Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Simple Christmas: Make a Strategy

Christmas hike
Every Christmas Day, if weather permits we go for a hike

I have found that the secret to keeping your Christmas simple is to figure out a strategy before December. This may seem like a bit of a killjoy to some who like to just go with the flow, but hear me out on this one.

1. Decide what's important

First, sit down with your family. It's their holiday season too, right? You may need a calendar and/or some paper if you have a lot of events happening. Ask each person what is important to them. Do the kids love your annual drive to look at Christmas lights? Is dinner at Grandma's house high on your list? Write them down. This is your chance to be a little selfish and state what makes Christmas special for you. Our favourite things have changed through the years and as we moved to different communities, but here's a taste of some:

1. Annual drive to look at Christmas lights: we would load up the car with hot chocolate and treats, then drive around and marvel at the pretty houses, with Christmas music playing in the car.
2. Dinner out at a local hotel on Christmas Day (when Kevin was really small). We called it our gift to ourselves because there was only 3 of us. Kevin still remembers it.
3. Movies and a huge appetizer spread on Christmas Eve
4. Trip to the city for a big day of Christmas shopping
5. Movie 'date' for me and John (Lord of the Rings Movies) which evolved into Kevin coming and it being a birthday evening out for Kevin.
6. The Santa Claus parade!
7. Reading a special story on Christmas Eve

As I wrote this I've noticed something. Each and every thing has to do with time spent together, not things. Nobody cares about the perfect tree, whether Christmas crackers are homemade or store bought (or there at all), if the Christmas cake was bought or handmade at midnight. (for the record, I buy the stuff). We've had a few Christmases where things were less than ideal; friends were dying; family members were seriously ill, money was tight, etc. It taught all of us that Christmas is all about loving each other and being together, not the trappings that seem to invade.

2. Identify what stresses you out

Next, look at the things that you could do without. This can be a bit trickier, because it involves things that you may feel obligated to do and you have to steel yourself into saying no. You CAN say no to things, you know. You don't have to do Christmas cards if you ultimately don't enjoy it. The kids don't HAVE to go to the Christmas concert. You don't HAVE to go to your office party. You don't HAVE to buy a gift for every extended family member and overspend your budget. The key is to identify what causes you the greatest amount of stress.

For us, the biggest stressors were:

1. Travel (tried it, hated it, vowed not to do it again)
2. Obligation to do loads of little things; gifts for co-workers, cards, parties, etc.
3. Not setting a budget and then overspending
4. Too many events
5. My own perceived notion that I had to do everything by hand and from scratch (making loads of homemade gifts)

Once you've identified what stresses you out, give yourself permission to either cease doing them altogether, pare them back, or find a way to do them that works for you. I used to make all sorts of things by hand, and then wouldn't finish them in time and be up late desperately trying to get them done. I understand that sometimes family obligations such as the 3 Christmas dinners in various houses aren't things you can always get out of, but maybe there are other areas that can be tweaked. Remember, holidays also change over time as your kids grow so maybe you can't change things now, but in years to come the stress will lessen.

The biggest lesson here is that if you have small kids, they are small only for a handful of Christmases. It's your only opportunity to make them very special family times, so guard them fiercely.

3. Set a budget and stick to it

Now that you've figured out what is important, set a budget for gifts and things. We tend to save some money throughout the year specifically for Christmas so that we can pay things outright and don't put extra on credit or mess up our monthly budget. Keep it reasonable. Children don't need to have the very latest or most expensive item, nor do they need a gigantic pile of presents under the tree. Commercials and media will tell you that you NEED TO BUY THIS TO MAKE YOUR CHILD HAPPY, but you don't need to succumb to the messaging. How do you avoid the overwhelming Christmas hype? Well, you strategize your shopping as well.

4. Plan your shopping and gift giving

Once you have your budget, figure out what you want to buy for gifts. John and I used to sit down and plan what we were getting for Kevin, and then set a budget for what we were going to spend on each other. Our approach to Christmas shopping is unusual; we would make a plan, then spend a day together shopping and enjoy lunch together. We also shopped for our gifts together, mostly because I couldn't figure out what kind of tools he wanted and he couldn't find clothes that fit me properly. We then wrapped the gifts and they went under the tree.

Most people gasp when they hear this. What about the surprise? Well, stockings were still fair game to fill with all kinds of small things, but there were never any returns when it came to bigger gifts.

To keep the shopping stress down, try these strategies:

-shop during the week early in the day. Avoid the mall on weekends at all costs, especially closer to the date.
-make a list!
-shop online
-get things like tape, wrapping paper, ribbon, etc early.
-pick up stocking stuffers as you go. I get mine on days when I'm grocery shopping or out and about
-watch the sales. If something is important for you to get, you may want or need to brave the crowds to get it.
-wrap items when you bring them home and label them so that if they are found, you're still safe. This also saves you from the hours of wrapping on Christmas Eve.

Lastly, there's one more thing to plan....

5. Plan the food

This can depend on your family. Is food important? Do you bake a lot? Are you planning to bake as gifts, for friends and family? If the answer to these questions is yes, then planning will help keep you from being stressed in the kitchen. About a month before the holidays, I sit down and have a conversation with my family; what would you love to have for Christmas dinner? What cookies and treats do you love best? Do we need to bake for teachers, friends, or family?

A word, here. DO NOT think that you must make everything from scratch. Shortcuts are okay. Eating at a hotel for Christmas dinner is okay (you saw that we once did that, right?). Buying your Christmas baking is okay. Whatever works for you and your family IS OKAY.

Once you have this information, it's a good idea to pull together the recipes you need and take a look in your pantry. I like to make a list of the things I'm going to need; cocoa, flour, sugar, butter, etc and head out to Costco to stock up. Costco is by far my go-to place for getting baking supplies, since I've found them cheaper than anywhere else. If you don't have the funds to buy everything at once, you could take the strategy of buying a few things here and there as you do your grocery shopping and just tuck it away. This saves you last minute trips to the store and the stress of getting everything done at once.

If you're baking for friends and family, it's a good idea to pick up containers or bags to tuck treats into early. I love to go to the Dollar store for this; clear plastic goodie bags are great for cookies, and you can find inexpensive boxes or tins to make gift giving easy. I love the clear goodie bags because they can be used for other holidays too, if I have leftovers. If you have time, you can get kids to decorate brown paper lunch bags instead. This might make a fun afternoon project.

Holiday baking really deserves it's own post, so we're going to end here. Next week I'm going to show you how I organize all my holiday baking and get it done so that it's actually fun! There are ways, my friends. First I just need to run to Costco....

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