Our Unexpectedly Wonderful Minimal Christmas

What truly makes the holidays special?  Jo March in the classic Little Women says that "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," but is that really true?  

Maybe Jo felt that way because she and her sisters were giving up so much else that might have made their Christmas merry:  their father was away serving in the Army during the Civil War, and they barely had money for everyday needs such as food, heat, and clothing, let alone anything special for a holiday. 

simple gifts

One December changed everything.

That was the year I had pneumonia, and even as I began to recover, I was much too depleted to do my normal Christmas preparations.  I'd clean the bathroom or make the beds and need to rest so I could cough and breathe (the pneumonia had aggravated my asthma).  My husband worked full time, and our children were only 5 and 7 years old, too young to offer much help.

How did we celebrate that year?  First of all, I made sure the radio was tuned to a station that played only Christmas music during December, and I put our holiday CDs in an easy-to-reach spot so we could play them often.  I wasn't going to be able to sing any of my usual performances, but I still wanted plenty of music.

My husband put up outside lights the first weekend in December, as usual, to the delight of our kids.

I wanted some decorations inside the house, so we arranged the nativity scene on a table, and got down just one of the boxes of Christmas tree ornaments.  When Jon and the kids came home with a bushy, fragrant tree, I relaxed my usual fussiness about "how to decorate."  They turned up the music and had a fun time putting lights and ornaments to their satisfaction, finding that one box was plenty.  The result was very cheerful, and the whole activity was less stressful than usual, since my perfectionism was on hiatus.

Jon had already taken on a lot of extra work with vacuuming, laundry, grocery shopping, and fixing very basic meals every day, so I decided we would not be making many special holiday foods.  I made a pot of vegetarian chili for Christmas Eve, and Nestlé Toll House refrigerator dough chocolate chip cookies topped with candied cherries.  They were really good – why had I always fussed so much with special recipes!  Christmas morning Jon made French toast and orange juice.  We went to my parents' home for dinner, and my mother insisted that I bring nothing.  Contributions from other family members made for a delicious meal.

My health and stamina were definitely not up to going shopping among the crowds, but I had bought the kids a bucket of Lego and some books before I got ill.  I wrapped them with a roll of Christmas paper Jon bought at the drugstore.  The stockings contained drugstore items too – candy canes, Hershey's chocolate Kisses, bottles of bubble solution, tiny Hot Wheels racecars, a tin of dominoes.  Jon also bought each of them a big new box of crayons and a pad of paper.  Believe it or not, the kids were thrilled with their presents, and we spent hours as a family playing dominoes and Crazy Eights, reading books, building with Lego, and coloring pictures.

Since I couldn't do the rather extravagant shopping I normally did, we decided on gift cards for our extended family members.  A kiosk in the grocery store supplied cards from various national restaurant, bookstore, and movie theater chains.  A box of holiday thank you cards provided a way to present them.  As it turned out, our handwritten notes and the gift cards were happily received by everyone.

Our holiday essentials

handmade Christmas stockings
The Christmas I was sick forced all of us to focus on what mattered most.  So we had lots of festive music, a tree and lights and the nativity scene, and plenty of time just to be together.  A few simple gifts and a few treat foods.  

But there were no special concerts, parties, or performances.  No fussing over the tree, the wrapping, the table setting, or the "just right gift."  No sitting in traffic or fighting crowds at the mall.  Very little exposure to advertising, and none to "special holiday sales."  No weight gain!  No credit card bills!!

It really was a wonderful holiday.

6 minimalist-inspired holiday habits

That Christmas led the way to our new traditions.

1.  Simpler décor

The nativity set, my mother's vintage choirboy angels, candles, golden-white twinkle lights, and some fresh greens are all we use, and it's plenty.

2.  Simpler entertainment

Family games, watching a holiday movie, reading aloud, or walking through Christmas-lighted neighborhoods take up most of our evenings, with perhaps one special event such as a play or a concert.

Jon and I have a couple of friends we meet for coffee or wine during the holidays, just to catch up and wish each other a merry Christmas.

3.  Simpler food

If I feel like making holiday goodies I do, but I limit it to one or two things, rather than all of the specialties I used to feel obligated to produce.

We always have chili for dinner on Christmas Eve.

4.  Fewer obligations

I rehearse and perform with only one group per season.

5.  Fewer gifts

Our extended families no longer exchange gifts, and we give our adult children gift cards for the spa, bookstore, movie theater, hobby shop, etc.

I buy one gift for each of my grandsons, and we give their family a one-year membership to the zoo, train museum, aerospace museum, or whatever their parents say they will like best (they can visit as often as they want, because membership comes with free entry).

6.  More giving

Some of the money I used to spend on fancier food, new décor, dressy clothes, entertainment, and gifts for everyone is now donated to charity.

Your best Christmas may look quite different, because we all value different things.  But limits may help you discover your essentials, bringing you and your family more joy and peace.  A minimal Christmas isn't crazy-making, it's not debt-creating, it doesn't add to guilt or stress.  It's just a joyful celebration of the season.

For more inspiration for a simpler holiday, check out my book, A Minimalist Holiday.*

And for fantastic commercial-free holiday music 24 hours a day, stream the Holiday Classical station.

* This blog is reader-supported.  If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.

Updated June 2023


  1. Witaj, mieszkam w Polsce. U mnie święta to też pachnąca choinka, światełka i jedno pudełko ozdób. Czasami dokupujemy po 1-2 nowej bombce ręcznie malowanej. Na wigilię jemy barszcz czerwony z uszkami (pierogi z grzybami), rybę z piekarnika, ciasto drożdżowe z makiem (gwiazda) i sernik. Na drugi dzień dojadamy to samo i odwiedzamy się z rodziną. Prezenty to często 1 zabawka dla dzieci, dla dorosłych wino, czekoladki, kosmetyk. Nic wielkiego. Coraz więcej u nas też zamieszania w sklepach, ale jednak dla większości święta są bez przepychu. Jestem minimalistką od 10 lat. Chętnie Cię czytam. Pozdrawiam i dziękuję za Twoją pracę. Wesołych świąt! Monika

    1. For my English-speaking readers, here is the translation Google gave me for Monika's comment:

      Hello, I live in Poland. For me, Christmas is also a fragrant Christmas tree, lights and one box of ornaments. Sometimes we buy 1-2 new hand-painted baubles. On Christmas Eve we eat red borscht with ears (dumplings with mushrooms), fish from the oven, yeast cake with poppy seeds (star) and cheesecake. The next day we eat the same and visit each other with the family. Gifts are often 1 toy for children, for adults wine, chocolates, cosmetic. No big deal. We also have more and more confusion in stores, but for most of the holidays are without glamour. I've been a minimalist for 10 years. I'm happy to read you. Greetings and thank you for your work. Happy holidays! Monika‎

      Monika, thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment. Your Christmas celebration sounds lovely! "The holidays are without glamour..." - I love that! Family, food, simple decorations, a few little gifts, traditions - what more do you need?

    2. Thank You for Your answer. 💚🎄


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