For many of us, the holidays cause frenzy and stress. We spend too much money. We schedule too many activities. We waste hours in crowded stores. Why? Because we somehow got the idea that we have to give our families a “perfect” holiday—which, ironically, can come at the expense of true family meaning and fun.

How can we take back our holidays and enjoy the meaning and magic that they offer?

Think about your and your family’s warmest memories

When you replay your happiest memories, chances are that many of them are relatively simple and spontaneous. This is largely true for our kids, too. Try simplifying by choosing one special outing or activity and then enjoying it as it happens.

Seek low-cost alternatives to high-ticket items

One great thing about the winter holidays is that there is magic just about everywhere, and much of it is inexpensive or free. Seek out holiday light displays from homeowners who don’t know the meaning of the word “subtle”. Make a map and drive to your favorites. Enjoy ZooLights at the San Francisco or Oakland Zoo. Take in a menorah or tree lighting in your town, or visit San Francisco’s Union Square, where you can see the lighted tree and menorah, decorated department store windows, and elaborate holiday displays in some of the big hotel lobbies, notably the St. Francis and Palace Hotels.

Look for other ways to cut costs

Decide on a gift limit, say one or two gifts per person. Offer to forgo traditional gifting with extended family members or office mates. Or start a “Secret Santa” activity, in which participants choose names from a hat and get that one person a gift, instead of every person in the group. Consider choosing kids’ gifts that will get a great deal of use because they inspire creative play or exploration, or gifts of time and activities.

Enjoy simple holiday traditions

Often, family memories are deepened when they attach to repeated fun rituals. Let your kids help decorate your home and address holiday cards. Get creative together by baking holiday cookies or making your own gift wrap. Cuddle up and enjoy holiday movies or books together, or play board or card games during the long nights. Celebrate the Winter Solstice (December 21, 2023) by making or eating sun-colored foods to mark the sun’s return, taking a walk together at sunrise or sunset, or enjoying one of these Winter Solstice activities with kids.

Make some outdoor memories

Sometimes, we’re so busy during the holidays that we forget to spend quality time outside. Bundle up and get some winter exercise in one of the Bay Area’s many ice skating rinks, some of which transform public spaces into winter wonderlands for the holiday season. Enjoy a park or trail at a time when they may be less crowded than usual. Make a bird feeder to support feathered friends. Or try one of these fun winter nature activities.

Decline some invitations and activities

Do you really have to attend every office, school and neighborhood party or event? Decide which activities truly give you pleasure and try to guiltlessly skip the ones that don’t. The same goes for holiday cooking, decorating and other activities. If something isn’t pleasurable, no matter how much it fits into your idea of a “perfect” holiday, opt to do something you enjoy instead.

Try to observe some familiar routines

While children love novelty, they also appreciate predictability in their routines. Try to give kids advance notice to help them manage changes. Ensure that everyone continues to eat and sleep well. Follow these additional tips for minimizing holiday stress for children.

Give to someone less fortunate

There are many opportunities to serve and give over the holidays. Help at a local food kitchen, or participate in a toy, book or coat drive. Or consider gifting in a recipient’s name to a worthy non-profit or other organization. These gifts may have much greater meaning than additional trinkets or things for families that have plenty.

Susan Sachs Lipman (Suz) is the author of Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which contains 300+ activities for family fun. 

We know that the holidays can be a difficult time. If you or your child could benefit from counseling or support, please contact JFCS’ Center for Children and Youth at 1-888-927-0839 or contact us online.