Staying Sane During the Holidays*

*a manifesto

I feel the need to make a disclaimer right away: I am not advocating that you do as I do or suggesting that this is the best or only way to approach the holidays. This is what works for me, and I’m only speaking for myself. If you’re the type of person who loves big families and large gatherings and chaos and noise, great. And I’m not being facetious. That is great, for you. I am most definitely NOT that type of person, so I prefer to focus on how to get through the holidays with the least amount of stress and the most peace and happiness. I’ve been working on this and perfecting it over the years and this year will be the most lean and mean holiday yet. So in that spirit, onward!

Since I am not religious, for me the holiday season has always been about friends and family, food and love. The way I approach it as an adult is to focus on saying “yes” to the things I love about it, and “no” to the things I hate about it. The things I love are the music, the food, finding the perfect gifts for our niece and nephew, and spending time with friends and family. I say “no” to pressure to find the perfect gift, spending more money than I can afford, malls, commercialism, consumerism, fake trees, dead trees by the side of the road after Christmas, Christmas music before Thanksgiving, expectations, stress, wasteful wrapping paper, overeating (well, maybe I’m ambivalent on that one), and family drama. That’s not a comprehensive list, but that covers most of the biggies.

One of the best ways to avoid many of the things I hate about the holidays is to stay out of the mall. Since I’m a Compacter, that part is easy. No one really expects an expensive department store gift from me at this point. I’ve managed to lower everyone’s expectations over the years, and I have no expectations of my own about receiving gifts either. If I do exchange gifts, I prefer to make consumables, handmade gifts, or give an experience like a concert or event.

This year, I will…

…have whittled down my gift-giving list to my parents, my husband, a few good friends and a few of their kids, and our niece and nephew. It’s quite easy to manage and I usually try to have it done or at least planned by Thanksgiving. Most people are getting either a book I loved this year, or granola, cookies, pumpkin bread, or boozy homemade egg nog. My brothers and I agreed not to exchange anything at all, and instead to just spend time together.

… send holiday cards when I have time and I’m in the mood. I don’t do it out of habit, guilt, or expectation. I will write a few hand-written cards over the Thanksgiving weekend to people I feel the urge to communicate with, and leave it at that.

…borrow the same holiday tree from our neighbor that we’ve enjoyed for the past several years. It takes less than an hour to set up but makes the house look beautiful.

…bake cookies and bread for the friends who love and appreciate it and mail and distribute them and receive smiles and thanks.

…make at least three delicious desserts for our annual holiday dessert party, where I will have set everything out and done all the work BEFORE the party so that I can enjoy my friends while they’re in our home.

…invite new friends we’ve met this year to the party.

…attend as many holiday parties as we’re invited to, enjoy good conversation and good food, and maybe make some new friends.

…take part in a couple of charity events. In the past, I have participated in Adopt-A-Family (google to find your local chapter), bought outfits and gifts for needy kids, and organized book drives to donate to children, just to name a few. My husband has a beautiful voice, I think we will try to either go sing at a hospital or retirement home, or distribute toys to needy children.

…listen to my favorite holiday CDs: A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi, and a mix CD I made for friends a few years ago.

…eat plenty of pumpkin pie and drink as much egg nog as I can while still being able to button my pants.

…hang out with my husband and watch movies on DVD.

…attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah at the fabulous Walt Disney Concert Hall with my husband and my parents. This is our big holiday event and I’m really excited about it.

…exchange simple gifts with my husband on Christmas Eve, generally books, DVDs, liqueur, and chocolate.

…see a just-released film and go out for Chinese food on Christmas Day.

…keep doing what I’d be doing if it wasn’t the holidays. For me, this essentially means that I’ll keep to a work and writing schedule and not postpone all my projects until after January 1st. I crave normalcy this year, and I want the holiday to take place with the least amount of fuss.

What are your holiday plans? What do you love best about the season? What do you dislike? Please share in the Comments section.

Wishing you a happy holiday season, in whatever way you choose to celebrate it.


  1. Melissa says

    Another great article! And I fully agree with your ideas.

    Last Christmas, I had to be brave, and face the slings and arrows of saying NO to a jerk relative’s self-invitation to stay with us for the week of Christmas. I knew this person would be argumentative so I put my foot down. I was disliked for a few weeks, but everyone got over it and moved onto the next family drama. However, the experience cemented in my mind that I will always keep my Christmases the way we like them – quiet and simple and non-consumer.

    You have a wonderful website! I’m a longtime reader and fan. * Cheers to you and yours! *

    • Angela says

      Melissa, it is very brave to say no to family and risk being disliked, even for a short time. Good for you for keeping Christmas for yourself and not giving in to others’ expectations.

      I confess that since my parents moved away to Idaho last year, my husband and I said no to spending Christmas up there and one of my brothers seemed a bit irritated with me. But the trip to get there involves two planes plus an additional two-hour drive, and is long and difficult in the best of times. Doing it at the holidays would be a nightmare. So I don’t feel guilty, just disappointed that it will be very difficult to ever spend holidays together again. As my other brother pointed out, they are the ones that moved so far away from all of us (he said, “they’re the ones that left the state!”)

      I’m so glad you like the website and thanks so much for commenting. Cheers to you and yours, right back at you. :)

  2. Marie-Josée says

    What a great post Angela. Good for you for following your heart and planning a Christmas season which reflects your tastes and values. We have been focusing on having family and friends over as well. We will be hosting a cocktail for friends, and unlike former invitations, where we provided all of the food for the spread, we will be asking our friends to bring a contribution – some type of appetizer… we are surrounded by wonderful cooks and I’m sure we will be tasting delightful stuff. Love your blog.

    • Angela says

      Marie-Josee, That is a wonderful idea to have everyone bring an appetizer, and I think I will do that sometime this winter. I want to have more parties, but don’t like all the work involved. Last summer we had a smallish party and asked whomever wanted to bring a side dish and it turned out perfect. I still cooked, but wasn’t responsible for the entire meal, and those that like to cook brought a wonderful dish. It really is nice when everyone chips in.

      Thanks so much for your consistent contributions with your comments. Happy holidays.

  3. Shelly says

    Great post! I plan to follow your plan as well. I wish I would’ve started doing less many years ago. I used to decorate the entire house, spend hours shopping for gifts and many more hours baking all kinds of Christmas goodies. I’d gain 10 pounds over the holiday’s and feel totally stressed out. This year we just put up the tree and I don’t plan to do any baking (unless I get the urge and only because I want to). We stopped giving gifts to extended family members and I only have to buy for our 2 daughters. Ones getting a Barne’s & Noble gift card for her nook, a new blanket and a homemade cookbook (she moved to her own place last year) and the other daughter I already took shopping. She’s graduating from college this year and wanted some work/interview clothing. DH and I don’t exchange gifts either, but we are taking a long weekend trip to go cross country skiing and another between Christmas and New Years to go snowmobiling (both trips purchased through Living Social and Crowd Cut). It feels really good to not jump into the chaos. I’m looking forward to starting 2012 relaxed!!

    • Angela says

      Shelly, It sounds like you have everything all planned out and organized already! I love that you and your husband and taking two long weekends off to spend time together and do things you enjoy, and that won’t put you in debt. You will indeed start the New Year off very relaxed. Good for you!

      thanks so much for your comment!

  4. says

    What a fabulous post, Angela. My husband and I have been reexamining our holiday traditions over the past several years. We have a 2 1/2-year-old daughter and I’m 6 months pregnant with our second child. We’ve realized that many of the holiday activities we participated in pre-kids just aren’t practical now, especially when we didn’t like them to begin with! (Think lots of very crowded parties featuring extended family we haven’t seen in ages). My husband and I are both fairly quiet people by nature, and we find these gatherings stressful. So we’re just politely saying, “No.”

    Last year I made an advent jar ( and this is the first year we’ll be using it. I’m really looking forward to all of the fun little activities we have planned. Most of them revolve around spending time together eating special meals or treats, doing crafts, or just enjoying each others’ company. Many of our activities involve charitable giving. I’m looking forward to the thoroughly nonconsumer bent of the advent jar, even as someone who loves giving gifts.

  5. Angela says

    Hi Cate! Big congrats on your second baby on the way! I can’t believe your little girl is already 2 1/2 years old.

    Good for you for politely declining the stressful events. Really, what’s the point?

    Thanks so much for sharing your advent jar. It’s beautiful, and I love the activities you came up with! They sound like so much fun, even though we don’t have children! We are definitely going to do some of them this year.

    Thanks so much for coming by and commenting. Happy holidays to your family.

  6. says

    My favorite part of the holiday season revolves around smells: sweet things baking, pine, crisp cold air, wood stove fires. And what luck! Seeing as those things are all easy to do without getting stressed or having to go shopping or buy anything at all really.

    Every year we make a Christmas dinner with whoever from our little community happens to be around. After dinner we do an “ugliest present secret Santa” type thing, where everyone wraps one hideous object (or weird object, or something they have been dying to get rid of) and then there are different rounds and there is some dice rolling that keeps the presents moving between people. It’s a lot of fun, and, once again, doesn’t involve buying a thing! And you get to get rid of some junk to boot. :)

    I think that living far away from all my relatives and whatnot helps me keep the holidays really simple. There is no where to go, so we don’t feel pressure to leave the place where we most want to be: home. My Christmas gift giving list is down to just my mom and my husband. My husband doesn’t really care about the Xmas gifts though, so we just give each other little things for the fun of it.

    Hope you manage to keep things stress free this year!

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