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Getting Organized for Christmas

By Janet Dittmer

A few years ago, I attended a lecture called “Getting Organized for Christmas.” I had hoped to learn the secret of carrying out all the elaborate projects I took on every year… After years of being excited in October, becoming frantic and exhausted in December, and vowing in January never to do it that way again, I knew I needed help.

Although I appreciated many of the teacher’s ideas, her system turned out to be more discouraging than motivating. She suggested a detailed, week-to-week schedule beginning in January with buying gift wrap on sale, and continuing through filling the freezer with baked goods during November so that by the first week in December I would have time to review my holiday wardrobe and have my hair done.

As great as it would feel to be that organized right now (I would already have completed all handmade gifts, wrapped everything to be mailed out of town, and had a family holiday portrait taken), it didn’t take long on that schedule to discover that no matter how practical it was to make gifts in July, I simply was not in the mood for Christmas in the middle of summer.

However, if I didn’t want to go crazy, what was the alternative?

I began to analyze my more successful holiday experiences, and realized that the best times seemed to be when I employed certain basic principles, rather than when I tried this or that method of organization. Finally, I pinpointed five principles that consistently made the most difference.

Less is More

A phrase coined by the early twentieth century architects Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, the “less is more” concept also can be applied to simplifying the holiday season. For me, at least, the fewer activities I take on and the less complicated they are to carry out, the more I enjoy their real purpose and meaning.

One year I consciously thought “less is more” each time I approached a holiday project. For example, when it was time to bake my usual assortment of at least fifteen different kinds of Christmas cookies I always take to the neighbors, I decided on caramel corn instead, and I was a much more relaxed and happy gift giver. The same streamlining can apply to every aspect of holiday activity, from foods and gifts to entertaining and traditions.

Review Holiday Plans Through a Child’s Eyes

Usually this principle turns out to be a welcome extension of “less is more.” I’ll never forget one experience I had last year. I was making my usual plans for the food, decorations, projects and outings that I felt were so essential to our family’s celebration, when I decided it might be a good idea to talk to each of the children before I finalized anything. I asked each one what he thought we really had to do to make Christmas feel like Christmas.

I listed to the youngest three in turn, mildly surprised at the simplicity of their requests. (“Act out the Christmas story, and I’ll be Joseph” “Make gingerbread men again.”) I expected my nine-year-old to mention some of the more complex activities that filled my own “have to” list. However, his response was “We should get a tree and make some rocky road candy with you.” In spite of some prodding, he desired no more than that. If Christmas really is for children, we probably have a lot to learn from them.

The Choice Is Yours

Very little is required of us during the holiday season that is not really a self-imposed expectation. We feel we should do certain things because the lady next door does them or because the magazines say everyone is doing them. I find the holidays much calmer and more enjoyable when I forget what everyone else thinks I ought to do and tailor all activities to my family’s needs and style.

No one says you have to buy a different gift for every relative on your list. (Choose a theme and buy everyone a book or buy everyone a carrying case to simplify your shopping.) Just because most families send an annual greeting with their cards in December doesn’t mean you have to do it then. (I’m always delighted to receive Valentine greetings or Happy Spring cards from families who choose to send their communication at a quieter time of year.)

Be creative! Your family is different from any other. Choose how to handle the holidays to suit you own needs.

Enjoy Each Experience as It Happens

During the holidays, I tend to worry about the whole two months every day of the whole two months. While I’m baking cookies, I worry about the gift that is only half-sewn; while I’m sewing, I worry about finding a sitter for the party next week; while I’m getting ready for the party, I wonder why I’m even taking time to go when I’m so far behind on shopping.

We again could take a lesson from our children. When they see pretty lights, they soak in the beauty of those lights and think of nothing else. When they help bake cookies, they savor every taste and smell. When they help bring in the tree, they are ecstatic with delight in the difference it makes in the room. They relish each event as it comes and enjoy it for what it is.

Keep Your Calendar Flexible

At Christmas, of all the seasons of the year, we owe it to ourselves to be free of such strict scheduling that has everyone enjoying the holidays except us. Keeping in mind the above concepts, it is possible to wake up each morning to a list of activities that you truly can enjoy. Instead of scheduling everything you “have” to do in whatever order you think it will take to get it all done, consider taking this approach to your holiday calendar:

Find or make a calendar for December with spaces large enough to write in. First write in only the absolutes that your family is committed to attending.

With the aid of all family members, make a list of what you really want to do this Christmas—the top priority activities that make the holidays meaningful and enjoyable for you. Write them on the calendar in a different color to indicate that these activities require your attention and preparation, and are not to be bumped in favor of anything else important.

Next, write a list of holiday projects that require completion (such as baking, shopping, mailing cards, etc.) and plan how and when to do them, scheduling them around your already top priority activities. (Remember to apply the “less is more” principle to each project as you plan it.)

Finally, write activities on the calendar that you might like to do, but that are not essential. If you get tired or behind, cross these activities off first.

During the regular months of the year, we often struggle to keep up with the various activities of home, church and community, sometimes feeling we are juggling more than we can possibly handle. Yet we expect ourselves to add on a host of new activities at holiday time, and we feel frantic if we fail to carry them out to perfection. It’s time we examine our expectations carefully and learn that in some cases, doing less actually can mean giving more.


© 1998 by Janet Dittmer. Janet is one of the three co-founders of Mothers at Home (the original name of the organization Family and Home Network).

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If you would like more food for thought about holiday celebrations, read Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli. This book grew out of workshops the authors conducted for people who were feeling disappointed and stressed about the holidays.  It offers a thorough look at assumptions many people have about the holiday season, a brief history of commercialism associated with the holidays, exercises to help you identify your own family’s true wishes, and inspiration for making changes.  There are very interesting chapters on the roles men and women traditionally play in holiday preparations.  The authors hope to help the reader resolve his or her unique holiday problems or enrich an already enjoyable celebration.

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