TIPS: Reader Submissions: How I Simplify the Holidays

by New Dream   |   December 20, 2011

Natural Decor

We asked our readers for their ideas for simplifying the holidays, and the response was overwhelming! Below are some of our favorite suggestions.

For additional tips on having a holiday with more joy and less stuff, check out our Simplify the Holidays campaign.


"Save energy by avoiding any decorations that require an outlet."
—Melissa Meece

"Our family decorates a large plant with lights and ribbons rather than a Christmas tree. We e-mail a simple holiday card to family and friends.” —Stacy Lasley

“At home, we made a gratitude tree out of recycled cardboard and are decorating it day by day with colorful paper ornaments listing things we are thankful for." —Molly MacGregor

"I decided not to buy any new decorations this year, other than some real wreaths and garland from my local florist's shop. I'm also creating a winter bird sanctuary by putting up roosting baskets, suet, and restocking the feeders with a high protein mix. I'm asking for a heated bird bath for Christmas!" —Marianne Beal Peters

"We had a great (and green) tradition when I was growing up. At Thanksgiving (i.e., before the ground might freeze), I'd dig a hole in the yard. A few weeks later, we'd buy a live ‘holiday’ tree and decorate it indoors. Then on New Year's Day, I'd lug the (quite heavy with its root ball) tree out to the yard and plant it. After a few years, we had a great grove of trees…." —David Bergman

"After 20 years I don’t buy any more holiday ware other than 1 unique ornament, the live Christmas tree, and lights if we need them. Our house decorations are packed away in several boxes and brought down every year. We only decorate the living room and we put wreaths on the back and front doors. I pull out the same holiday-themed CDs as well as tune to the radio station that has switched to holiday music…. We reuse ornate metal boxes for presents... " —Ujjvala Rahn

"I use a Nativity and pine straw out of my yard every year. No real tree to throw away. We use the same old lights and wooden decor outside that I have had for 7 years…." —Geneva Talmadge

Combating Commercialism 

Girl Ornament

"On ‘Black Friday’/Buy Nothing Day, I unsubscribed from 20 different commercial emails that I've been repeatedly deleting individually for months or years." —Amy Buttery

"I simplify the holidays by managing wants versus needs with my children. Teaching them about advertising has really helpednow that they know the purpose is to sell them things, the Christmas season isn't so bad!"Gaylene Wey-Thoeny

"Don't give children toy catalogs! Providing young children with incentives for greed will ultimately lead to more spending, more waste, and unnecessary consumerism based solely on instant gratification. Let children use their imaginations when making their Christmas list and be sure that it includes some non-material gift items as well." —Rachel J. Franz

“I simplified the holidays years ago by killing the television when my kids were under the age of four. We raised 3 of them free of this crass, mindless purveyor of non-stop consumerism. Didn't really have to do much more than that to keep things blissfully simple at home."Deborah Buffalin

Enjoying Family and Community

"Last year we had an entirely home-made Christmas... We made a puppet theater, a train table, and a fairy tree house all out of leftover wood from our basement. We repurposed pretty bags and boxes and put together kits for sewing and knitting from tools we had around the house. And we collected used trains for the train table from cousins who had outgrown them. It was so much fun that we’re doing it again this year!" —Jen Higgins

"Years ago our family went ‘gift-free’ at my urging, and every year we recognize how much nicer and more relaxing it's made our holidays. Now the gathering is just about gathering!"Karen Sati Suwinski

Family Sledding

“Really our biggest change is saying ‘no’ to a consumer Christmas and a thousand different ‘must do’ traditions and instead we have said ‘yes’ to a quiet time of reflection and love for our family. It really has made a difference." —Stacy Lasley

"We have a seafood chowder party for friends and family instead of giving gifts (we do give gifts to the children, mostly gift certificates so they can get what), and Church Service on Christmas Eve." —Debby Denham

"Our family tries to focus on the real meaning of Christmas instead of the accumulation of more things. We are planning to enjoy the Boys' Ranch Christmas pageant and view Christmas light displays.” —Leslie Tutty

"I simplify the holidays by staying home and enjoying what we have." —Heather Severson

"How about an eco-friendly vacation rather than buying a bunch of stuff for Christmas?" —Alan Balch

"I simplify the holidays by celebrating the winter solstice as our family's primary winter holiday. We have a family ritual and dinner and usually several reflective activities. We ring in the new year with bells outside. We light candles on a yule log and contemplate the darkness. We set new goals/intentions for ourselves for the coming year and reflect on the ones from the year before (we "plant" new intentions in a little bottle and unroll our old note the following year to see if our goal did, in fact, unfold. Very, very often, it did!). We celebrate the successes of the preceding year and compliment ourselves on what went right and what we're proud of." —Molly Remer

"I've tried to identify what is really important, and work hard at letting go of everything that doesn't make that cut. For me, the importance of Christmas is as a holy-day, so our family observes Advent season daily. I also like to go Christmas caroling and go caroling and go caroling. If we don't do much more than that, I'll be satisfied." —Laurie White

"Money has always been a huge stressor on me for the holidays; we are not very affluent. However that has never dampened the holidays for us. One good present is all the kids expect and is easy enough. The emphasis for us has always been family. Simple traditions, making danish butter cookies, Christmas eve dinner of a smorgasbord, playing with cousins, Christmas caroling (horribly) through the neighborhood, and just being together, that is where the memories come from and what will be remembered." —Annetta Olsen Bunce

Gift Wrapping

Gift Wrap

"My family and I use furoshiki (reusable gift-wrap made of fabric) to wrap all of our gifts. Wrapping is easy when you don't have to drag out the scissors, tape, etc. And when it is all over, we simply fold up the furoshiki for next big bags of trash for the landfill!" —Stephanie Bates

"We used to buy the leftover rolls from the small newspaper (out of business now) for wrapping paper. we'd cut shapes on potatoes and press onto stamp pads to make our own designs." —Diana Alldredge 

"I wrap gifts in homemade wrapping paper made from my child's paintings throughout the year.” —Ursula Bare Lobacz

"I like to reuse gift wrap, and wrap things in creative wrappings like pillow cases, blankets, reusable shopping bags, reusable holiday tins, and comics from the Sunday paper." —Kellie Ciochon

"I give gifts from the heart and wrap them all in brown craft paper and natural decorations such as pine branches, dried oranges and apples, rafia strands and whatever I have. A handmade gift means so much more and the extra care and attention to detail is extremely relaxing to me!" —Tracy Moody

Gifts of Time 

"One word: volunteer." —Doug Meron

"I recommend the gift of time, especially for the kids in the form of gift cards, time to wash the car, mow the lawn, give a back massage, do grocery shopping at farmer's market, phone a relative to check in on them and let them know you love them, etc. The idea is endless in paying forward the goodness each of us has inside to let love shine." —Vince Rosato


"I am simplifying by finding ways to give my time and attention rather than stuff." —Bob Sauerbrey

"I schedule time with each loved one where each of us can teach each other something we've always wanted to learn." —Claire Noelle Frost

“Christmas...well, we don't really celebrate it anymore, except as family time. I have 7 grandchildren. I don't give them presents, but rather each year I spend special time with each of them doing something they want to do." —Isbel Ingham

"The children create homemade coupons, gift certificates, gift cards, etc. to give as what we call ‘doing gifts.’ It might be to go to a movie, ice skating, or bowling. Or it could be for a picnic, a bike ride, or game of basketball. The kids can be as creative as they want. Some of the gifts require some money to be spent once the recipient redeems their coupon. But nothing tangible is purchased. These are simply gifts of time, doing, and being present. Both the giver and receiver benefit! —Sarah Cool

"I live in a resort town where most of December is so slow we barely get by. So usually we exchange apologies since we have no money to buy presents. I believe holidays no matter what religion you follow is about thanking those who have been kind to you during the year." —Carol Perry

Gifts to Charity

"Our Christmas tradition when my kids were young was for them to go shopping with me and pick out something they would like then donate it to charity. They took this very seriously since that gift could have been the only thing that child might receive. It really is better to give than to receive.” —Kathy S. Collins

“In lieu of tangible gifts, we make one large donation to a charity in honor of all of our friends and family. We all have more than we need and this way our family can give to those in need on behalf of our loved ones. The kids don't like it, but it gets them thinking." —Aaron McCarver

“My husband and I are forgoing gifts and instead buying chickens, rabbits and other necessities for the poor in Asia.” —Donna Korzun

"How I simplify the giving the money I would have spent on gifts, wrapping paper, etc. to my favorite charitable causes. Open a bottle of wine, write out checks, and I'm done. Feels great to relax and use this time of year to support good causes.” —Melinda Gustafson Gervasi 


"I have been trying for years to get my family to get back to the real meaning of the holidays and to give to the less fortunate by way of charitable organizations instead of exchanging gifts with each other. I have met great resistance and so I just stopped giving gifts and started giving to charities myself and bringing the receipts to our family gatherings and letting my family know where their gift was. One year I donated and three children in our area had bikes for Christmas. Now that to me is the real meaning of Christmas, not trying to give gifts to my family that already has more than what they need." —Charlene Lauzon 

"[I] reserve a percentage of my gift money for someone and donate it to their favorite charity in lieu of a more expensive gift. Then they can enjoy the gift they received knowing that they made a difference too!" —Jessica Klein 

"I frequently make ‘In Honor of’ donations to charities which, in turn, send a holiday card to the person acknowledging a gift was made in their name." —Diana Artemis

"We buy a box of Angel Food for a family selected through our local food pantry and then also select a family from the local angel tree to make their holiday happy.” —Brigitta Modglin Adkins

"Last year I asked my inlaws to purchase gifts for those in need in my name. It is seriously the best gift I've ever received.” —Michelle Lange

"The Holiday Gift Exchange! Donate funds or time or resources to a charitable cause in honor of, or in the name of someone you care aboutsend them a handmade card telling them you have done so. This is one of my favorite ways to make the Holidays meaningful." —Kay Pratt

Gifts of Food

“I give food gifts made with love to family and friends. I go to thrift stores and pick up clear or otherwise pretty casserole dishes, hopefully with lids. Most of these cost under $5. I use these to make food gifts of my most requested dishes (I'm a very good cook) before hand delivering them to loved ones during the holiday season. I leave the dish along with its recipe for them too. This way they can make the recipe again, use the dish again and all the while they will think of us! I already have a special requests for Shepherd Pie, English Trifle and Banana Nut Bread! All made from scratch, of course!" —Monique Noriega

“We've cut down our shopping list to only a handful of people (our gifts are often gently used or homemade). We make one baked good in large batches and give it to neighbors and teachers.” Stacy Lasley

Handmade Gifts

"Last year, with finances tight, I gave very few gifts, and those I did give were small tokenslike bookmarks I made by re-using fancy paper from cards and invitations, accented with small bits of ribbon and beads I had on hand. I also made gifts of small bags of dried herbs from my garden, to which I stapled a nice label printed on colored paper. These received such surprisingly enthusiastic reception that I paid extra attention to my herb garden this year, making an additional cutting, so I will have more garden herbs to give away this year." —Shay Seaborne


"My favorite, big-family Christmas was the year everyone drew names and handmade or decorated a box suggestive of the person whose name they drew. At the gathering, the boxes were presented to each person by the person who made it for them and everyone else (each) dropped in a note of what they loved most about that person. Everyone got in the spirit and truly gave of themselves (thought, time, feelings). It turned out so special I created a book of all the presentations (dubbed Twisted Christmas). This year it's handmade ornaments indicative of ourselves that will be presented to another family member to keep. We're calling it the (No) Fleece Navidad. ;)" —Kathe Carnahan 

"This year my 3 year old and I are making clay sculptures as presents for close friends and family." —Shalon Zeferjahn

"I have 5 grown up children. They and their significant others draw names for Christmas. The rule is that the gift has to be handmade. It is my favorite part of Christmas to see the imaginative and creative gifts that they make. My oldest daughter came up with the idea several years ago and it has now been dubbed ‘Crafty Christmas.’ They have sewn pillows, made candy, created a desk top basketball goal, crocheted scarves, made a sock monkey, made cookbooks, just to name a few. It is a blast!" —Judy Pendergrass Berger

"I'm giving the gift of Nature this year by sending self made cards with two small packets of native flower seeds inside." —Therese Davis

"I'm making a family cookbook that showcases our favorite meals along with great pix. Plus doing a book swap for the kids gifting each other." —Lauren LaVail

"I make gifts for people, like cookies or other baked goods, frame pictures, fill a scrapbook, knit a scarf, make jewelry, whatever I can do to stay away from buying gifts and really show my family and friends that I've invested thought, time and love into their gifts." —Kellie Ciochon 

"I like to give useful, practical gifts. If I don't give food gifts, I give information cards on a ring. Depending on what I'm into that year, I may give sugar bath scrub recipes printed on single hole-punched index cards that is put on a ring. For babies, I may laminate photos of family members onto blank index cards and put these on a ring. For art students, I would get a postcard book of a particular artist, laminate them and put these on a ring." —Monique Noriega

Buying Local

"There are many folks out there who need our support; how about purchasing gifts from your local farmers market; Artists and Merchants who have worked all year to make them available, many items from recycled materials and/or handmade items of beauty..." —Kay Pratt

Xmas Gift

"I bought fabric gift bags and re-usable gift tags from a local crafter. This year I will shop at locally-owned businesses as much as possible, to support our town's economy. And going to local music programs and watching old favorites on TV are much more fun than shopping!" —Kathy Cole

"Our community hosts an Alternative Gift Fair!!! This is the 8th year for it and it has been an outstanding success for gift givers, receivers, and of course, the non-profits involved! Stephanie Hays-Mussoni Cec

"Our local First Congregational Church is hosting an Occupy Christmas event where every Saturday of the month, there are craft stations. Anyone can show up and make homemade gifts for their friends and family." —Dana Green

"I have always tried to keep the focus on family and traditions rather than gifts. I try to get one ‘highlight’ gift for each person, usually something from a local artisan. That way the gift is special and the money spent stays in the community. I then add a few more gifts under the tree with homemade gifts." —Wendy Wickham Wofford

Buying Used

“My sister and I are exchanging gifts that are second hand, either from thrift stores or Craigslist." —Suzanne Colleen

"A Re-Gift Exchange encourages folks to find reusable or gently-used (that vase from your wedding 8 years ago still in the box) gifts or create repurposed items for a White Elephant party or silent auction fundraiser. Re-gifting is trendy, not tacky. :)" —Erin Malland

Limiting the Number of Gifts/Recipients

“Our family is drawing names and buying a $25 gift for one person and our office is having a dinner instead of any gifts. That really makes life simple.” —Molly MacGregor

"Our family has a rule of one gift per person so the kids are not piled high with gifts Christmas morning. We also celebrate Advent and make treats and crafts all month long to appreciate the spirit of the holiday." —Heather Cleveland

“Exchanging names for gifts rather than buying for everyone." —Kelli McCully

“The family get together consists of a pizza party and one gift for each child (brought by child's parents). The adults do not exchange gifts but we do exchange photos, stories and lots of love. Oh and of course pie!" —Donna Korzun

Other Gift Ideas

"I look at the individuals I usually 'gift to' and see what it is they could really use in their lives." —Margy Campbell


“This year, we are buying fewer toys that do all the work for children and more creative gifts....paints, books, musical instruments, etc." —Leslie Tutty

"I keep the holidays simple: a book for each grandchildthey can always learn. I keep the rest of the year for givingnot just 12/25…we can give back all year!" —Linda Daniels

"One of the best gifts our family ever received: My brother, who lives 1,000 miles away from us and whom we only see once a year (if we're lucky) committed to send regular postcards to my (then) five year-old daughter for one year. She loves getting mail and he travels quite a bit throughout the Southwest, and postcards are quick and cheap to send. He has kept it up now for two years at the rate of about one postcard a month. My daughter loves it so much that she keeps a scrapbook of just her uncle's postcards." —Wesley Satterwhite

"Shop throughout the year for Christmas gifts so you avoid the crush and lure of shopping during the season." —Eric Swanson