How to shorten the holiday to-do list without losing the magic

Minimalist HolidaysThis post is part of Minimalist Holidaysa series inspired by the idea that you can enjoy the holidays more when you do less.

I'm hearing holiday stress rumblings from my friends — both local and online. It's the moment before we begin pulling off the work of the holidays…and people are dreading their growing to-do lists.

For so many, holiday cheer gets clouded by anxiety. What to do? You already know: lower the expectations, shorten the task list, do less.

But how do you choose what to cut? What if you lower your expectations to the point where the holidays no longer feel special? I've made that mistake before — skipping traditions in the name of "simplification," but then feeling the loss of something meaningful.

In Minimalist Parenting, Christine and I talk about prioritizing by assigning value. We define value in different contexts — time, stuff, money — but the concept fits the holidays well. When trying to decide which holiday activities and tasks to drop, ask yourself:

What about the holidays means the most to me?

Which rituals, traditions, events, foods and feelings do you look forward to? Is it the smell of the cookies or the Christmas tree? Is it the coziness of a movie marathon with the kids? Is it tacking holiday cards onto your refrigerator as they arrive in the mail?

Which holiday memories stay with you? The presents? The gatherings? The food? The quiet? The togetherness?

There are no right answers, just there is no "right" way to celebrate the holidays (no matter what the lifestyle mags and home catalogs would have you believe). You get to choose what's most valuable to your family and then do that…and I mean really do it. For you, it might be the tree or the cookies. For me, it's the latkes.

The rest, you can get to if you have the time or the energy. But in the meantime, you'll have more space to enjoy the holidays and the moments you've consciously chosen to treasure.

Once you decide what you consider truly valuable about the holidays, you can start simplifying. Here are a few things to consider leaving off your holiday to-do list (or, at least, toning down):

  • Christmas lights: or just a string of lights in the front window
  • Holiday cards: or cards sent out over a longer time period, or to fewer people
  • Home decor: or just a festive display on your dining room or coffee table
  • A Christmas tree: or just a wreath decorated with your very favorite ornaments
  • Multiple gifts: here are seven ways to shorten your holiday gift list
  • Extensive baking: make or buy one or two favorite treats
  • A big, homemade meal: a potluck, perhaps, or help from Trader Joe's
  • Extensive holiday travel: every other year, maybe?
  • Multiple parties: choose one or two your whole family will enjoy

Finally, to those who love to go all out during the holidays, throwing big parties, decorating to the hilt, and generally going holiday-crazy…go for it. Everyone around you will feel the joy of your enthusiasm. The key is it's your joy, not your obligation.

I'm not the only one picking up on holiday angst. Here are some more posts on the topic of scaling back and enjoying the results:

  • At Amazon: The Perfect Christmas
    At Amazon: The Perfect Christmas

    Tsh at Simple Mom shares her favorite simple Christmas decorations in this installment of her "6 Steps to a Relaxed Christmas" series.

  • The Rookie Moms 2012 Clutter-Free Gift Guide contains gift ideas that will keep your family happy all year.
  • Meagan of The Happiest Mom has recalled her fantastic series from last year, "Holidays, The Easy Way." Jam-packed with sensible advice and creative ideas.
  • Amy at MomAdvice offers her ideas for meaningful holiday traditions.
  • I wrote a fun post at the Accidental Expert about lowering the fuss factor on kids' holiday style — why buy new outfits every year when you can primp up the things they're are already wearing? The post is sponsored by Target and includes a gift card giveaway.
  • Jessica at Four Plus And Angel wrote an absolutely lovely post, ostensibly about a DIY Bouncy House, but really, about much more.
  • Sarah of Dogs and Shoes shares the gift-limiting compromise that works for her: Presents Tense
  • Mindy describes her family's "minimalist Christmas" and she also turned me onto this adorable picture book that's all about how the perfect Christmas is the one that fits your family.

How's your holiday stress level? What's one thing you can cut from your list that will help you breathe easier?

Minimalist Holidays

Between now and the end of the year, Christine Koh and I are sharing ideas for simplifying the holidays so you can focus on what’s important: enjoying the season with your family.

Visit the Minimalist Holidays page for links to the entire series. While you're there, be sure to sign up for Minimalist Parenting news…we've got exciting things planned for after the holidays!


  1. says

    Funny to see the first links on your list because I was listening to Meagan’s podcast this morning, interviewing Tsh on the topic of holiday traditions. They spouted ideas just like the main jist of your post. I love being surrounded by you smarties!

  2. says

    Looks like a great piece of advice for a holiday list. We always start with a list of subjects and things to do that are a way to high thinking we going to have a whale of a time only to be disappointing.
    Going to try this approach and short that to do list see if it helps with the magic to celebrate the holiday this festive year.