Family & Education

5 Tips for a Simpler, More Enjoyable Holiday Season

TIMEDecember 7, 2021

By now, everyone has seen the photos of ships piled high with cargo backed up as far as the eye can see at America’s ports. As a result, “supply chain” is just the latest addition to the post-pandemic American lingo. Between Postal Service kinks and snarls in the supply chain, Americans are particularly panicked about the holidays.

“Make a list and check it twice—ASAP,” reads a recent Good Housekeeping headline. “This year’s holiday shipping delays mean you should start shopping for gifts now,” the article alerts readers with a panicked overtone.

But what if rather than panic shop for gifts for a holiday celebrating a story characterized by simplicity and poverty, Americans took a deep breath and just … didn’t?

Even before a pandemic exacerbated the stressors in Americans’ lives, the holiday season has always been a time of anxiety, especially for parents. According to one study, 88 percent of Americans report that the “holiday season is the most stressful time of year.” Much of the source of this stress is rooted in the consumption that has come to define the Christmas season. More than half of respondents said that money and the lack thereof was the biggest issue, and second to that is the pressure to “find gifts for everybody.”

But does it need to be this way? An import/export crisis needn’t ruin the holidays for families. With weeks of Christmas shopping before us, here are five ways to ease the pressure so we can enjoy the holidays more:

1. Opt for less. Growing up in a big family, my dad noticed the strain that Christmas put on my mom. She would carefully pick out several gifts for each child, wrap them elaborately, and then would individually wrap many gifts for each stocking. One year, he sat us down and announced that everything was going to change. From now on, we would each get one gift from them. Our stocking gifts would be replaced by a blank check. Each of us could pick a charity to make it out to. Not only were we completely fine with the change, but it’s a holiday practice that I’ve carried forward with my own big family. Even with just one gift from us to our kids, my husband and I continue to marvel at the number of gifts that wind up under the tree each year.

2. Buy American-made. The pandemic and now especially the supply chain crisis at the ports has highlighted how reliant U.S. consumers are on China. Last Christmas, I was pleasantly surprised at how many quality gifts I could buy that were made in America. Learning planks, a handmade Alexander Hamilton costume from Etsy, and a high-quality soy candle were just a few of my finds, two of which supported small businesses owned by American women.

3. Buy an experience instead. Countless studies have come to the same conclusion: Experiences bring greater happiness than gifts and material possessions, leading one Atlantic article to give the simple command: “Buy experiences, not things.”

As the author put it:

“Experiential purchases are also more associated with identity, connection, and social behavior. Looking back on purchases made, experiences make people happier than do possessions. It’s kind of counter to the logic that if you pay for an experience, like a vacation, it will be over and gone; but if you buy a tangible thing, a couch, at least you’ll have it for a long time. Actually, most of us have a pretty intense capacity for tolerance, or hedonic adaptation, where we stop appreciating things to which we’re constantly exposed. iPhones, clothes, couches, et cetera, just become background. They deteriorate or become obsolete. It’s the fleetingness of experiential purchases that endears us to them.”

Imagine taking your holiday expenses and putting the money toward a family trip. There is no price to be put on a memory.

4. Go homemade. I say this as the least crafty mom in the world. And yet my daughter begged me to help her make a homemade Halloween costume this year. We worked on it nightly together for a week, and she said that the best part of the costume was just working on it together. It was hardly Pinterest-worthy, but it cost next to nothing and became more of a shared experience than anything else. While it was time-consuming, so was my son’s costume, which was ordered off the internet. It involved extensive searching, a canceled order due to “shipping delays,” and an hour at the post office waiting for the replacement, which got messed up due to more “shipping delays.” No doubt a harbinger of the holidays, it made me realize both costumes ultimately took up about the same amount of my time. At a minimum for children, homemade gifts are a good way to teach that it’s really the love and care that go into a gift that matters most.

5. Give it all away. I’ve threatened this a few times already this year, as living in a small space with a big family has me at my wit’s end with “things” on an almost daily basis. It seems so radical to think of just donating to charity what one would spend on gifts, and yet it is arguably most in line with the original meaning of the Christmas season whose origins are so profoundly humble.

It’s a truth about which I must constantly remind myself, but there’s honestly nothing that children want and need more than for their parents to be a calm and loving presence in the home. The extreme emphasis on consumption that has come to mark the Christmas season pulls parents and families in the opposite direction. Perhaps the supply chain “crisis” is really an opportunity for American families to retake and remake the holidays into an experience that doesn’t drive us insane.

This article was originally published on the Institute for Family Studies blog.

Ashley E. McGuire is a Contributing Editor at the Institute for Family Studies. Her new book is Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery, 2017).