Beyond the Tension: Having Christmas with Joy!

There is something about blogging that gives me incentive to do just a little more for the holidays. Sure, I would like to have something good to write about, but it’s not a performance. I like how it reminds me to do some things a little bit special for my family because I know my tendency is to get caught up in everyday things and let those early days of December quietly go by.

I’m glad when I see reminders to put the tree up because everything seem nice when you can work next to the tree. Or to take a photo each day and look for moments of Christmas joy.

It’s through blogging that I notice two tensions: on one extreme you have the hectic, stressed-out, over-shopped, over-spent chaos. On the opposing extreme you have the empty, “Don’t have fun and ban the festivities, Christmas should be meaningful.”  Joyless, on both accounts.

After sampling both sides, I choose to do those things that reflect joy in my activities and attitude.

Some years it is more, some years it is less, but there are a few techniques that help us every year:

Use your personal filters. In our house, Christmas is not a commercial holiday. That’s because we’ve used our own filters to remove the commercials! There are no catalogs sitting out or television turned up. It’s quiet here.

Be content with your current season of life. Did you know this is only our second year to have a Christmas tree? We didn’t have room in our previous smaller apartments. We hung ornaments on a garland, and that was special too. The year I wrote, “I’m not getting organized for Christmas, I think I’m just going to show up for it.” was when I was newly pregnant. And this year the baby Jesus keeps getting lost from the manger scene and showing up in the most unusual places. We’re forgoing a lot of late-night activities that would require babysitting, and trying to do more during the day as a family.

Limit the shopping. We do a little less shopping each year. A long list would make anyone crazy. The kids get one main gift or three smaller gifts from us, and the stockings hold special things like juice boxes, crayons, and fruit.

We plan with the calendar. The weeks before Christmas aren’t that long after all. It helps to see that written there in the kitchen.

How do you go beyond the usual and find joy in your Christmas celebration?
About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.


  1. Love this post!

    We are pretty picky with what we get busy with at this time of year. I love the idea of just doing the things that bring us joy.

    Your stocking idea is fabulous! I haven’t done a stocking yet as my oldest is just 4, but this year I think I will. Now that I learned your idea about juice boxes and small snacks, I am stoked! That is right in line with our values! I will have so much more fun with it this way and my son will be so excited to get his own snack stash!

  2. The past few years have seen us get caught up in the commercialism of Christmas. My kids made their Santa Lists and were filled with so many things. Many they needed- others were just far fetched. Does my 12 yr old daughter need a mini fridge for her room? Negative.

    This year my husband and I just decided to put a dollar limit for each child. We are going to look at the things that we really want to get the kids from their lists and once we hit our budget number then we’re done. Hopefully this works. Though I spent a lot online in the past week before we decided this and I may have to return a lot!!

  3. I’ve begun to realise it’s the simple traditions that make our Christmas special rather than endless presents that are quickly forgotten.

    My favourite that we have been doing for the last 5 years or so is Father Christmas footprints. My husband does this when the kids have gone to bed with flour and a cardboard template (we learnt some years ago that using a real shoe is rather messy!!). I’ve linked to a picture we took last Christmas Eve here.

    The kids love it, and I love the effort we take doing it. It is one of those magical parenting moments – us doing something purely to make them smile. You can sometimes lose sight of little actions like that on the parenting journey. Just finding that image again has made me smile and look forward to doing it again. It works even without a fireplace – in our old house we use to do it from front door to underneath the Christmas tree.

    We have other little traditions, but that is my favourite :)
    Anna´s last post…Three beautiful things

  4. Christmas has always been relaxed here. We make a point never to travel over the holidays, and that automatically relieves so much stress.

    We have sweet, simple traditions – visit our friend in a nursing home each Christmas morning, eat cinnamon rolls, and have fun seeing the magic through the eyes of three little people.

    Our kids have never made a Christmas “list” or wrote letters to Santa about what they “want” – we bypass all of that to try and make it about the good stuff. Like family and Jesus.

    I always love your photos, Rachel!

    steadymom´s last post…Living in the Thin Spaces

  5. Such a great reminder that Christmas should be appropriately different each year, not always the same idyllic celebration we remember from childhood, books, or dreams. Although our oldest is 3 1/2 and could help, we’ve decided to put up our tree and living area decorations while the children are sleeping. We’ll enjoy the process a lot more and they’ll get a nice surprise the next morning!

    Also, we’re adding joy to our Christmas by sharing it with a Latvian orphan! I can’t wait to meet her and see our celebrations and giving in her eyes!
    Laura´s last post…10 days until Liza comes!

  6. Oh, my goodness I had a good laugh about the baby Jesus part. I thought I was the only one having to figure out where my two toddlers could have possibly placed him. It does not help that this piece is really tiny and easily missed.

    But I am glad I set out the manger for the first time. It is all part of the memories and magic of Christmas.
    Erika´s last post…Handmade for Christmas

    • In our family, it was the cat that would run off with the nativity scene figures… his favorite was a sheep and not baby Jesus, but I’m pretty sure they all received some teeth marks!

      One of my favorite family traditions from when I was little – each day, we would move the 3 kings and their camels to a new location in the house, getting closer to the nativity each day and finally reaching it on Jan. 6th, the twelfth day of Christmas or 3 kings day. If baby Jesus keeps taking trips to other parts of the house, maybe your kiddos would be interested instead in migrating the kings and camels, or shepherds and sheep (arriving on Christmas eve).
      Rachel´s last post…Oh- to live in Zone 7!

      • I have a small collection of nativity sets, nothing fancy, they are all made of resin and not ceramic, for the purpose that my kids and now my grandkids were able to play with them. They would reenact the christmas story while playing. Many of our anumals are missing an ear or a shepherd a staff, but at least resin doesn’t shatter!
        That’s funny that your cat used to take the pieces off!
        Living the Balanced Life´s last post…Defining your priorities for the holidays

  7. This is our last year without kids (prayerfully – I’m 7 weeks preggers!) and its the first time in 4 years hubby and I aren’t hosting Christmas. Its nice not having to plan for 4-5 extra people in your apartment for a week…not having to worry about food and airport pickups and drop offs and activities and stocking stuffers…we just get to pack a suitcase and show up! Until then we’re just enjoying reading a few books on Advent, drinking eggnog and watching multiple rounds of Elf, Muppet Christmas Carol and The Grinch!
    Kait Palmer´s last post…Thankful on Paper – Week Four

  8. I have really cut my list back over the last couple of years. We focus on getting presents for the children and have let some friends and family fall off the list. I actually think that people are relieved when you DON’T exchange gifts anymore. But even with shopping for the kids, I do try to pick gifts that I know will hold up against two rough little boys. I’ve never gotten the children into the habit of seeing a huge spread of presents on Christmas morning. They’re always excited about whatever they get.

    Both of my children’s birthdays are this weekend – Dec. 5 & 6 – so I have to plan for that as well. We will keep it small – family only – and everyone will be satisfied.

    For extended family, friends, co-workers, and teachers, I bake tons of cookies and candies. Everyone seems to really appreciate it and enjoy receiving it and I like giving something that I’ve made myself.
    Kim McCallie´s last post…Visions of Sugar Plums

  9. great post! this is something i’ve been focusing on the past few years… actually enjoying christmas! we moved to a new area and are renters once again so we don’t have the space we had last year. so a lot of my decorations are staying in storage this year. i’m really enjoying the simplicity of less. less to do, less to buy, less to bake, etc. more time with family!
    stacey´s last post…14 Ways to Simplify the Holidays

  10. I agree–the balance is the key. All our celebrations have Christ at the center. And we carefully guard our calendar so that our busyness doesn’t overwhelm the meaning. We decorate the house inside out, top to bottom because we love to enjoy the festive surroundings for the month of December. But we also serve and pray and count blessings. And the joy the kids have in giving is a reminder to them that He is right about the giving and receiving principle.
    I Live in an Antbed´s last post…Confessions of an Adoptive Mom

  11. Last year my family missed out on a lot because I was so down over our lack of money and my husband losing his job just 10 days before Christmas. I just wanted to go to sleep and wake up when Christmas was past, but I had children to care for and I just survived until there was a knock at the door and my dear friends had bought a gift for my boys they had been asking Santa for. Then just days later gifts for the whole family arrived from my church. My children had a Christmas and I was overwhelmed with gratitude.

    Looking back I wish I had, had the strength to pull myself together and take my kids to enjoy all the fun festivities, to look at the lights, bake cookies, make gingerbread houses, etc. None of this would of cost anything. We had the supplies on hand for the baking, a car to drive around and look at the lights, and there are many festivities that don’t cost a thing. I also could of gone to work making many of their gifts and help them make gifts for others as well.

    Christmas gets simpler each year as I get a little smarter and just enjoy season.

  12. Your lucky that your husband doesn’t give you a hard time about how many presents your children should get. My husband insists that the kids need a pile of presents under the tree from Santa (us). You know because the kids don’t get enough from the many aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. (read: sarcastic tone – my kids get WAY too much from those sources). We have had screaming, ending-in-tears fights about this that have all but ruined Christmas for me entirely. We do not have the money and it takes away from everything else we want to do.

    My other is another source of pain is my mom. She gets all this junk for my kids and refuses to listen when I tell her to stop. It’s gotten to the point where I’m not sure I want to go to my parents for Christmas.

    I am sick over how much stuff my kids have. They respect none of it, refuse to clean. I have taken every last toy away and made them earn them back and I still have a closet full of their toys.

    It has gotten to the point where I rarely clean anymore (what is the point).

    It is so sad because my kids will only be young for such a short time and yet I hate Christmas.

    • Jessica~I feel your pain. It can be so hard when the “joy stealers” in our lives are often the ones closest to us. There are things you can do to exercise boundaries with your mom (and your husband–maybe he’s trying to fill a need from his childhood).

      Let your mom know, lovingly (this is hard when we’re frustrated) that you will be donating the excess to local children. And then be sure to follow through. If your kids don’t play with the excess, that’s how you know what to give away. If your mom asks about a particular gift that you gave away, remind her of your new “policy”. I bet she will see how serious you are and decide not to spend so much in the future. Then you may be able to get her involved in the charity.

      Since your kids are young, they would most likely enjoy doing this with you and it would be an opportunity for you to teach them your desires and values about giving at Christmas. It’s amazing how the innocent heart of a child can open the hearts and minds of the adults around them.

      You could also put those extra gifts in a gift closet for the birthday invitations that pop up throughout the year.

      We set a limit to the number of gifts we would give our kids since our son was born fourteen years ago: three. That’s how many Jesus received and it helps us to keep that focus every Christmas. We didn’t set a limit with our extended family. My husband’s family was great about asking us what they really wanted and giving them those gifts. My family didn’t do that. If they bought what I considered “junk”, it usually broke in a short amount of time and went in the garbage. Or we organized and gave away those toys we knew they hadn’t played with the whole year.

      I know it seems an impossible task, but you can be an agent for change in your family. ;) I pray you find the strength to do so and also find joy this, and every, Christmas! Blessings!
      Melanie´s last post…Inspiration Everywhere- Another Great Jessica Sprague Class

      • Wow, this breaks my heart. I hope that you eventually get the strength to lay down the law with your parents, husband and children. This would be a deal-breaker between me and my husband, and I would not just let him have his way. It sounds like your frustrations and the results of your children being spoiled extend way beyond Christmas and that this excess is affecting their long-term personality traits, their behavior toward you, and your family’s finances. That’s terrible. And harmful, ultimately, to your kids. It’s time to start prioritizing teaching the kids gratitude and placing the family’s overall well-being and your sanity above over-indulgence. And maybe you can start doing regular volunteer work with the kids to teach them gratitude. And why not donate most of their toys to charity? You could do it with or without them – they won’t even notice if you got rid of the rest of what’s in that closet. Good luck!

      • This sounds like a difficult situation for sure. Something I used to do is, instead of telling our extended family not to buy anything (they would anyway)I would carefully pull aside gifts as they were being opened (during the mad frenzy!) and those gifts would either be returned or donated. Sometimes my kids got so many little dollar store type presents, they never even knew they were missing anything. I know it may not have been the best way of handling it, but at the time, it worked!
        Living the Balanced Life´s last post…Defining your priorities for the holidays

  13. Rachel~

    Still love your blog!! I find myself nodding in agreement and being inspired and encouraged often. Thank you.


  14. Our Thanksgiving was amazingly more relaxed than normal, because we put our foot down and only had 1 brunch and 1 dinner!

    We’re doing the same with Christmas–Christmas Eve with one side of the family, Christmas night with the other, and Christms morning at home just the three of us. I’m very excited!

    And I’m not sure how we’ll handle the gift thing in future years, but growing up in my family we always got 3 medium sized gifts every Christmas, and I think we’ll do something similar.
    Jessicah´s last post…One year ago today Noel and I and a peach-sized Eleanor were

  15. Nice post! Our family is late to the celebrating Christmas thing ( it’s too complicated for this discussion!) and we went wayyy overboard for a few years. Now we’re stepping back and trying to do less and enjoy it more. I make lots of our gifts and we’re investigating ways to cut back on the excess without stripping away the joy. I lived with someone who could suck the joy out of every event and that is definitely not my goal.

    The lost baby Jesus reminds me of on of our family’s nativity scenes. It seems that Jospeph got lost and now an action figure of Rambo stands in his place. I know it’s not in keeping with the spirit or politically correct, but trust me, the creche is postively hysterical.
    deb´s last post…Christmas – An Excuse to Gild Everything

  16. While everyone is singing Joy to the World, I really think that Christmas can be totally joyless as folks run around and get caught up in the haze of events and doing and stuff… We totally opt out and while it looks like we are being minimalists… with our teeny tiny gift list and teenier tinier gifts… we are actually maxing out on time together just chilling… not busy with a thousand activities just lying around reading and going for walks on the beach… It is meant to be a peaceful time and the world makes it so chaotic… it really is worth taking a breathe of air and turning your back on the hype!!!
    se7en´s last post…Se7en’s Advent Adventures…

  17. It is really nice for me to hear that this is only the second year y’all have had a tree. We are celebrating (only) our second Christmas as a married couple, and haven’t/aren’t doing much in the way of decorations or anything (because of space, our location, this is a transition year, etc). I love Christmas, and it bothers me that we haven’t been able to begin any “family traditions”; it’s hard looking around and seeing more settled couples/families doing things I would like to be doing. But it’s really comforting to know that there are many different ways to celebrate, and that it is good to be content where we are now. Thank you for mentioning that, and for the reminders!

  18. thanks for the reminder Rachel… will do some reflecting :)
    angelvalerie´s last post…revisiting goals and motivation is this the never-ending story

  19. Great post! We have tried to keep things simple since we got married. I came from a family that celebrated a purely commercial Christmas, and even as a young child, I felt like there was something more special that we were missing–our celebrations always felt so shallow and focused on things and left me feeling hollow.

    My husband and I keep the focus on what we know to be important, and keep gift giving to a minimum. My side of the family draws 1 name each, and on my husband’s side we all choose a charity to give to each year. Within our little home, we do 4 gifts each for the kids: something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. Their stockings are simple–usually some special music we selected for them, some dried fruit, a new pencil. I love that the time devoted to presents is minimal, and we have so much more time and money for the things we truly value.
    Morgan´s last post…A lesson in the importance of starting letters with a proper salutation

  20. Nice post Rachel! I always love your photography :)

    Personally I enjoy a simple Christmas (no kids, no husband) and usually spend the day at home by myself. It’s quite nice actually. I do not like driving all over the state on holidays and chose to distance myself from the family that lives in town.

    As a single woman I find it more frustrating when I get looked down on and pitied because I don’t have the typical Christmas. To me the holiday season is not really important – I try to celebrate my family, my faith every day. If I spend Thanksgiving or Christmas working (as I have done for years) it doesn’t make me any less committed to the values those holidays espouse.

    A friend of mine posted this and I thought it was an interesting take on things “I read an email several years ago from a lady who was a mother of four. She had enough of the excess of Christmas and instituted a four gift rule — something to wear; something they wanted; something they needed; and something to read.”
    Kelly´s last post…Day 3 – New Dishes

  21. I try to limit gifts for my son to one special gift and a fun stocking filled with small good-quality toys, a bit of candy, dried fruit and of course, an orange :) It’s the way I grew up, and it makes for such a nice experience – you have the chance to see and celebrate with others while they open their gifts instead of being consumed with what’s under the tree for you! Not to mention the fact that I don’t have to run around all through Advent looking for a million gifts – I can spend my evenings just relaxing by the tree with my hubby!
    Jennifer´s last post…5 Steps to a Stress-free Holiday Meal

  22. I’m all about simplicity. The last few years have been quite strange for my family, as my mother divorced (thankfully) my stepfather. He was incredibly materialistic, and made Christmas into this big show about how he could buy us lots of presents. Even though he did this for decades, his behavior outside of the holidays was cold and selfish… so I associate large piles of presents with this.

    Last year, my mother and I spent Christmas with my sister at home, not at a big family gathering. We ordered Chinese food and did at-home pedicures. It was incredibly non-traditional, but probably the best celebration of Christmas I’ve ever had. We bake cookies every year together, but I think that’s really the only tradition we’ve ever embraced.

    This year, BF and I are living together– and though we wont be anywhere near the US for the holiday– I feel all future Christmases will be very minimalistic, and when we have children it will be limited to mostly home-made gifts (that’s my favorite part of the holiday).
    Tara´s last post…Hello Theorists- Can’t We All Just Play Nice

  23. Karen (Scotland) says:

    I think the “current season of life” point is very important.

    Christmas dinner in Scotland is when we do the turkey thing that the US does at Thanksgiving. However, meat, potatoes and veg (no matter how fancy) doesn’t thrill my kids so we have either pancakes or sausages – my kids’ favourite meals. Dinner is at the usual time (5pm) instead of that wierd festive 3pm time (which only eats into crucial playing-with-new-toys-time, in my opinion!)

    I skipped the tree one year when my son had just started crawling and climbing and I was six months pregnant with second child – it just wasn’t worth it, physically.

    This year, my hubbie will be at sea for Christmas so we already did a small Sinterklaas day with kruidnoten (spiced mini cookies) and small gifts. I’m keeping actual Christmas day small-scale because, to be honest, on my own with four kids and the eldest only six, I’m not sure I can cope with it any other way!

    Karen (Scotland)

  24. I love that picture. It pretty much sums up the spirit of the holidays.
    Unplanned Cooking´s last post…How to shop in a store

  25. My goal (short term) is just to enjoy the holidays. I don’t want them to be stressful, but I don’t want to be a hermit, either. Social interaction is more important than the gifts, but it has to be the RIGHT social interaction. I went to a party last night that has still left me with a glazed, artificial smile on my face.

    I’m still learning how to teach that to my children. I like the idea of limiting the kids’ Christmas presents to 3, like the 3 wise men, but my kids are 8 and 11 and they have had big Christmases in the past. If we suddenly stop giving them as much, I’m afraid they, as children, will equate that with love.

    On a lighter note, we have a fun family tradition of decorating the tree every year during the army-navy game. (2 family west point grads and one aspiring annapolis kid) This year it’s a little later than usual (next weekend) and I’m missing the tree being up! I agree that the living room is always a little nicer with the Christmas tree up. I like to sit underneath it and look up at the lights with my kids! Also we love advent calendars. I have some old ones and we will make different scenes with them each year.

    Hope everyone has an enjoyable holiday, whatever that means to you!
    Catherine´s last post…Mindfulness Or just not caring

  26. Ohh.. I so agree with you on this.. I posted about this last month after realizing that it is so easy to get caught up in the flurry of shopping, decorating and cooking that one just forgets what Christmas is all about.
    For us this past year has been tough but like all life’s lessons has taught us a lot and for that am grateful. So, Christmas is going to be simple but loving, warm and fun.
    Prerna´s last post…Easy Party Planning for Christmas or New Year Eve Dinners

  27. I would have to say that this is the most intentional Christmas season we’ve had to date. I really love being a blogger, but being a reader of blogs like yours really helps me to feel like I do have a “community” of people that share my thoughts & values & beliefs that Christmas should be a time to be savored. While my real community is racing around to check things off their lists, it feels good that my virtual community is slowing down right here with me. :)

  28. I just love this picture of your kids! :)

    Great post.
    Rachel´s last post…Enjoying Christmas- Beyond the Commercialism

  29. “Be content with your season of life”- YES! with 4 kids (11 to 1), I can’t have a Martha Stewart house- and that is okay with me

  30. Thanks for the post! My husband and I just separated three months ago and this is the kids first Christmas with us being apart. They are girls 15 and 13. I have found myself trying to “over do” all the Christmas things that we do every year. I have bought them a ton of presents and made tons of cookies, went to the festival of lights and made smores, etc…
    Your post made me realize that I was trying to make up for the loss of their dad by doing “excess” and that is not what Christmas is about. So from today on, I’m done shopping and we are just going to spend time as a family. Just me and the girls.