Celebrating a simple holiday How we're hopping a ride on the peace train

Once upon a time, in a life not-so-long ago, Christmas morning looked like this in my house:

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Kinda gross, huh?

I mean, would you look at all that stuff?

My favorite holiday moment during those years usually came at about 2:30 AM on Christmas morning. That’s when every present was finally wrapped and under the tree. Everyone was asleep. I would sit alone on my couch and survey the decorated house and the mountain of pretty presents and feel so deeply, deeply grateful that it was all done.

How sad is that?

It would be one thing if all my holiday effort resulted in a memory album of nothing but sweet moments, but I have proof that it didn’t quite go down like that:

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Not sure what was happening, but a roomful of presents obviously wasn’t bringing joy.

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And getting all dressed up to visit Santa wasn’t doing it in this moment, either.

Of course there were moments filled with smiles and laugher and good feeling, but it took me years to realize that none of them came from driving myself (and my bank account) into the ground. All that effort was nothing but a ticket on the Christmas train to Crazytown.

Consider this a postcard from a saner, happier place.

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Our goal is simple: We want the holidays to enhance our lives, not take them over. The first step is to keep the decorations in check.

It used to take me most of Thanksgiving weekend to decorate my house. Every room had some kind of green or red or Santafied something in it. I came to dread Thanksgiving weekend.

Now I wait to decorate until the first weekend in December that we have the kids with us. Last weekend we decorated the tree and put up our stockings late Sunday afternoon. I finished up with a few more things on Monday, but the whole thing took a few hours, rather than a few days.

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We do get a live tree. It looks pretty much the same every year. We don’t have ribbon or fancy balls or any kind of color scheme.

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What we do have are a lot of sweet ornaments that we’ve collected over years. (Each kid gets one every year, to be taken to their own homes when they’re all grown up.) I try to find ornaments that connect somehow to something memorable from the past year.

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We also hang stockings and decorate our mantel. While I’d love the aesthetic of some simple, matching stockings like so many I’ve seen on other blogs over the past few weeks (maybe a whole mantel full of stockings made from several of my grandma’s sweaters), we aren’t going to have that.

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We’re going to have our usual sorta rag-tag assortment of stockings because our kids are attached to the ones they already have. Will and Grace and I made these stockings together a few years back. They may not make our mantel magazine-pretty, but the kids like them, and that’s way more important to us.

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On top of the mantel we have some old-school-style frosted white bulbs, a fresh cedar garland, two candles, and some fake (yes, fake)  red berries. (I know, I know:  We can get kinda obnoxious about authenticity. Don’t judge.)

For art above the mantel, we kept our red button bird up, but all the greenery and lights seemed a bit much for our owlsI replaced them with some simple snowflake art. The girls and I cut the snowflakes for fun last weekend. I just mounted them to some burlap and hung them on the wall in frames we already had. (The owl painting is underneath the snowflake collage on the right.)

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Next to the mantel we have our bookshelf (which moved to accommodate the tree).

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(Dang, forgot to remove the phone and mess of cords attached to it. Oh well, that’s how it often looks. Music is more important than tidy!)

We like to put out baby Santa pictures and a collection of Christmas books that I added to each year when my kids were younger. If I display them, they’ll still pick them up and read them. Dream Snow, Olive the Other Reindeer, Queen of Christmas, and Sylvia Long’s Deck the Hall* are a few of our favorites.

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I had a brief moment of angst because it would have been nicer to have frames all the same color, but that kind of thinking is a straight shot back to Crazytown. I focus on the sweet babies, not the frames.

Another traditional item is our advent calendar.

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My mom gave me this as a birthday present (filled with amazing, tiny presents!) the year my children were born. (Might be the best birthday gift ever.)

I fill it each December with candy (Dove chocolates, and woe to me if I try to substitute anything else) and slips of paper with conversation topics. Before eating their candy our kids might have to tell us what their favorite tradition is, or a gift they’d like to give this year, or the words to a Christmas carol.

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I’ve seen more advent calendar tutorials the past week than I thought possible. While many were amazingly cute and clever, I’m so glad I don’t have to do anything with ours but remember to fill it. (Only one day late this year! Putting that in the win column. :-))

And that’s about it for decorations. We do have a few other small, favorite things.

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We really enjoy our home when it’s decorated with less. We can actually see and enjoy the few things we have up, and it doesn’t feel like Christmas has taken over our life.

In keeping with the idea that less is more, we’re trying something new this year to avoid the kind of gift gorging you see in that first picture. We’ve talked with the kids about the idea of getting something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read.

We wondered how our kids would take to this idea, and we are so pleased that all three seem just fine with it. After some conversation we’ve amended ours to this:

Something you want

Something you need (to wear)

Something to do

Something to read

It’s understood that pajamas, socks, and underwear will not be the something to wear. And stockings will still be filled by Santa.

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Kids in their new Christmas Eve jammies two years ago. It’s OK for some traditions to change.

Cane and I decided two years ago that we’d always give each other experiences rather than things. We love to go skating on paths along Portland’s rivers, and we’re tired of the junky Goodwill skates we’ve been using for years. Although skates are, technically, things, we’re getting new skates for each other because they will get us out more often doing something that’s good for us. (And because we found some that are frickin’ awesome. :-))

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Cane skating along Portland’s waterfront on a beautiful spring day.

The holidays can be a touchy time for our blended family. It almost never goes entirely smoothly. We’re finding that keeping things simple and focusing on the small good moments carries us over those bumpy spots.

We’re looking forward to sipping hot chocolate from our Santa mugs, walking through our neighborhood looking at Christmas lights, watching A Christmas Story with a fire burning in the fireplace, and listening to Ella play Christmas music on the keyboard she hauled out last weekend. (Our door-turned-storage table is the perfect height for a piano-playing girl when she’s sitting on an ottoman.)

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All of these things are our ticket to ride on the peace train. And isn’t that what this season is supposed to be all about?

How about you?

Do you celebrate the holidays simply? Any tips or tricks for avoiding the train to Crazytown? Would love to hear how you make the season merry and bright.

(As is the case on most Thursdays, we’re linking to the William Morris Project at Pancakes and French Fries.)

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*These are not affiliate links. My inner librarian just likes to point people to good books, and we like supporting our awesome (and local) independent bookseller.