:

  • Set a budget and stick to it.

    Nothing sucks the joy out of Christmas faster than massive credit card bills. Figure out how much you want to spend on gifts and then shop accordingly.

    You can also save money and be kind to the earth by shopping for used items or asking for things through a Facebook Buy Nothing group.
  • Decide on a gift giving “formula.”

    The 4-gift rule has surged in popularity in recent years: “something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.”

    It’s not a great fit for my family –- we buy things the kids need when they need them, my six-year-old couldn’t care less about clothes, we don’t want to buy four gifts PLUS gifts from Santa and their siblings –- but I love the idea of a gift rule.

    Our formula doesn’t have a neat little rhyme (yet 😉), but it does consist of four things: something in your stocking, something from Santa, something from Mom and Dad, and something from your brothers.
Give the gift of quality time together; photo from Pexels
  • Consider giving experiences rather than things.

    There are so many ways to make a kid happy that don’t involve contributing to playroom clutter: a trip to the children’s museum or zoo, a mini-golf or bowling outing, or a day at a local amusement park.

    However, I acknowledge the delayed gratification element might be a hard sell, especially the first time you attempt this type of gift.

    A trip to the amusement park, for example, can’t be wrapped up in a giant box.

    But you can generate excitement by having a few print-outs from the park’s website on hand, like lists of rides and food options. Perhaps you could have the ride wristbands mailed to you ahead of time and wrap those up.

    Get your child thinking about what rides they’ll go on and in what order, whether they’ll choose mini donuts or ice cream, etc.

    Growing that anticipation will definitely help ease the disappointment that comes with the absence of a shiny new object.

    You can also soften the blow AND lessen the dreadful disappointment that comes with Christmas being over by planning the outing asap, for December 26th or December 27th if possible.
  • Give a subscription .

    By giving a magazine subscription or a subscription box, you can stretch out the joy of Christmas morning.

    If you obtain the current month’s magazine edition or the first of the subscription boxes, wrap it up for your child to open.

    Whatever your child’s interests, there are great subscription box options to choose from.

    We’re trying out Finders Seekers Junior Explorers, an escape-room style box with a different global location theme each month. It gets awesome reviews and I hope my boys will have a blast with it.

Simplify Food

Christmas won’t be joyful if you’re stressing over all the food that needs to be prepared.  

You don’t need elaborate meals for Christmas Eve dinner AND for all three meals on Christmas Day.

What foods are your non-negotiables, the ones steeped in both flavor and memories? Make those, then simplify the rest.

  • Rethink how many meals you’re preparing:

    Could you order Chinese takeout food for Christmas dinner? Have a simple breakfast, a big lunch, and lunch leftovers for dinner? Hit up Trader Joe’s for a bunch of fun appetizers and special treats you can graze on throughout the day?

  • Take shortcuts:

    Buy a frozen pie and a carton of ice cream for your dessert course. Get the pre-chopped veggies. Make hot cocoa from the mix that comes in little envelopes. You get the idea.

  • Plan now and shop ahead:

    Have you ever gone to the grocery store those last few days before Christmas? It’s hard to find a parking spot and so much stuff is out of stock and blech.

    Plan your meals now and shop ahead for as many things as possible (frozen cinnamon rolls are on my shopping list this week).   

Simplify Christmas Eve and Christmas Day

There’s a lot of pressure to pack every moment of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with fun and magic.

You are not in charge of making sure everyone is feeling the holiday spirit at every single moment.

Because even though it’s Christmas, there will still be meltdowns, spilled drinks, and negotiations over screen time.

That doesn’t mean the holiday is any less meaningful. It just means that ordinary life doesn’t go on hiatus simply because the calendar says it’s December 25th.

In the wise words of Brené Brown, “I will find my holiday magic in the mess.”

So knowing you don’t have to plan the perfect day, how can you enjoy the simple pleasures of connection with loved ones?


Here are some zero-prep ways your whole family can spend time together:

  • Read Christmas books
  • Watch Christmas movies
  • Make paper snowflakes
  • Decorate gingerbread houses (get the kits that have everything you need )
  • Go for a walk
  • Go sledding or ice skating
  • Build a family of snow people
  • Play board games
  • Put a puzzle together

How to Plan a Simple Christmas

Last year I discovered how much I love using the MoSCoW method to navigate the Christmas season.

A tool normally used in management settings, the letters in the MoSCoW acronym stand for “must-do,” “should-do,” “could-do,” and “won’t-do.”

I’ve found that deliberately placing certain activities in the “won’t-do” category is as valuable in managing stress as planning out the activities that meet our “must-do” criteria.

Here are step-by-step directions to manage your holiday to-do list in this easy way:

  1. Write out all the holiday activities on your mind. Consult the December bucket list to get ideas and plan for opportunities that might come your way this month.
  2. Cross off any activities that don’t appeal to you. Be a little ruthless.
  3. For the remaining activities, start sorting into the MoSCoW chart.

Decorating a Christmas tree is essential to me, so that goes on our “must do” list.


I’d like to start getting the kids their own collection of ornaments (right now we mostly use the ones from my childhood), so that falls under the “should do” category.

I love mulled wine but it’s not critical, so that goes under “could do” .

Though I already crossed cookies off my to-do list in step 2, I’m writing it down in my “won’t do” column as a visual reminder I made this decision. (Because I know myself, and I know a week from now I’ll be tempted to whip up a batch of Oreo truffles instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour.)

As the month goes on, your “won’t-do” column will grow longer as stuff from the “should do” and “could do” categories makes its way there.

The goal? A simple, intentional, joy-filled, low-stress Christmas.

Must DoShould DoCould DoWon’t Do
Put up a Christmas treeTake the kids to pick out one ornament eachMake mulled wineBake Christmas cookies
Cinnamon rolls on Christmas morningBring boys shopping for food shelf donationPopcorn/cranberry garlandVisit Santa
Gifts for kids and family gift exchange Read daily from “How Winston Delivered ChristmasFancy Christmas meal
Treats for delivery drivers  
Sample MoSCoW chart for planning a simple Christmas

What are your top tips for a simple Christmas? What activities have you stopped doing in order to enjoy a less stressful holiday season? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

Don’t be afraid to make your holiday season simpler. Be a rebel who dares to say no to all the clutter, all the commitments, all the expectations.

Merry Simple Christmas to you and yours.   

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