Most of the time growing up, I would never have described Christmas as “Meaningful” or “Peaceful.” Busy, yes. Chaotic, yes. Exciting, absolutely. But Christmas was never really a slow process in my childhood home.
Christmas has a way of getting busy. Really busy. Especially when kids are involved. I don’t know about you, but I’m not someone that thrives in “really busy” mode! Nap schedules, making and cleaning up snacks and meals, and getting my kids to burn off energy before bedtime are enough to keep me comfortably occupied most of the time. Add in gift buying, special events, family dinners, and trying to make or keep traditions and I start to feel overwhelmed!
As we approach the holidays, I want to share some of the ways that my husband and I have established in our family to slow down and enjoy a meaningful Christmas with our kids. It is possible to avoid a really busy holiday season, but it will take intentionality! We have learned that our choices aren’t always popular. They aren’t always understood. But if they bring peace and harmony into our family, they are worth it.
Here are the steps we took (and re-take) each year to ensure a calm, enjoying, simple and slow Christmas that we all enjoy.
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Identify What Makes Christmas Feel Like Christmas
A few years ago, my husband and I had a really helpful conversation about holidays. I can’t remember which of us asked it, but we both shared what we REALLY remember about Christmas. What makes Christmas “Christmas”?
For me, it is Christmas music and Christmas smells. I love the old, traditional Christmas hymns and Christmas carols. I love the outdoorsy smells of Christmas I grew up with, such as fir and hemlock. And I love the indoor smells associated with Christmas baking – cinnamon and ginger, vanilla and clove. To a slightly lesser extent, it is also the taste of the food – cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, sweet potato casserole, stuffing, and green bean casserole are my all time favorites!
Every year, we try to buy a new Christmas album, and we keep music playing a LOT during December. And every year, I also spend all December diffusing Christmas-smelling essential oils to help make it feel like Christmas!
Some things that didn’t make our list include decorating the house with Christmas decor, ALL the holiday foods, or crunching through snow (we’re from Western Washington State – snow is never guaranteed!). In addition, Christmas pajamas, piles of gifts to open, and decorating the tree or doing Christmas crafts didn’t make the list. Those may be on some people’s lists, but that’s just not part of what makes Christmas meaningful for us.
Identify What You Want to Prioritize For Your Kids to Make a Meaningful Christmas
For Gabe and me, we’ve decided that one of the best parts about Christmas is the sense of anticipation leading up to Christmas. I have fond memories of that buzz that grows as you are approaching Christmas Day (or any exciting event – a big trip, your birthday, etc). We try reflect that in our decisions for our family.
One of the things we have tried to incorporate as a family is observing Advent in some way. Advent is the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas. Some churches observe this by lighting a candle and having a devotional or particular focus four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Some families observe this by having an advent calendar, or doing an Advent devotional or Bible read. We listened to an Advent Podcast one year. This year I’m planning to do a Jesse tree and add a homemade felt ornament to it each day leading up to Advent.
Another thing we’ve tried to do as a family to build anticipation leading up to Christmas is having some intentional Christmas-y activities to do each week of December. This year, sometime in November, we’re going to get our supplies ready for our Jesse tree. The first full week of December, I plan to spend a couple hours doing some Christmas cookie baking with the girls or making a Christmas wreath from greenery from our driveway. The next week, we will put up our felt Christmas tree, and hopefully attend a Christmas concert. And the third week, we’ll drive around and look at Christmas lights and do a stocking stuffing activity.
These aren’t necessarily traditions because we switch up the activities every year depending on what we want to do with our kids during that particular year. But we do try to have a couple normal “Christmas activities” we rotate through each year.
Identify What Amount of Activities During Christmas Week Would Be Enjoyable
LONG before it is Christmas (usually sometime in October or November), we have a conversation about how busy we want to be during Christmas week. We don’t live near either of our families, so we only spend every few years with them when we visit the USA. But whether in the USA or New Zealand, we have learned it is best to pace ourselves strategically so that we can all enjoy the holidays without too many meltdowns and stress.
One of our self-imposed rules is that we don’t house hop. During the week of Christmas in the USA, we will only visit one house per day. We aren’t willing to have breakfast or brunch at one house, and then race off to another house for a second round of celebrations later in the day. So for example, we’ll do Christmas Eve with my family, Christmas Day with Gabe’s family, and Boxing Day (the 26th) as our nuclear family day. Even if some of my family is gathering on Christmas day, we’ll skip that gathering to stay present with Gabe’s family for the whole day. This usually ensures nap times happen a bit more smoothly, and it helps reduce the amount of stimulation and adrenaline for all of us in the family.
Another rule is that we plan time for our nuclear family – Gabe, the kids, and me – to have meaningful Christmas time together. A day or two or three before Christmas, we do a fondue dinner together (the kids LOVE getting to eat with their hands and dip food in fondue!). And usually December 26th, after our kids open our gift(s) to them, and we do a hike or a picnic or something outdoors together.
Create a List of Activities That You COULD Do Leading Up to Christmas
We always end up with more on this list than we actually try to do. Some ideas typically include:
- Attend a Pre-Christmas Church Service (Midnight Mass, Christmas Eve-Eve Service, etc)
- Have a family sleepover in the living room under the Christmas lights on Christmas Eve
- Drive around and look at Christmas Lights
- Go Christmas caroling
- Bake cinnamon rolls and give them away
- Fondue dinner leading up to Christmas
- Cinnamon rolls, savory breakfast casserole, and hot cocoa for Christmas breakfast
- Go for a hike on Boxing Day
- Skype our families
- Get together with friends for a Christmas Eve or Christmas day lunch or dinner
- Attend my husband’s workplace Christmas brunch
- Go to a musical concert/performance (such as Handel’s Messiah, etc)
- Participate in Advent as a family (daily)
- Decorate for Christmas
- Buy and wrap gifts for the kids
- Participate in my husband’s workplace pre-Christmas party
- Send Christmas cards
- Buy and send gifts for our family members in the USA (parents, grandparent, siblings, nieces and nephews)
- Watch a Christmas movie (we like the Chosen’s Christmas specials)
Go Over the List and Prioritize and Plan for a Meaningful Christmas
Once we have a list, we pull out our paper calendar for December, and we start penciling things in that we know are date specific that we really want to do. This would include things like when a Christmas music performance is happening. Or the pre-Christmas party at Gabe’s work. Or planning a hike for Boxing Day.
Then we pencil in things that are not date specific but are really important to us to get to do. This might include putting our fondue dinner on the calendar for December 23rd. This also might include a day when I can make cinnamon rolls in advance to freeze for Christmas morning.
We really try, at this stage, to be intentional about how our time is going to look. With our kids the ages they are right now (5, 3, and 1), we can plan one, maybe two things for each day, and usually not multiple things on multiple consecutive days!
An example is that we would not attempt to go to a Christmas Eve 6pm service and also drive around and look at Christmas lights on Christmas Eve – especially if we are planning to have a sleepover in the living room that night! That’s just too much to try to do. If everyone is tired and cranky, or Gabe and I are hurried and frazzled, it really destroys the peaceful, meaningful Christmas vibe!
Choose Some Things to Intentionally Go “Light” On to Make Christmas More Meaningful
There are a lot of things you CAN do at Christmas. But part of the way to keep our Christmas meaningful and peaceful is intentionally limiting what we do. So two things we always go “light” on is decorating and gifts. This is for practical reasons!
First, I don’t want to deal with the administrative overhead of storing Christmas decor. We live in a small house. I do not want to try to store a tote or two of Christmas decor. So we have chosen to not have an actual Christmas tree (fake or real) besides our felt (basically 2D) one that we hang on the wall.
This means I don’t have to store Christmas lights or ornaments for the tree. I have one string of colored lights that we hang in our living room. Otherwise, we don’t decorate our house.
And second, this helps us keep our Christmas budget down along with the administrative overhead of planning for gifts, shopping for them, and wrapping them. Along with storing them until Christmas, and then dealing with them after Christmas!
We don’t have a set amount that we spend on the kids (usually $20-$30 per kid). But each year, Gabe and I have a simple conversation about what each child needs or might enjoy. I am certainly happy with giving my kids new undies for Christmas. Or a new water bottle in their favorite color. We always try to replace things that are old or worn first. If there is nothing that needs replacing, then we try to think of something that would be really enjoyable or useful in the coming season of their life.
Streamline Social Obligations Around Christmas Gift Giving
In the past, we have bought individual gifts for our nieces and nephews and parents for Christmas. I actually really enjoy giving gifts. It has always been fun for me to keep a list going all year for when I think of the perfect gift for someone. But with more kids of my own, and therefore more life administration load, that hasn’t felt so fun in recent years.
So we are moving away from this model. Now, we give each family with nieces and nephews either an experience gift for the whole family, or a specific amount of money for them to spend as they wish at Christmas. We try to give our parents a gift certificate to a restaurant for a meal. For our siblings that don’t have kids, we either also do a small gift certificate (like for a coffee date), or an activity gift.
For all other gifts, I try to give something consumable. Some years I’ve made extra batches of cinnamon rolls. Some years I’ve made homemade jam or homemade applesauce. This year, I think I may make caramel corn or apple pies in advance to freeze and have on hand to give away. This is not overwhelming because I am usually quite selective about who I give gifts to. Mostly just if we go to someone’s house for Christmas dinner, I like to have a hostess gift for the family. And I like to give a gift to our landlords each year.
Create Space to Try Something New for a Meaningful Christmas If You Want
Maybe it’s because I am just not much of a traditionalist, but I enjoy protecting some space at Christmas to try something new. As time goes on, some of the things we “try out” may become family traditions. Or we may just embrace them for a year or a season and then move on.
Our fondue dinner is one that has become a beloved family tradition. Making cinnamon rolls for a dozen families was something I did for a season. But I definitely feel no obligation to turn it into a tradition! I’ve enjoyed making wreaths a few years, but I let the inspiration come to me and don’t feel obligated to do it each year.
This year, I’m going to try something new as one of our lead-up-to-Christmas activities. I want to fill each kid’s stocking with words of encouragement or praise. And I want to do it as a family activity, so the kids can participate in filling up each other’s stockings too. For this, I am planning to use a literal sock from each of my kid’s sock supply. We’ll have scraps of paper, and Gabe and I can be scribes for the girls as they whisper what they want to write down.
It might be a total flop, but I think this could be a cool way to build sibling connection and reinforce verbal generosity into our meaningful Christmas plans.
I Love To Hear From You!
What are ways that you create a meaningful Christmas, filled with peace and slow time? Did you have this kind of Christmas growing up? What are some goals for your upcoming holiday season? I’d love to hear in the comments below!