Tuesday, November 9, 2010

10 ways to simplify the holidays

This is a cross-post from One Year to an Organized Life.

Did you know that the average American household spends $1,700 on holiday gifts and accessories each year and carries credit card debt of $15,788? Furthermore, the holidays can be a particularly stressful time of year, especially for women and people with lower incomes. Here is some good news, though: people can feel more love and happiness during the holiday season because they connect or reconnect with loved ones.

One secret to creating more happy moments and minimizing your holiday stress is to simplify your holiday traditions. You can start planning stress-free holidays now by making lists and organizing your family’s gift giving and traditions. Here are 10 ideas to consider:

Gift giving

1. Draw names for gifts or plan a yankee swap. We have a large extended family, and my cousins and I used to buy gifts for all of our children. Now we have the kids draw names, while the adults do a yankee swap.

2. Shop local. I like shopping in nearby Multnomah Village so I can get my gifts wrapped for free.

3. Make your own gifts. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to give wonderful, personal gifts. My friend Shelia makes unique, wonderful family gifts with her kids, such as a cookbook with their family’s recipes or a painted mirror with her kids' photos on it. Other ideas are tree ornaments or photo calendars. I've been known to paint glassware, do calligraphy calendars, or make candles or jewelry. Search the library or the internet for easy handmade gifts you can make. Making gifts can save you a lot of money, and the gifts are much more personal.

4. Give experiences instead of physical gifts. Last year we gave Chris and Kieran tickets to see “Rain” (the Beatles tribute band). Other ideas are theater tickets, restaurant gift certificates, sports events, trips to the beach or mountains, or movie tickets. When I was a kid, we would often get one "big" gift for Christmas--like a bike or a stereo. These gifts were nearly always secondhand, of course, but we loved them.

5. Give a donation instead of a gift. You could consider donating to a charity in lieu of gifts. Last year Mike and made a joint donation to Interplast instead of buying gifts for each other. Other worthy organizations are Mercy Corps, Oregon Food Bank, Medical Teams International, Water For People, and Pennies for Peace. A few years ago my sister and her family signed up to sponsor three children (matching their children’s ages) in developing countries through World Vision.

Holiday traditions

6. Give back to your community. Local organizations look for people to sponsor needy families. Try the Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul, or Lutheran Community Services NW. Or surf Hands On Portland’s comprehensive Web site to find a volunteer idea that fits your family. The Children’s Book Bank is a great local charity that is always seeking volunteers and donations.

7. Plan low-stress holiday events. Can you say “potluck”? It’s the most beautiful word in the holiday dictionary. If you host gatherings, ask guests to bring a food or beverage to reduce your time and cash outlay. Or plan a cookie exchange with friends.

8. Look for opportunities to spend quality family time. We always go to the Macy’s Holiday Parade downtown (and it’s especially fun now that our Robert Gray Middle School student marches in it!). It’s a great way to start the holidays. We also like to go out into the sticks to choose a tree and stop by a McMenamin’s afterward.

9. If you live near Portland, take in some of the city's great entertainment. Check out Northwest Children’s Theater Company’s production of “Annie,” Portland Center Stage’s “A Christmas Story” and “The Santaland Diaries,” or the Northwest Dance Company’s Nutcracker Tea (a family-friendly, less-expensive, and condensed “Nutcracker”). Have you experienced traditional British pantomime? You don’t have to leave Portland to partake in this hilarious tradition. “Holly Jolly Hullabaloo” is great fun. And it’s FREE, FREE, FREE! (Can you tell how much our family likes the theater?). Pioneer Courthouse Square hosts a holiday ale fest, holiday artisan market, the “Tuba Christmas,” and a Christmas Carol singalong, in addition to tree and menorah lighting.

10. Spread out the fun. Who says that the holidays have to end on Dec. 9 (Chanukkah) or 25 (Christmas)? Our family has celebrated Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) with a tea party. We leave our tree up until Epiphany and continue my husband’s family tradition of leaving our shoes under the tree so the “three kings” can put a small gift in them. Some companies plan holiday parties in January when it’s less chaotic. Think about ways you could spread out your celebrations.

Here are some more resources:


What are your ideas for simplifying the holidays? Please leave a comment and share your ideas!


  1. Thanks for the tips.
    I like using fresh evergreens from the yard as table and mantle decorations. They can go right back outside when the party is over.