Toward a more relaxed festive season

As often as I hear expressions of anticipation about the holiday season, I hear complaints: so much work, too many heavy meals, the pressure of buying gifts.

Some years ago, I set out to reduce such stressors. Some ideas listed are common sense, but others turned traditional behaviours on their stocking-capped heads. 

1. Stop giving material gifts to those over twelve
For local friends and family, take them out (later) for lunch, tea, a performance, skating—whatever you two would enjoy. Cost: $10 to the sky, and no one has to make houseroom for an object. (You could treat distant recipients when you see them.) There may be a few family members for whom you wish to box up a well-chosen object, but getting rid of most shopping gives energy to choose more pleasurably for the few that remain.

Many readers donate to charities in their friends' names, as my girlfriends and I now do.

For a delightful hostess gift, a recipe from the much-loved Canadian food writer Bonnie Stern for a decadent white chocolate-peppermint bark takes minutes to make and accommodates many variations. (You can also make it with 70% dark chocolate, and add 1/4 cup each of two of the following: candied ginger, candied orange peel, or dried cranberries.) 

2. Postpone your party
The season is designed to create overload; in December, parties pile up like a heap of coats on a bed. Wait till February and throw a Beat the Blues party, where you play old blues records, serve blue corn chips and dip, blue cheese mac-and-cheese, blueberry tart, and drink blue champagne or Labatt Blue. 

People will have more fun when your event is not the fourth of the week. If you must host a holiday party, invite guests for a cinq-à-sept (or six-à-huit) or afternoon open house instead of a full dinner.  

3. Retire traditions, selectively
Always bake twenty types of cookies? Decorate every room in the house? Carol till you're hoarse? Ask yourself, "What do I most enjoy?" and let the rest go.

A family may reflexively follow traditions that they no longer cherish. Chez nous, for example, we stopped buying a tree, reduced decorating, and cut out cards —but I love to put on Christmas jazz and bake, so continue to romance the yeast and butter. 

On December 1, one son's roommate, in a munchie-induced fugue, ate all the chocolates out of his Advent calendar in one sitting; I think it's time to 86 that tradition!

4. Give a heartfelt hand
I often wonder why stores are so crammed and nursing homes so quiet. Pay a visit, volunteer to cook or serve a community meal, wrap gifts for a social service agency, shovel someone's walk, take a neighbour's child for the day so she can finish her own tasks. You know what needs doing. 

5. Go elsewhere for once
Some ideas from friends and acquaintances:
-  A single mother is taking her two children to a resort as the sole Christmas gift for everyone. (Travel costs can be horrendously high just before Christmas, but travel on the 25th is often deeply discounted.)
-  A woman bartered her work for a Thursday-to-Sunday stay at an acquaintance's chalet
-  A recently-widowed woman will spend Christmas visiting a friend since childhood, now widowed too, and living in France
- A couple have registered for a retreat at a local Buddhist center
- A family of four will help build a school in a developing country, a project led by their congregation
- A friend is returning to her childhood home to care for her elderly father while her sister and brother-in-law, who are the live-in caregivers, take a break. 

By "going somewhere else" I'd also include fellowship events outside your usual sphere. At such a service this month, I learned about other traditions by joining the congregants' service and sharing a meal. It's not necessary to hold any faith or affiliation to attend the many services, lectures, concerts or community meals open to the public.

We are very flexible about when our children visit us, and host a leisurely gathering a day or two after Christmas so that our young adults do not race over icy roads to be sure each set of parents is seen on Christmas Day. 

6. Decline, occasionally
Invitations are like emotional peanuts: can't stop at one. It's so easy to keep saying yes to another soirée or, for that matter, cup of eggnog. 

But permitting ones' self to say no-thank-you makes the yeses more enjoyable. Don't feel you must accept every invitation you receive (unless you really want to attend). If your presence is non-negotiable, it is often enough to drop in for an apéritif, then wish the endurance revelers good evening. 

I remember Dorothy M., our friend Don's mom. Don visited us around 9 p.m. every Christmas, which is when Dorothy, caving under the tension of producing yet another mammoth family dinner, would collapse in tears. He and his siblings would do the dishes and then clear out so Dottie could decompress in her bath with a large sherry.

She's gone now, but she represents women who think we have to do it all, and double down for the holidays. There's nothing wrong with a nice restorative sherry, but why not lighten the load so the season engenders joy rather than tension?


Madame Là-bas said…
We often feel pressured keeping up traditions that no longer bring us joy. Rather than running around buying unwanted items for those who we love, it is much better to share an activity or to make a donation. I have enjoyed the advent season at my neighbourhood church where we have a weekly community meal. You have many helpful suggestions
Kristien62 said…
I so agree that as we mature the Christmas traditions of our younger years need to be trimmed. Last year, when my mother suffered a stroke at Thanksgiving, I was frantic because it was the start of the Christmas season and I couldn't see how I was going to do it all. And I felt guilty. Out of necessity, we pared down dramatically. Most of the decorations stayed in the attic, my son bought a tree and set it up for us and we eliminated a great deal of gift giving. The season came and went and everyone still had a memorable Christmas. It was a valuable lesson. The material part of Christmas is not the best part. My mother passed away this Thanksgiving and we will still have a simple holiday. And everyone will get together to enjoy each others company.
Duchesse said…
Mme: I realize some persons (not speaking of you) have reservations about attending a service or event outside their "home base", but I find it truly insightful and was warmly welcomed, while respected as a visitor.

Kristien: Those of us with children often ramped up the celebration rather reflexively during early years. Now that everyone is an adult, scaling back makes sense. Illuminating to hear how the necessity of caring for another opened the door for your family's re-evaluation.
Susan B said…
Especially because we both work full time (and this is one of the busiest times of the year at my job), the "festivities" can feel more like burdensome obligations than delightful celebrations. My tradition has become to host a quiet New Years Eve party for any family in town and a few close friends. I put out a simple buffet and our French cousine brings a "buche fin d'anée". We talk, play some board games, toast at midnight. It's such a nice low-key way to celebrate. We don't decorate for anything else, and only buy gifts now for the kids.
Jean said…
Oh you are preaching to the choir, but I don't know if I'm in your "home base" choir. :-)

I dread Xmas because of the fuss people make and then, even worse, the fuss they make about how much work it is. Then don't do it. It's as easy as that. Skip it once (whatever it is - cookie baking, exchanging gifts with every person you know, decorating every square inch of the house) and it will help you determine which traditions are too important to miss in future years.

I put candles in the windows because I love the beautiful light during these short, dark days. I skip a tree because I don't get any joy from that.

diverchic said…
I love these 'save time, money and pain' posts of yours! You always have such practical suggestions! You should repost your delicious almonds recipe.
Thanks for your posts.
LPC said…
I feel so badly for those who get too stressed at Christmas. I haven't felt that way since I was working full-time and had two little kids at home. These days I find nothing but pleasure in the Christmas holidays. The grown kids really help out, and they are happy to do so. As my daughter said to me at Thanksgiving, "If it doesn't work we'll just laugh:)" Always good to be reminded.
materfamilias said…
This is a great list. We've also made a point of being very flexible about when our kids visit us or even if they do at all over the holidays. I remember years of trying to meet both our families' expectations when we were a young couple and Ugh! Never want to inflict that on anyone, especially as we're lucky enough to have good times together through the rest of the year.
I have stopped baking as much and shopping is much easier as we buy fewer presents. The grandchildren get some new clothes and a couple of toys.
I actually love Christmas as it is a great time for all the family to get together. Decorating is simple and we do a tree decorating party and order in pizza. I have an amaryllis and paper whites in the house and a swag of greenery on the front door.
Dinner for the family is the big event and I do put a big effort into this one meal but prepare a few dishes in advance which makes a big difference. The day after dinner I usually stay in my robe and laze about the house indulge in a turkey sandwich on white bread and eat some homemade chocolate bark!
I used to find Christmas depressing, but now I can ignore the triggers, and take advantage of friends' time off work to share a few good meals. Often I make a paella.

It is also a good moment to enjoy a film or an art exhibit, and one of my close friends is returning soon from two months in Cuba and we will surely catch this: (also in English)

Living alone now (with an elderly cat), I don't put up a tree, but some coniferous branches from the Market in lieu of a bouquet adds a nice aroma.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for your great ideas. For our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners we always have pot luck and it works out beautifully. Because we have the most convenient house we host these dinners and supply the meat. Then family and friends decide by email what they'll bring. Some bring the same recipes each year so there's lots of tradition in our meal with a few new dishes added for good measure.
Anonymous said…
I like your advice . I avoid media articles in the lead up to Xmas - perfect families in perfect homes wearing perfect clothes & eating perfect food etc . In our family we buy small , but thoughtful , presents for each other . Max £15 spend . We have a tree & a few candles plus we do like twinkling white lights dotted on the climbing hydranga on the front of the house , that's it . A few meals out with different friends , Xmas & Boxing day with sisters & their families - everyone contributes food wise . Last but not least , family dog walks in a crisp dusting of snow , with luck . Merry Xmas - Wendy
Duchesse said…
une femme: What a warm, personal New Year's Eve! I have long avoided parties in public but once upon a time, I did like a good dance party.

Jean: Whether a tri-church service led by Anglicans, Presbyterians and United Church members, Hannukah parties/seders, Diwali celebrations, meditation with Buddhists, aboriginal services- as well as any number of "secular humanist" gatherings- I am an appreciative guest and have been moved by the welcome.

diverchic: Memories of your delightful Christmas open houses, with those tiny stuffed quail's eggs!

LPC: Not working takes an enormous amount of time-related stress off the season.

materfamilias: Exactly, it is those divided-visit obligations that have cemented our family's casual attitude.

hostess: Recipes you can make ahead are brilliant- and not only for holidays.

lagatta: I will return to that exhibit for the second time next week, and museums are especially fun at holidays, though more crowded.

Anon@ 11:59: Potlucks are one way around the workload; some families do them very well and for others (without naming names) it is a race to the bottom.

Wendy: Limiting gift cost is wise, and also invites ingenuity. Lights-in-hydrangea sounds magical.

Susan said…
Duchesse, This is my favorite post of yours--ever. I endorse every single suggestion you have made here. Thank you.
Beth said…
This working-at-Christmas choir singer who used to try to do it all can only say "Hallelujah, Amen" to all these great suggestions.
Anonymous said…
Your ideas and suggestions are better than any I have ever seen in any magazine or on-line. Very original...and I thought they were all good...especially the Beat the Blues February party idea as an alternative get-together.
Duchesse said…
Susan: Oh I am flattered; I've been thinking about this for a few years.

Beth: As someone who has deeply enjoyed your choir performance, how could I advise against that ;)?

foxandfinch: Might that be because magazines, who depend on advertising revenues, cannot suggest readers decrease consumption? Thank you.

Eleanorjane said…
Oh Duchesse! Such a wonderful idea to downsize, but how to do that when many members of the family don't want to?

Living on the other side of the world from my family (and have very little of it), I really want to feel valued by being given some kind of a gift by them.

My husband's family plan Christmas almost a year in advance and have a big, long, gift giving session, masses of food, staying over at their house for a couple of days etc. They would be quite hurt if we didn't participate.

And EVERYONE is having events in Dec - lots of birthdays and other things going on. Plus lots of travel and events for work.

Aaaarrrrgh! (runs off, tearing hair...)
Duchesse said…
eleanorjane: A lot of this sounds like great fun and only you will know what to cease, but perhaps this post has planted a seed :)
Susan said…
I do understand Eleanorjane's position. I absolutely hate making a traditional Christmas dinner---but I am expected to do it---all by myself---every year. Characteristically, I have rebelled upon occasion and made a comfort food dinner--like enchiladas or chili. No one else is happy. It is not easy, but I remind them very year that traditional dinners don't do it for me and I am the one cooking.
I love your idea about a "Beat the Blues" party in February. I threw something similar in November,(which I find even more blah than Feb!), but blue theme sounds fun.
Anonymous said…
Totally agree and we have been making these changes over the past few years.

Christmas Eve is for my side of the family, Christmas Day is for OH's.
A long time ago, we decided that two big 'traditional' meals back-to-back were just too much.

Christmas Eve is now about eating other 'traditional' meals - Italian, Chinese, Mexican, etc. Each family contributes and we eat buffet-style - work divided, joy multiplied.

the other Wendy.

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