A Guide to Simple Holidays

You might think I don’t want anything for Christmas. You are absolutely right. That said, I intend to participate fully and joyfully in giving and receiving gifts this holiday season. After all, less is not nothing.

More importantly, my friend Joshua Becker reminded me that it’s not up to me. He said, “who am I to deny something that makes someone else happy. If it makes someone in my family happy to give gifts, who am I to tell them no.”

I celebrate Christmas, but this guide should help you regardless of the holidays you celebrate. Now that Halloween is over, radio stations will start playing Christmas music, holiday sales and promotions will be in full force, and if you aren’t paying attention, January 1st will roll around and you’ll wake up dazed and confused, not to mention exhausted, fat and broke.

A Guide to Simple Holidays


You may not be in a position to spend extra money right now. Honor that and do not spend more than you have. It’s so tempting to break out the credit cards to fully immerse yourself in shopping for people you love. Instead, immerse yourself in loving people you love. Spend less, love more.


You might think that one heavy, high-fat meal won’t hurt you, but research shows that a few hours after eating a high-fat meal, blood vessels stiffen and levels of triglycerides can soar contributing to heart attack risk. In addition, drinking too much alcohol can induce heart arrhythmias and increase the risk of falls and car accidents.

This doesn’t mean you can’t indulge or enjoy your favorite holiday meal, but lighten it up. Start your holiday meals with soup and salad and you won’t be as tempted to overload your plate with less healthy options.

Remind yourself that the foods you think are so special during the holidays are not exclusive to that time period. Thanksgiving is not your last chance to have pecan pie. If you choose to, you can make any food that you typically over indulge in during the holidays all year long. No need to eat enough in one month to last you the whole year. Eat less, live more.


Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, there are more parties available than any other time of year. Office parties and family events can be fun, but overwhelming. If you love spending all your time at parties, say yes to them all. If that’s not your thing, choose 1 or 2 and say “no thanks” to the rest. You can also make mini appearances. Show up with a bottle of wine or tin of homeade cookies, spread a little joy, and go home early.

If you have your own party, ask guests to bring a dish or make things you can prepare in advance. Just because you are hosting the party, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t relax and enjoy time with your guests. Party less, rest more.


If you bring more holiday boxes into your house than the day you moved in, you might have more than you need. The holidays are exciting enough without an overly decorated home. Think of your home as your sanctuary. A peaceful room dedicated to the holiday you celebrate might be more inviting than flashing lights and cluttered surfaces. Decorate your tree or home with meaningful ornaments, candles and greens. Don’t feel compelled to adorn every empty space with nutcrackers and Santa figurines just because you have them. See if decorating more simply let’s you enjoy the holidays in a more meaningful way.

If you’ve noticed in year’s past that you can’t wait to clear the holiday clutter and box up your festive stuff, consider decorating with less. If you don’t miss the items you don’t display, donate them. Enjoy less stuff and more joy.


You do not need a new outfit for every holiday event you attend and you definitely don’t need a sweater with Christmas trees, penguins or elves on it. Sometimes we spend a little more on what we wear during the holidays to impress or fit in, but the reality is, no one will know if you wear the same outfit twice or don’t have your nails done to match your lipstick. Give yourself a break and don’t spend money or time on things that don’t matter. Focus on the outside less and inside more.


There is no doubt that the holidays require a shift in schedule. With school breaks, holiday events and family gatherings, you might stop exercising or carving out time for yourself. After all, you time is the most easily sacrificed. Because the holidays require more physical and mental energy, you have to take time to feed yourself. Don’t skimp on sleep, yoga, quiet walks or anything else that makes you a better version of you. Do less, be more.


I saved this for last, because gifts are always the central area of focus during the holidays, but often the least important part.

Simple gift exchange recommendations

  • Do not give out of guilt.
  • No credit cards, no matter what.
  • Remember that you cannot buy love.
  • Say no to Yankee swaps and white elephant exchanges. Enough said.
  • Be grateful. Say thank you and be grateful that people care about you.
  • Use green paper. Save bags and boxes and re-purpose them into creatively wrapped gifts.
  • Pass it on. If you can’t use a gift you receive, give it away. Keep a donation box nearby, and fill it with items you receive or other things that surface during the holiday season that you don’t want anymore.

Gifts that you give or receive do not measure wealth or worth. They can’t prove love or soothe guilt. If giving less means you are out of debt faster, give less. If giving less means you don’t have to work overtime, give less.

Simple gift recommendations

  • Books are a lovely gift.
  • Spa and dining certificates.
  • Consulting services or other classes.
  • Wine and chocolate or other consumables.
  • Charitable Donations.

These are just a few ideas that don’t take much space. Remember to give what they love, not what you love. Give less to give more.

What is the meaning of the holiday?
I love that people naturally focus a little less on work and business during the holiday season. Even through the hustle and bustle, there is a bit of a slow down that happens. People take time to care more about other people. They love more deeply, give more freely and are usually moved in some way. Sometimes in an emotional way, sometimes more spiritually, but moved just the same. In the best cases, a little of that carries on to the new year.

There are some universal meanings of each holiday, but what the holiday season means to you is unique. That is a question you will have to answer. By focusing on what is most important, you can take the time to find an answer and seek out joy in the simplest parts of the holiday season.

How will you enjoy the holidays more simply?



    • Courtney Carver says

      Tammy, It’s a little longer than my usual posts, but I think even if we only choose one area to simplify, it will help.

  1. says

    Great post, Courtney. I totally agree with not forcing the “no gift” policy onto others. Some people truly love the experience of giving a meaningful gift to the people they love.

    If going gift-free is the direction you want to go, openly communicating that with your friends and family is important. Most people expect the giving and receiving of gifts on birthday and at Christmas. Explaining why you are trying to break away from obligation gift-giving is important but giving alternative gift ideas like you’ve included will also make things easier.

    • Courtney Carver says

      Thanks Faith. I spend enough time here explaining myself, so I will probably do less talking and more listening over the holidays, especially with friends and family who aren’t as interested in change. I want to enjoy their true gifts instead of changing them or getting them to think like I do. Of course, if they ask … 😉

  2. says

    Courtney, I connected the link to your post on our FB Fan Page, which is directly attached to our Twitter. 2 shares in 10 minutes. This is a really fantastic post. Blessings~ PS I NEED help downsizing my closets…..I love clothes!(shoes, and handbags) But my intentions are there….how did you ever begin this journey…

    • Courtney Carver says

      Hi Tammy, My journey started with a diagnosis of MS. I knew things had to change and believe that my crazy lifestyle contributed to my poor health. Every time I simplified one area of my life, I had momentum and inspiration to move to the next. I used to love shoes and handbags too, but now, my priorities have changed. It didn’t happen overnight although my most radical change was my closet!

      Living without multiple handbags and shoes proves how unimportant they are. I didn’t miss them a bit.

  3. says

    Our family does wish lists. I LOVE this idea because it allows people to gift you things you actually want/need rather than spending money on items you will just give away. I have the hardest time when people make us things for gifts. I don’t suggest gifting art/hand-made trinkets because it makes the other person feel generally obligated to keep it, no matter how hideous it may be. We are often gifted with hand stitched items. I feel bad for giving them away, but I do because it’s just not my taste. Art is SO subjective that giving someone a piece of art you like make go completely against the other person’s taste. I say unless you know that person SUPER well, avoid subjective items. If you go home-made, go with food!

    • Courtney Carver says

      I’m ok with handmade gifts. Interestingly enough, my husband and I were just talking about a holiday gift we use more than any other gift we’ve received. My niece and nephew hand painted coffee cups for us about 4 or 5 years ago and we use them almost every day. In fact, as I continue to give coffee cups away, I know they will be last two standing.

      As an artist myself, I can’t help but encourage people to make gifts but I get your point.

      And food or other consumables are always an easy gift.

    • says

      Hi Minimalist Mommi,
      I tried leaving a comment on your blog but it was too complicated for me. So I’ll write my words of thanks here, hoping you’ll see them – and our host won’t mind.

      As an enthusiastic beginner crocheter I was planning to shower my family (and friends) with my creations, but you made me realize this is perhaps not a very good idea. You are completely right: art is subjective and I don’t want to add a layer of guilt to my gift, forcing people to keep (and display!) things they don’t like. Thanks, I haven’t thought of hand-made gifts this way before.

      Perhaps I’ll make them fruit jam instead. I’ve done this in the past, it’s something that most people like – or can easily get rid of 😉

  4. says

    I love thinking about Christmas!

    When purchasing a gift, I try to:
    1. Get something that the other person will find useful. This is why I usually avoid little stuff that are used for decoration only, as I often find that they increase our homes’ clutter and they don’t provide enough value.

    2. Get something that the other person would not buy for themselves. E.g., if I see a scarf that I think will look great on my friend, then I may buy it, even though my friend does not wear scarves. The reason?

    People tend to act according to their routines. I want to break my friend’s routine and expose her to something different. Maybe she will realize that scarves are a great idea and that she will wear them from now on!

  5. says

    Such a great post, courtney – thank you so much!

    For my nieces and nephews I ask their mums for suggestions, so I’m fairly certain that what I gift/make them is going to be useful. (this year it’s handmade canvases for their newly decorated bedrooms, a refurbished piano stool and personalized boards to hang their school certificates and awards). I’m also considering buying a charitable voucher for each of them – like a Smiles voucher from world vision. $5 buys a chicken for a family in a developing country, etc.

    For any adults I have to buy for we tend to focus on buying experiences as they are guaranteed to be used and don’t provide clutter. Restaurant vouchers, movie tickets, day spa vouchers etc. They’re things that people don’t tend to buy themselves too.

  6. says

    I’ve been talking with my family about gifts recently and I’ve told them I’d prefer to have experiences rather than stuff. For my parent’s anniversary last year, my sister and I gave them a voucher for travel expenses so they could see a bit of the world. They’ve since stated travelling relatively regularly. The memories last much longer than yet another hastily conceived bit of stuff would.

  7. says

    Love this post. Last year I made my grandparents the sweets that I remembered baking with them as a child. They loved the sentiment. Along with their sweets I wrote a letter about my memories with them. I got so much joy out of making them and knew they wouldn’t sit on a shelf collecting dust. Rather they gobbled them down!

  8. says

    As a dad with three young kids (under 3) who are just starting to develop our holiday traditions, I think our family is going to us the ramp-up to Christmas as a time to get rid of unused things, specifically toys. Sure, we may replace them with other things, but we’re hopeful we have a net loss of clutter and the gifts we give are full of thought, care, and purpose. We’ll see how it goes, but knowing they are getting a couple presents from grandparents might help them to let go of some of there things.

  9. says

    Great post. Me and my mum are planning on having a present free christmas this year. However I wil find it hard to resist the urge to buy her a book she will really like! I agree with food being a good gift, especially made by you!

  10. says

    We have to have this pep talk as a family every year. I think the holidays are when we feel most removed from the mainstream habits of mass consumption.

  11. says

    I was speaking with another way cool women yesterday who said we need to redefine as a society our value system. We are coming to a quick realization that we don’t find our success in our possessions but in what we carry in our minds, what we have to offer as nurturers, our knowledge and our peace. Those are the beginnings of freedom and there is value in letting go of all of these “physical things” that truly are not working for us.

    Mahalo for yet another great read and in including me :)

    Just wanted to make a comment on gifts. For us this year will be unique. There are those we will give something to and I’m so excited about harvesting coffee from our own trees this year, our first year in Hawaii. We are roasting them this week. Its a gift that will be appreciated yet won’t be sitting around taking up space. It makes me smile to think about doing our own coffee and giving it to those who will enjoy it.

    Aloha Wags!

  12. says

    What a refreshingly simple post on the holidays! Everywhere you turn Christmas is already being shoved in our face. Love to see such a simple post! But what else would we expect from you? :)

  13. says

    I’m curious to learn what meaning others find in the holidays. I really struggle with this probably because I don’t come from a close-knit family and the holidays make me feel that sad distance all the more. My husband, daughter and I recognize our daily abundance and don’t feel compelled to eat a greater amount of food on Thanksgiving. It makes greater sense to us to show thanks by fasting on Thanksgiving. We are not religious and we are aspiring minimalists so the Christian and consumption aspects of Christmas are lost on us. I have struggled to find personal meaning in the holiday. We like to say that “Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Valentine’s Day are everyday” and we truly live this way from the heart, so when these actual holidays roll around, they feel empty in comparison. Anyone else? How have you customized these holidays to add value to your life? It’s hard to ignore them, yet we haven’t found adequate substitutes yet.

    • Courtney Carver says

      Carla, I’ve been thinking about your comment and hope that I can offer something that will help. I hope readers will contribute their thoughts as well as this is a really important topic. For me Christmas will always be about the birth of Christ and that has special meaning for many. That said, with or without that significance, if I was looking for a way to add meaning to this holiday or any holiday, I turn to giving and gratitude.

      It’s wonderful that you consider the holiday spirit everyday, but not everyone does. These can be days where people are a little more loving, a little more giving and a little more thankful. They are also days where we can dedicate more time to those things instead of our everyday worries or responsibilities.

      • Ser Tan says

        I pick one family member each year and I make them a special gift. Since I can sew this isn’t too difficult just time consuming. I make sure the gift is personalized to their tastes and needs and usually include them in the process to make sure they are getting something that they want and can use. This worked great with a relative I had a hard time connecting with – it gave us a place to start on our relationship and they got to see the time I was dedicating to them and made them realize that I truly valued them. We are closer today and I think this ‘gift’ was the conversation starter that we needed.

      • says

        Thank you so much Courtney for giving your time to my comment. I appreciate that! Blessings to all and I hope everyone enjoys their winter holiday to the fullest in their most authentic expression of joy.

  14. Rebecca B. A. R. says

    I’ve suggested doing $5 ornament exchange for Christmas gifts. It is a nice gift, b/c you can be creative, and it won’t be clutter, since it will only be out during the Christmas season, then packed away.

  15. Susan says

    Love this post! I went out to our storage building today and hauled in four boxes of Christmas stuff. I had one of those “What the hell was I thinking” moments…especially when I unpaced TWO felt headband antlers (did I think our Labs were actually going to wear them?). My goal was to eliminate ALL but our most sentimental of ornaments. I’ve had that overwhelming after Christmas feeling where I CANNOT WAIT to pack up all the holiday stuff and get it OUT OF MY SIGHT! This year there will be none of the following:
    1) Anything that is plastic or resin
    2) Anthing involving skiing penguins
    3) Bowls full of pinecones (we have 86 acres full of conifers with cones)
    4) Anything that sings, moves or wiggles (unless it’s human)
    5) Bowls full of carb and sugar-laden candy
    6) Nothing in our yard that is inflatable or plastic

    Geez…I feel better already. By the way, my overall minimalizing effort is so successful that those few people whom I love enough to have in my home have noticed the difference to a great extent!

    Happy Holidays to All!

  16. says

    Love this post. I am connecting it to my post going up later this week (Have a Simple Merry Christmas). The holidays don’t have to complicated or stressful. But we all foget when retailers bombard us with ads and displays and sale after sale. I love Susan’s comment above about less decorations. I plan to do the same. Every year I dread putting it all away and think “why did I even take it out in the first place?” This year it’s staying in the boxes!

  17. Ser Tan says

    With the invites (aka obligations) already rolling in and stores pumping out their holiday ‘deals’ and circulars – it is nice to hear from a like-minded person who sees the potential for what the holidays can be – and not what the retailers would like it to be.

    For the holidays we stick with a ‘one special item’ that our children get to pick out. Over the weekend my oldest teen asked if she was still going to receive her ‘one special item’ this year – when I said ‘yes’ – she responded with so much excitement that it made me realize that she is more excited about receiving one thing for the holidays than some kids who receive piles of things each year. More is more – not necessarily better.

  18. Barbara M says

    Luckily, I live in a place with few box stores. And I recycle incoming catalogs as soon as they arrive. These two things help immensely to make Christmas more focused on what we really care about, and a simpler holiday. We don’t feel compelled to shop, spend and acquire because we don’t see it (for starters). Being a little out of the loop has its advantages.

    On the other hand, I would highly endorse art as a gift. Artists can certainly use the work, and if the gift isn’t quite right, love it and send it on with a wish for love. Choose with the receiver’s taste in mind. Etsy is a good source, as well as your local art organization. And tickets to an arts event, movie, dance, theater or shop are always lovely.

  19. says

    I’ll try to go through a pile that has been given to me for my birthday, diploma and the like and eat some of it.

    Wine and chocolate isn’t the clutter-free gift for me as it is for some other people since I don’t like sweets or alcohol all that much 😀 .

    The only thing that worries me is what I’ll do about the presents for my loved ones – I don’t need or want anything, but they don’t feel the same way about their needs and wants, yet I have no money to buy them something good… and I don’t want to be a burden to my mother by borrowing from her for something that isn’t a basic need.


  20. CathieB says

    I recently went to our local Wal-Mart and spent an hour walking up and down the aisles taking note of all the things I did NOT want. I have been an avid Christmas shopper for most of my 50 years and have the debt to prove it. I was amazed at how many “holiday” things I could walk by and say no to- holiday candles,candy, air fresheners, holiday tea and coffee, cupcake holders, napkins, tea towels, holiday CDs and movies and I hadn’t even got to the section with the tree ornaments, lights, plants, stockings etc. My goal this year is to avoid buying any of this “holiday” stuff, use up the wrapping, bows etc that I have in my house, make some cookies, pay cash only and smile! Thanks for your inspiring post.

  21. says

    We really enjoyed this post. We are artists and we often hear friends say “Oh I just LOVE that painting …” but know they can’t afford it for whatever reason; so we make prints as gifts – but only if they said something. We never assume others like our art (painting and writing). As dog lovers and world travelers, we’ve recently asked people to either donate to the international Human Society on our behalf or leave a little something in our travel fund. It works wonders. In fact, our last trip the cost of flying the dog with us to Tuscany on Air France was covered entirely by our generous and loving friends. A friend of ours that is really big in the IT world has just given us “our holiday gift” … the help we need to fix some bugs in our blog! Depending on the hours it requires this gift is hugely generous!

    Less “stuff” and more experiences … that is the best gift of all. If you have a skill others envy (photography, organizing, and clean sweeping) … offer your services! It will mean the world and allow for some quality time together too!

  22. Nin says

    Great post!
    I celebrate Chanukkah and that means I break out a white tablecloth (like every Friday but this time it’s for 8 days), the menorah and a few dreidels and chanukkah gelt (chocolate coins) if I get company. Other than that it’s a time to use oil in cooking – but there are many ways to do that! I am going to my family’s house for Christmas (which they celebrate), otherwise I have no set events for the Holiday’s but my family and friends are welcome to come over for dinner, candle-lighting and good fun on any of the nights, really. As for gifts I only buy for my closest people (5 in total) and I buy through-out the year: I ask for wishlists (so it’s something I know they want or need or if there’s an experience they want for instance) and I try to find something that is really for them – it doesn’t have to be expensive. It can be something small or something big (depending on my budget and what I find) – the most important thing is that it’s something that suits that exact person, and then I just save it for the special occasion. I also re-gift and donate. I try to keep my schedule and my heart open. I love my family every single day of the year – the holiday doesn’t make much of a difference to me in any way except in how I try to serve G-d :)

  23. carole says

    I like the posts. My mother decided about 24 years ago that my parents were not going to give their five kids so many gifts on Christmas, instead my parents would get my brothers, sisters and I just one gift, and the money my parents would have spent on gifts was spent on getting ingredients for making 6 gingerbread houses and nonperishable food for 6 food baskets that we delivered to the homeless shelters in our area on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. My parents have since passed on this tradition to my siblings and my sister and I took over organizing the event. My sister and I didn’t have money to buy everything our selves so we wrote letters to the local supermarkets looking for donations. The stores were willing to give us donations. Each year the number of houses we make has grown and the number of boxes we deliver to the 6 shelters has grown. As of this past Thanksgiving we delivered 25 gingerbread houses to the homeless shelters, nursing homes, and hospitals and were able to deliver 5 big boxes full of non perishable to each shelter. I am really glad my mother changed our gift giving into something that we and now our extended family and friends will cherish and love doing each year. Just another idea instead of gift giving.


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