Tired of the spending that goes along with the holidays? The gifting frenzy? The stress? Maybe this is the year to blend a few new ideas into your holiday routine. Any family can do it, whether you are hardcore radical homemakers like we are, a dual-income family seeking ways to de-stress the season, or simply in one of those down-on-your-luck periods.
Laying down the facts about Santa was the greatest move we took to de-stress the holiday.
Even if you don’t want to grow all of your own food, make your own lard-based face creams, or nurture a kombucha farm on your kitchen counter, you can still restore sanity to the last few weeks of December (and have fun too). Here are 11 radical homemaking tips that have enhanced the holidays at our home:
1. Get rid of Santa Claus
We went along with the Santa thing for our first few years of parenthood; we did it without thinking. But it didn’t take long before I grew resentful. It was tiring carrying on the ruse that everything happened by magic and that Christmas morning involved no work. Laying down the facts about Santa Claus was the single greatest move we took to de-stress the holiday. Instead of crying in despair, one daughter wept with relief that she no longer had to try to believe in something that she doubted in her heart. The other one jumped for joy at the chance to help with the work. Knowing no fat guy was going to make made-in-China crap magically appear, our daughters’ Christmas spirit went into overdrive. They modeled tiny clay figures to put in our stockings, stuffed affectionate notes in the toes, needle-felted little sculptures, and made drawings to present as gifts.
2. Get off the mailing lists
It is amazing how those beautiful mail catalogs can start to dictate your holidays: suggesting things you should want, what will make your family happy, what you should eat, and how you should be spending your money and time to create the perfect experience. Getting off those lists helps to reduce the holiday waste stream. Even better, it removes the power of suggestion from defining your Christmas plans and expectations. To start the process, go to the Direct Mail Marketing Association (this must be done every three years). That will be of some help. But I found calling each company that mails a catalog was also necessary. If you do place an order somewhere, be sure to state that you wish to not be on their mailing lists.
3. Lose the packaging
Stockings, in my mind, are a good reminder about sensible packaging. Clean socks, reusable shopping bags, dish towels, and scrap fabric conceal holiday surprises far better than tape, paper, and ribbons—with a lot less work. We’ve taken frugal pride in the creative colors and forms that peek out from under our tree on Christmas morning.
4. Turn off the lights and embrace the dark
The farmer and poet Wendell Berry once wrote, “To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark.” While we do string lights on the tree in our living room, and we gather like the ancient Norseman did to seek comfort and solace from the fire, no festive lights are strung outside our house during the holidays. The pagan root of the holidays centers around the winter solstice, marked by the shortest day of the year, followed by the gradual return of sunlight.
Winter is a time to maintain, to hold still, to rest deeply. We don’t fight the darkness. We drink it in.
Living a life tied to the seasons, where we grow much of our own food, these dark days represent something important. Nothing grows. The livestock do not fatten. Bees huddle together in the center of the hive. The chickens stop laying eggs. The garden is blanketed in snow. When nothing grows, there is rest: no weeds to pull, no fences to move, no animals to herd. It is a time to maintain, to hold still, to rest deeply. It is death for the sake of future renewal. We don’t fight the darkness. We drink it in.
5. Make time for the spirit
We mark the solstice on December 21, and we go to church on Christmas Eve. On the solstice—the shortest day and longest night of the year—we gather as a family, write down our wishes and hopes for the coming months, tie them with raffia to a log, and then burn it in the fire. As we stand around the hearth, we hold hands and tell each person one thing that we love about him or her. We use words to express our love on this night. No presents. It is a simple gift to each of us, with no cost, no stress, no damage to the planet. But it makes a lasting impact.
In addition, we’ve learned that it helps our bodies and souls when we carve out time every day for the spirit. It can be as simple as stopping to watch the sunrises and sunsets, stealing away for a quiet moment to meditate and pray, or pausing throughout the day to notice how the slanted sunlight this time of year illuminates the world around us differently.
6. Plan for sweets and drinks
During the holidays, we are lured by a barrage of sugary treats at every turn, but dietary restrictions are a reality for many of us. Our family has learned that daily doses of Christmas cookies here and chocolate Santas there have a cumulative effect that wears heavily on our bodies, even more than a single full-out extravagant dessert. We resist the endless temptations (or try to, anyway) by planning a sumptuous holiday dinner wherein we reward our virtuous discipline with a truly indulgent dessert.
7. Don’t burn out in the kitchen
Not every gathering needs to be celebrated with an elaborate feast. After-Christmas parties are popular in our rural hamlet, where family and friends simply bring leftovers to one another’s homes, and we help to clean out everybody’s refrigerators. We reheat the bisque I prepared on Christmas Day, lay out the remainder of the Christmas pudding, slice up the leftover cheeses and pair them with some apples from our winter storage. Friends bring along their turkey and ham leftovers, their plates of roasted vegetables, their mashed potatoes, and whatever else is on hand. The conviviality is more important than the meal. We’ve also adopted traditions of celebrating with intentionally humble foods: soup and eggnog on the solstice, bone broth and salad greens for lunch on Christmas Eve, simple muffins and coffee for Christmas breakfast.
8. Ease up on the clean-up
A mug of tea and chatter around a messy kitchen table is just as delightful as a formal meal in a pristine dining room.
Like all parents, we try to keep up with the laundry and the vacuuming. We try to get the kids to pick up after themselves. But we’ve learned that a home is a living ecosystem inhabited by deeply imperfect souls. A happy home never looks like those perfect pictures in the magazines. If we ran around trying to make the house sparkle every time we expected company, we would run ourselves ragged. Part of the joy of the holidays is extending hospitality. But hospitality comes from the heart, not from polished sideboards. A house doesn’t have to look perfect when guests arrive. A mug of tea and amiable chatter around a messy kitchen table is just as delightful and renewing as a formal meal in a pristine dining room.
9. Bring back Boxing Day
While not a mainstream American custom, we’ve found that Boxing Day, on December 26, can be an especially helpful tactic for coping with modern holiday madness. A traditional day when servants and the poor received hand-me-down gifts from the wealthy in the commonwealth nations, Boxing Day has devolved into yet another shopping spree. But we use it in our family as a time to winnow down our excess. We go through our closets and engage in ruthless purging, packing up the coats we’ve outgrown, the gifts that never got used, the surplus toys, and move them along to charity collections and thrift stores so that others can enjoy them. It helps to make our home feel less cluttered while we spend more time indoors, and it helps others to curb their spending and consumption.
10. Make time to get outside and play
Sunlight is in short supply during the holiday season, so when it shines, we’ve learned to push aside the lethargy that glues us to the hearth and get outdoors with the kids. We run around, go sledding, play with the dogs, or simply take a walk. The sunlight feels good on our faces, gives any exposed skin a little dose of vitamin D, and helps our bodies to digest all those rich foods. The activity helps our energy levels, lifts the spirits, and reminds us that the holidays are about more than gifts. They are about making time for fun and for one another.
11. Humble gifts are fine
We don’t do credit card debt, and we don’t like to contribute to consumption mania. So while the kids do get a few new things (mostly craft supplies), most of our gifts are simple—maybe some homemade chocolates or a piece of cardboard cut into the shape of a Christmas tree and decorated with beads, buttons, and scrap yarn. I used to feel guilty when someone handed us an expensive gift and we responded with a cardboard tree ornament or a chocolate truffle. But, as the fashion designer Coco Chanel said, “Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” I’ve concluded that those cardboard tree ornaments are the height of style. And the chocolates are delicious. Maybe next time, people who give expensive gifts will feel less obligated to spend a lot of money on us. And that will be good for them, good for us, and good for the planet.
Shannon Hayes writes, home-schools, and farms with her family from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Her books include The Grassfed Gourment, Radical Homemakers, and Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled.