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When it comes to simplifying life, Marcia Ramsland wrote the book. Actually, three of them: Simplify Your Life, Simplify Your Time and Simplify Your Space. But when it came to the holiday season, even the woman known to her clients as “The Organizing Pro” felt overwhelmed.

A few years back — after more than 20 years of helping people to cut out stressful clutter and home in on what really matters in life — Ramsland realized that she was looking forward to the holidays the way many of us do: with dread.

“I was sitting down with a girlfriend,” Ramsland remembers, “and she said, ‘Don’t you just love the holidays?’ In that moment, Ramsland realized that she didn’t. “I said, ‘Well, I’ve got 22 gifts to buy, I don’t like to shop, and I still have to wrap them and get them to the post office.’”

The conversation proved to be a watershed for Ramsland, who recognized just how much she longed for a return of the joy the holidays had once brought her. She promptly whacked her gift list down to her closest family members — and she started work on a new book called, you guessed it, Simplify Your Holidays.

Most of us have experienced some version of Ramsland’s holiday distress. Maybe it occurs during the long drive with overwrought children to Grandma’s house. Or during the idle chitchat at the season’s sixth party. Or while taking stock of credit-card over-limit fees in January. Eventually, the stress of overeating, overspending, oversocializing or just plain overdoing our way through the holidays creates a sense of regret — and perhaps a silent rejoinder of “Bah, humbug!”

But, like Scrooge himself, most of us are not so much misanthropic as wistful. We don’t want the holiday season to disappear; we want it infused with genuine joy and meaning. Jo Robinson, coauthor of Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back Into the Season, has led hundreds of workshops in which she asks participants to take a few minutes to close their eyes and picture the perfect holiday. Inevitably, they describe much the same simple scene.

“It’s so similar that it’s striking,” she says. “We call it ‘the universal Christmas dream.’ People want to be connected with the natural world, like a cabin in the woods. It’s quiet, no phones, no TV. It’s a peaceful natural celebration. There’s no work involved, and everyone’s participating.”

Sound out of reach? It’s not. By building our celebrations around our core values and deepest desires, we can rediscover the true spirit of the season. With a little foresight, planning and communication, any of us can break through to a simpler, more meaningful holiday.

Start the Conversation

If you’re ready to trade in the tinsel for some tranquility, first talk to the people with whom you share traditions. Maybe you’re ready to skip the 100-guest annual party in favor of a simple dinner out — but is your spouse? To you, the reciprocity of mass gift giving may have become a burdensome obligation, but do you have an idea of how those close to you feel about it?

Choose a time before the holiday stress has set in — or after the holidays are over. Robinson suggests starting with the basic, yet important, question: What works? By talking about what traditions feel good and capturing the values you hope to place at the center of your celebrations, you answer a second question about the holidays: What doesn’t work — or just plain isn’t worth the trouble?

When Susannah Seton, author of Simple Pleasures for the Holidays: A Treasury of Stories and Suggestions for Creating Meaningful Celebrations, popped the question to her own family, her 11-year-old daughter ranked driving around to look at holiday lights at the top of her list. All those holiday cookies Seton baked? Not so important. “Baking took hours,” says Seton, “and I thought my daughter loved it.” Talking had helped highlight family priorities — and freed Seton from a burdensome holiday chore. (See “How to Have the Holidays You Want,” below, for more tips on how to talk about the holidays.)

During your family negotiations, keep in mind that there’s no one recipe for a “meaningful” holiday. And it might take some negotiation and compromise to agree on the most valued set of traditions. Moreover, conversations about what makes a meaningful holiday can stir up painful issues around cultural and personal expectations. Many of us feel pressure to turn the holidays into a big show, says Robinson, and we feel inadequate or guilty when the show is less than sparkling.

A case in point is Nancy Twigg. The author of Celebrate Simply: Your Guide to Simpler, More Meaningful Holidays and Special Occasions, Twigg grew up in a family that didn’t do much to celebrate the holidays, and when she had a family of her own, she vowed to give them the perfect holiday.

She made homemade gifts, cooked a couple of huge meals, went all out with the decorations. “I basically made the holidays my full-time job. But I already had a full-time job. It wasn’t a holiday I was looking forward to, it was just a deadline — and I was running out of time.”

A few days before her deadline, she finally lost it. “I had a blowout with my husband. It was all my fault — I had become a monster. By trying to make a perfect holiday, I ruined it.” The clincher? When the big day finally rolled around, “it was almost as if nobody noticed that it was different from the year before.”

For Twigg, breaking free of expectations and refocusing her holiday on meaning and joy meant cutting back on labor-intensive homemade gifts, fancy meals and splashy decorations. But what to cut is a personal decision you should make as a family, she stresses. It could include trimming the gift list to only household members, or eliminating a few side dishes at dinner, or paring back traditions that feel like a chore in favor of simpler, more meaningful ones.

The Holiday Spirit

Whether you opt for big changes (say, cutting out travel or a cutting back on your gift list), or just make minor shifts in your routine (perhaps fewer decorations and a smaller holiday party), focusing on fun is probably your best guide to simplifying — and adding meaning to — your holiday. “The activities that are meaningful are often the ones you actually enjoy doing,” says Seton.

When you successfully realign your holiday activities with your values, the season becomes a balm instead of a headache. Your perfect holiday is an expression of your deepest values, says Robinson. “It really represents what people want out of life on a fundamental level.”

And that expression won’t just make your holiday more joyful, its effects will reverberate throughout the entire year.

How to Have the Holidays You Want

The key to making a successful transition to a simpler, more joyful holiday experience is to include family members in decision-making. “Sometimes all it takes is just being brave enough to bring the subject up,” says Susannah Seton, author of Simple Pleasures for the Holidays: A Treasury of Stories and Suggestions for Creating Meaningful Celebrations.

Here are some tips for handling family resistance to change.

1. Start talking early — or late. Two weeks before the holiday is probably not the best time to start making changes. By then, plans have been made and relatives will be invested in following through on them. Plus, as holiday stress starts to simmer, your suggestions might be construed as reactive scrooginess. Instead, talk about the holiday well ahead of time, before plans are firm and while feelings are relatively neutral.

Better still, says Jo Robinson, coauthor of Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back Into the Season, do a post-mortem a few weeks after the holiday. “You’re starting to pay the bills, you weigh 10 pounds more, and are your kids still playing with their gifts?” she says. “That’s a good time to ask, ‘What worked for you?’” — and to take notes you can pull out next year, before the hoopla begins all over again.

2. Focus on the positive. Instead of complaining about your negative traditions (“We’re going broke buying gifts for everyone!”), try to uncover the traditions that really speak to the heart of the holiday season. Some families go caroling or volunteer at a local food pantry to express a spirit of giving. Find out what traditions give your family joy and then cut back on other obligations to serve those deeper values.

3. Go slowly. If you make too many changes too quickly, resistance might dash your hopes for a simpler holiday. Robinson recalls one family whose pile of presents extended out from under the Christmas tree into the next room. “They went to a screaming halt in one year, and it was too much for the kids,” she says. “You can’t pull the rug out like that, but you can make gradual changes that get you there eventually.” Work out a multiyear plan aimed at creating a series of feel-good celebrations along the way.

This article originally appeared as “Simple Celebrations” in the November 2008 issue of Experience Life.

Joseph Hart

Joseph Hart is a freelance writer in Viroqua, Wis.

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