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Take back your holidays: 5 simple swaps that get back to the basics

On a recent Sunday morning, my 5-year-old daughter asked me, “Mama, what are we doing today?”

I cringed (inwardly, I hope). The plans we’d made that day had fallen through and I didn’t have a plan B.

“Um, nothing,” I replied.

“YAY! A stay-home day!” she yelled, bounding off to tell her brother.

Imagine that. And that stay-home day was great—we played together, then the kids played by themselves while I took care of things around the house. We had time to think, “What do we feel like doing now?” I didn’t realize that what I crave sometimes (time to simply relax and putter around the house) is what they want sometimes, too.

Now as we enter the holidays, I’m questioning all of the usual routines and to-do’s—and whether I do certain things because I want to, or because it’s what everybody else does, or because it just feels expected. And I’m swapping some of the latter for the former—so the holidays have some of that “stay-home day” feel.

It isn’t for everyone, I know, but if you’re like me in wanting to simplify your holidays, here are some simple swaps.

1. From tons of decorations and fuss, to new traditions

I still love a few decorations around the house—it just makes home feel warmer and cozier. Anything beyond that is icing for me—and I wonder if that time and energy could go toward something more meaningful.

Like forming new traditions:

  • Light a candle over breakfast each morning during the holiday season. (Love this!)
  • Read holiday books before bed each night.
  • Count down to the “big day.” (We actually do this already; my Mom makes little countdown boxes for the kids.)
  • Set aside one night a week to watch a holiday movie or TV special. (I admit I’ve already watched “Elf” twice.)
  • Spend a day, and possibly a night, in a local metropolitan area to get your holiday shopping done all at once.
  • Pile in the car, put on holiday music, and drive around to look at light displays.

2. From “stuff” to a meaningful experience

Let me start by saying I’m not against buying gifts. Especially for kids—watching mine open something that excites them is right up there on my “favorite things” list.

I do think experiences can be the gifts that keep giving, however. And they won’t end up in a corner, collecting dust, after a few days of obsessive play.

It could be tickets to a concert or a gift card to a favorite restaurant. Maybe a weekend trip that gets planned and gifted. Or an annual membership to the local zoo or aquarium. Or yoga classes.

I’ll stop—you get the idea.

3. From tchotchke stocking stuffers to need-to-haves

A little confession:

My Mo—I mean, the Easter Bunny—always gave me underwear in my basket. A little unconventional, but I found myself missing this annual gift when I was out of the house. Who wants to spend money on underwear?

Underwear, socks, pajamas—these can all make great gifts (especially for little ones). Use their favorite colors and cartoon characters as inspiration. Make it fun, and they’ll think it’s fun, too.

4. From tons of different gifts to one

With people I’m thanking for a service, like the kids’ teachers or the mail carrier, I do prefer to give an actual gift—usually a gift card.

But do you really need to pick a different gift for each one? Could you create a cool gift each year that would work for everyone on this list?

It could be a simple formula: Coffeehouse gift card with a coffee mug. Grocery store gift card with a favorite family recipe. Department store gift card with a reusable shopping bag.

5. From cards to year-round “dates”

There might be more meaningful ways to say “thinking of you” than to spend hours of time, and a good chunk of money, choosing, ordering, writing, postmarking and sending holiday cards.

Consider sending cards only to those you never see. And for local friends and family, consider planning a date for the year ahead.

Yes, a date.

Think about it—free time never just presents itself—and if you take time now to throw lunch or dinner or coffee on the calendar, even if it’s six months from now, you know you’ll get to catch up … and much more meaningfully than you would trading a holiday card.

This also frees up the holidays to relax and focus on your family traditions—and gives you a ton to look forward to in the year ahead.

As you start to make these swaps, consider letting close friends and your family in on the plan—just in case, you know, they notice you didn’t send a holiday card.

I’ll leave you with a quick story that illustrates how quickly the simple spirit catches on:

My kids just picked up blank “Letter to Santa” postcards from the mall. We sat down to write them and instead of listing what she wanted (honestly, this is what I prompted her to do, too), my daughter simply told Santa she loved him and wished him a Merry Christmas.

Here’s the final product: