Holidays Can Make For Sweet Times
Elaine St. James used to find the season of “comfort and joy” anything but. Oh, she loved Christmas, all right, but the stuff that went along with it–the cooking and baking, frenzied shopping and wrapping, and endless obligations–left her feeling drained and depleted. So she came up with a novel idea: Keep the best and eliminate the rest.
This 55-year-old stepmother of two, who’s carved out a niche as America’s simplicity guru (she’s the best-selling author of Simplify Your Life and Inner Simplicity, among other books), shows us how to get off the Yuletide treadmill in her latest, Simplify Your Christmas: 100 Ways to Reduce the Stress and Recapture the Joy of the Holidays. Even the most ardent Martha Stewart wannabe will be tempted by St. James’s eminently sensible solutions to typical holiday dilemmas, as she shifts the focus from external trappings to the inner rewards that come from spending time with and doing things for friends and family.
Most of us approach the holidays the way we do the rest of our lives–feeling like we have to do it all. And that’s just not possible,” St. James says. One problem is that people confuse simplifying with organizing: “If you organize, it means doing the same number of tasks–just more efficiently. But if you simplify, you eliminate–which leaves a lot less to organize.
Tinkering with tradition, however, can be a dicey proposition. How do you pass on the plum pudding or lighten up on the lights and not be branded a Scrooge? Start with a family powwow, advises St. James. “Sit down and explain that last year, the holidays got way out of hand, and now the family’s going to scale back. Give the kids enough notice so you’re not springing it on them at the last minute, and be sure to get their input. The key,” St. James adds, “is to keep only favorite things.”
Which is exactly what St. James did when she “simplified” her holiday dinner to eliminate what she calls “turkey torpor” — the physical discomfort that sets in after a typical, over-the-top Christmas feast.
In her family, she recalls, “the only reason we had the turkey, potatoes, gravy, stuffing, and cranberry sauce was to get to the real payoff: pumpkin pie.” Now, the pie is all she serves! If a soup-to-nuts Christmas dinner is nonnegotiable in your family, think about paring down. Do you really need creamed onions and corn? Mashed potatoes and turnips? An added bonus of avoiding heavy holiday meals, St. James notes, is that you won’t risk sitting on top of ten extra pounds come January 1.
Food aside, nothing epitomizes excess more stunningly than the annual gift blitz. The average family spends $1,233 for this one-day blowout-and six months paying it off, according to St. James. She pleads with parents not to succumb to the galloping “gimmes.” In Simplify Your Christmas, she suggests that rather than buy things, family members of all ages give the gift of time. A teenager might sign up to baby-sit for a younger sibling; a dad might present his son with a “gift certificate” for an afternoon at the zoo, just the two of them.
St. James took this process one step further in her family, deleting presents altogether: “Instead of spending money on gifts nobody needed, we concentrated on making a contribution to the community, like working at a shelter or a soup kitchen. We changed the focus from `What am I going to get?’ to `What can we do for someone else?'”
Sending out Christmas cards is another source of anxiety for many women. The St. James solution: Ignore the December 25 deadline and gradually respond up well-wishers with a couple of handwritten notes per week during the new year. She has advice on stocking stuffers too: Go back to the original custom and use fruit, candies, and nuts.
In her previous life, St. James and her husband were stereotypical overachievers: She ran a successful real estate investment business in Connecticut and Santa Barbara, CA; he was a magazine editor. Then, in 1990, they decided to practice some serious downward mobility, chucking their titles for tranquillity, their business suits for sweatpants. They still live in Santa Barbara, where she writes full-time, and he is a travel writer.
Does St. James ever long for the old, jam-packed days? “It’s an ongoing challenge,” she says. “But I think people would be surprised at how simply we live. Once you experience the freedom of having more time, you don’t ever want to go back to where you were.”
That’s true of holiday overload too. “Cut back and you won’t lose the Christmas spirit,” she insists. “You will have found it.”