excess stuff (Zoe Ingram for The Washington Post)

As the holidays approach, I’m feeling a little Scrooge-y. I love the lights and the anticipation and seeing family members, but I can get really bah humbug as December wears on. Maybe it’s because I’m juggling work and my children’s schedules, or maybe it’s the change in time (my gosh, it is dark early). This year, I am trying to hit the reset button and focus on what the holidays stand for. I want to see the best in my fellow humans and spread love.

When I chat with my parent friends, though, I hear a familiar refrain: “It’s all too much! Too many parties, too much pressure to decorate the house and too many gifts. I am exhausted, and I don’t want to disappoint anyone.” These parents want to have a nice season, but they feel overwhelmed, beaten down and, frankly, a little bullied by the expectations.

It’s a lot. And we could all use more joy and less stress, right? So let’s unpack how we can simplify things and get some joy going.


You are all set to enact a less-is-more policy for gifts, and then you see the Santa letter filled with the latest toys, technology, on-trend clothes and sporting goods. A little voice begins to whisper sweet insecurities in your ear. Maybe you feel as though you didn’t get many gifts when you were growing up. Maybe you were spoiled rotten. Maybe gifts were given with a dose of guilt. Maybe gifts were distributed unfairly in your family. Maybe times were once good and then went bad. Regardless, we all have stories around giving and receiving, and most of them aren’t healthy or helpful.

It may sound strange, but talk to a friend about it. Say, “I really want to stop the excess, but this is my worry.” Expressing something aloud takes away its power. And you will hear that other people have their own emotional hang-ups, and that will make you feel better.

To keep yourself honest, hang up a big sheet of paper. List those four famous gift categories (something you want, need, wear and read). If your children can read, have them add their ideas for gifts. If they can’t read, fill it out with them. Writing the gift ideas keeps everyone honest. And when you have purchased your gifts (one from each category), stop.

If you are reading this and you have already gone overboard, no worries. It is not too late to do a course correction. Choose the gifts that you know will light up your child’s world and bring true joy. The others can be tucked away and repurposed as birthday gifts for your child or even another child.

If you want to be hardcore, you can return some of the gifts that you didn’t need. Or better yet, donate them to a family in need to make their holiday more joyous. The point is: Unless the holiday has passed, you do not have to give your children everything you have bought. But you are going to have to find some discipline, and be ready to feel uncomfortable.


When I ask parents for their favorite holiday memories, there are common themes: close friends and family members, a deep feeling of belonging and warmth, and traditions. Gifts are less important, and no one mentions over-the-top vacations. The memories even border on the mundane, but the feelings of belonging and excitement loom large in their hearts.

Our children are the same. They say they want stuff, but what they truly want is our time and attention.

So when the cocktail party invitations are coming in fast and furious, or the school event reminders are clogging your email inbox, take a deep breath, drag out your calendar and get real. Ask yourself these questions:

1. Does this party bring me joy, or do I feel obligated to go? (This also goes for hosting.)

2. Does the event create joy in my family?

3. Do I really want to volunteer for that function, or do I feel obligated because I do it every year?

4. Can I take a year off from attending the event or volunteer opportunity?

5. Can I attend a function and leave early?

Here’s the beautiful thing: If you look at your calendar and ask yourself these questions, you will begin to make decisions that are right for yourself and your family.

This decision-making also goes for cookie- and gingerbread-decorating activities, white elephant gift parties, and trips to “Nutcracker” performances or elaborate light and train displays. Remember, we are not judging whether the event is good or bad, worthwhile and honorable, or silly and frivolous. We are choosing to own our time and our joy this holiday season.

●Making magic

I admit that I hate the Elf on the Shelf. I relish websites and Instagram accounts that poke fun at the extreme measures parents take to pose this doll. It’s a side of me I am not always proud of, but I love a good satire site.

I am also adult enough to appreciate that there are parents who adore this tradition. And I realize that it is pretty inconsistent for me to tout Santa while slamming the Elf. Both are watching your children for “good behavior” (a horrible idea), and both are creepy.

But it is the daily chore of moving the darn doll that undoes us, right?

I frequently hear parents complain that they are exhausted and annoyed by having to create new and elaborate poses daily, as well as dream up backstories for this doll. What started as a cute tradition for your 2-year-old has turned into one more thing to do for an entire month. If you are like most parents, you remember the Elf when your head hits the pillow after a long day. You sigh and drag yourself out of bed, just to hang the doll from the same lampshade where he perched on Monday. It’s a hack job.

Then on Facebook or Instagram, you see the Elf in festive outfits and costumes, making holiday cookies and high-fiving a stuffed ­reindeer. The Elf has gotten into mischief that has required the parents to spill flour all over the dining room table. You look at your Elf, sadly hanging from a lampshade like the afterthought he is, and you start to hate the doll.

This is where personal responsibility comes in. You can either get off social media and be happy with your Elf bouncing among three locations, or you can retire the Elf. I told my kids our Elf moved to Florida for more sun. They were disappointed, but a candy cane distracted them until they found him shoved into a box in the attic. Oh well.

You can stop doing this. Or you can pose the Elf every other year. You can decide that the children will be the ones to move the Elf. You can move the Elf once a week. If the Elf is a burden, lift it from your shoulders. You will not ruin your kids’ holiday memories.

And if you love the Elf, enjoy yourself. It’s your life — live it.

In the end, it all comes back to this: Children want our time, our joy, our eyes and our attention. They don’t need us embittered, exhausted and filled with holiday resentment.

Take responsibility for the gift buying, the holiday events and, yes, the Elf. You can do it. You don’t need to be perfect. Just try.