All of a sudden it’s November, that runaway train season of the year where time hurtles uncontrollably toward Christmas. Every year it’s the same for me. I feel slightly confused by the Christmas trees showing up in stores while I’m still shopping for Halloween costumes and candy, and then all of a sudden I feel desperately behind, Christmas tardy if you will.
As much as I like reading articles about simplifying Christmas or dropping out of Christmas or just bemoaning the commercialism of it all, the truth is I really like the Christmas stuff. I love having a decorated, lighted Christmas tree in my family room. I love Advent calendars, Christmas stockings, nativity scenes, pine-scented candles, Christmas cookies, and even buying gifts. (I do; I really love selecting and buying gifts. I have a special little app I track my purchases in, and it give me great joy to peruse it. I even enjoy wrapping gifts, believe it or not, as long as I don’t have to wrap them all in a single frantic Christmas Eve sprint.)
And of course I have ideas in my head about the beautiful, meaningful family experiences we’ll have–where we’ll all be united in celebration and appreciation for the season. Often these don’t turn out in practice exactly how I imagined them. This Halloween, for example, I put off decorating the yard for days (okay, weeks) because I wanted the kids to do it with me. The younger ones get so excited about spooky Halloween decorations, and I envisioned us joyfully choosing the place for each pumpkin and scary sign. But then when they got home from school each day, they just wanted a snack or to color or to start on homework and then we had to go to somebody’s practice and then it was dark and the yard decorations were still cluttering up my kitchen. So I decorated the yard myself one day when they were at school. It was fine.
You see, the problem isn’t so much with the stuff. The problem is when our expectations and ideas about exactly what every part of the season should look like overtake our enjoyment of it, and we spend the two months before Christmas staring at our to-do lists in a cold sweat. That is nobody’s idea of what Christmas should be about.
And maybe what brings you and your family the most enjoyment and happiness about the Christmas season isn’t the same as for every other family. Nor should it be. I think Christmas celebrating should look a little different for every family, even Christian ones.
For example, we’re just not the craftiest of people over here at my house. This realization was brought home to me last year when I edited Wild+Free Holidays, a beautiful book filled with ideas for holiday children’s crafts, including something totally new to me called felting, where you apparently poke at fabric with a needle until it does what you want. (Who knew?) The whole time I was working on this book, I felt amazed that people had the time to do these crafts with their children and even more amazed that their children wanted to participate in them. Then came Covid and we had oh so much time so I decided to try one of the crafts with my daughter–dying flour sack cloths with natural dyes like avocado pits and turmeric. We tried several batches, and each time the whole thing held her attention for about three minutes and then she was off to do something else and I was mixing and stirring and wringing out alone, then begging her to admire the finished product.
This year I think we’ll skip the crafts or at least attempt them only with very, very low expectations. (Don’t even get me started on the Jesse tree.) Maybe for you the key to a more meaningful and less stressful Christmas season is to make a list of things you’d like to do and try to get to one of them a day (forgiving yourself if you miss a day or twelve). Maybe the best thing for you is to knock a bunch of Christmas expectations off your list entirely. (Buy the cookies, perhaps. I personally have never baked anything nearly as good as Trader Joe’s peppermint bark.)
My best lesson from 15 years of Christmas season parenting is that you don’t have to do ALL THE THINGS. Not even at Christmas. In fact, especially not at Christmas.
All the advice I’ve really got for you is just to take it easy on yourself. Lower your expectations. Maybe you’ll do a beautiful Advent devotional together every night as you add your homemade ornament to your handcrafted Jesse tree, or maybe you’ll only manage that twice throughout the entire Advent season like my family last year.
Yeah, you read that right. Two devotionals, tops, and that’s not because I don’t love Advent devotions. Doing devotionals with my family is one of my very favorite things to do any time of the year. But with school and sports and dinner and different bedtimes, we always have a hard time fitting one in every day of Advent, and when we do, like everything else, they don’t always look the way I thought they would. Every once in a while we get everyone gathered quietly and joyfully around the dining room table, Bibles in their hands, the candlelight warming their attentive and alert faces as I impart theological wisdom to them. Most of the time, however, two of them are hitting each other, someone is trying to tell me a very long story about Roblox, and someone else just wants to know what’s for dinner, and I am tempted to put my head down on the first chapter of John and give up.
But the thing is that those terrible beginnings often lead to really meaningful devotions, where my kids teach me something I’d never seen in the text before. Sometimes even that Roblox story has a relevant point if I listen closely enough.
Because you don’t, of course, need a Christmas candle or a Jesse tree or a nativity scene to experience God’s presence at Christmastime (or any other time of the year). You simply need to pay attention.
And because of that you get to choose what experiences you infuse with meaning, whether it’s walking the dog around the block as a family and admiring other people’s Christmas lights and decorations or knocking yourself out to perfect your own.
This is why simplicity is one of my favorite spiritual disciplines. I think we can always benefit from doing less, particularly in this season. Maybe, just maybe, when you do two things rather than 24, those two things become all the more meaningful.
For me, simplicity at Christmastime is about figuring out what’s meaningful to our family and then doing those things on our schedule, at our pace, rather than other people’s or Instagram’s or even my Advent daily devotional’s. After all, why should someone else get to decide we’re behind? At our house, if we don’t have our Christmas tree up the day after Thanksgiving, then we’ll just enjoy it a little further into January.
This afternoon I have another Wild+Free Holidays craft ready to do with my daughter. We’re going to scoop out some mini pumpkins and turn them into candles. At least that’s the plan. It’s just as likely that when we get home from school, she’ll insist that we play Barbies or farmers market instead. We can always make a pumpkin candle tomorrow. Or not. It’s fine.