How to Simplify the Holidays

Find what is essential in the season and celebrate that, not the buying frenzy
By Leo Babauta, www.zenhabits.net
December 6, 2018 Updated: December 6, 2018

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Today, millions of people will be shopping, and the gift-shopping spree that is the holiday season will continue for a good month.

Many people will be going deeper into debt in order to give others products they don’t really want. Then there’s the craziness of holiday parties, traffic, travel, and general chaos and busyness. It’s enough to stress out most people.

What would happen if we decided to become radicals, and simplified the holidays? What would happen if we bucked the consumerist traditions, and got down to the essentials?

For some, the essentials are religious—the spirit of this season has nothing to do with shopping or all the crazy trappings of the holidays. For others, myself included, the essentials are spending time with loved ones. That’s all that matters, in my heart.

Once we remember the essentials, we can start to simplify. Here are some ideas for simplifying:

  1. Remember what’s essential. What’s most important to you about these holidays? Do you care deeply about your religion? Do you care most about spending time with your loved ones? Maybe certain traditions matter tremendously to you. Maybe you love the feeling of giving. Get clear on this, and the rest gets much easier.
  2. Limit shopping as much as possible. Don’t fall for the Black Friday or Cyber Monday madness or other holiday sales. It’s all designed to get us into a spending frenzy, and we fall for it every year. Instead, be much more intentional about your money and how you want to spend your life. See if you can go without shopping to the greatest extent possible—can you let it go? It’s fun for some people, but it’s expensive and you have better ways to spend your money. It’s also destructive to the environment, wasteful, and fills our lives with clutter.
  3. Talk to your family about alternatives. Can you do a gift exchange to limit gift buying? Can you make gifts or give experiences? Talk to them now to avoid the awkwardness of some people buying gifts for everyone while others opt out. Talk to them about why you’re considering opting out of the consumerist madness, why you would like to avoid massive debt, why you want to avoid clutter and the manufacturing and resource-wasting nightmare that is Christmas shopping. Talk to them about what’s important to you as a family.
  4. Make a list of the traditions you love, and those you don’t love. We can let go of some holiday traditions, but we don’t have to toss out everything. What traditions do you love? Playing holiday songs, caroling, hanging stockings, making pies, decorating a Christmas tree? Maybe you really don’t like the turkey or wrapping presents, shopping, eggnog, wasting food, lying about the existence of Santa, or getting drunk. Make two lists—traditions you love, and ones you don’t.
  5. Start to let go of the non-essential. Talk to others about letting go of the traditions you don’t like. Say “no” to some invitations that don’t make you very excited, even if it makes you feel a bit guilty. Let go of so much shopping. Yes, letting go can feel painful at times, but think of the downsides of the things you’re letting go. Think of the simplicity you’re creating. And feel the relief of relaxing around letting go.
  6. Build a simple holiday around what matters to you. What matters most to you and your loved ones? What would be simple and beautiful? Create that holiday. Let it be simple, with space to enjoy each other and the food and traditions you care about. Let it be a simple experience full of love, without all the complications. Envision it, and build it.
  7. Find the joy of giving in other ways. In the next section, I talk about how to enjoy the loveliness of giving without having to shop. I think this is so important, because we usually conflate spending with giving. They are not the same, and you can still find joy in giving without being an over-the-top consumer.
  8. Say ‘no’ to the craziness to say ‘yes’ to the essentials. All the craziness of the holidays that stress you out? Yeah, say “no” to all of that. All the obligations and parties you don’t really enjoy? Say “no” to those. That allows you to make room for the essentials that matter the most. Saying “no” allows you to say “yes” to the things you love deeply.

The Joy of Giving Without Buying

Let’s let go of the myth that you have to spend to give. Giving is a beautiful thing. Here are some ways to give without getting into debt.

  • Gift your family with some small experiences, such as caroling, baking, watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or playing football outside.
  • Volunteer as a family at a homeless shelter.
  • Ask people to donate to your favorite charity in lieu of gifts
  • Make meaningful gifts. A video of memories. A scrapbook.
  • Do a gift swap where you put a valued possession (that you already own) into the swap.
  • Bake gifts.
  • Give someone a shoulder massage. Enjoy seeing their stress melt away.
  • Do something fun together, go to the beach or a lake.
  • Find hope. Christmas has so much potential to be about so much more than buying—it can be a season of hope, renewal, loved ones, inspiration, contemplation. Talk to your family about this—how can we find ways to be hopeful, thankful, cooperative?
  • Get stuff at Goodwill or other charities. It’s recycled, and the money helps a good cause.
  • Give the gift of your expertise. Are you good at fixing cars? Music? Cooking? Magic tricks? Help or teach someone something you’re good at.

In the end, we can simplify by letting go of what stresses us out, and keeping what we truly love. That applies to all areas of our lives, but it’s especially needed during the craziness of the holidays.

Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net