Start close to home
Get on your knees with your family, and covenant with God to simplify your life. Determine to glorify and worship your external Lord rather than the holiday myth of overworking yourself into exhaustion for a "perfect" Christmas season.
Ask family members which traditions they most want to continue, and ask them to give something in exchange. If your daughter craves homemade cookies, ask her to do the vacuuming or errands to free your time and energy to help her bake. If your family needs a decorated evergreen to make them feel jolly, ask them to take over; explain that your job will be taking snapshots or video of the activity. If they're too young to pitch in, you're fortunate, because you can start them off with simpler traditions.
Question the seemingly immutable. One year, my husband and I and our kids decided not to erect a tree. Instead, we created a small handmade nativity. It was the focus of our celebration that year, and we spent many evenings sipping cider and creating a life-like and heart-expanding scene. Several years later, we donated the project to our church, where it's displayed in the foyer at Christmastime.
Recognize other events throughout the year instead of focusing on "the big one" and all the things it's come to be. Instead of sending Christmas cards, recognize the significance of Easter or Thanksgiving. Mail your family newsletter on your wedding anniversary. Send faxes, emails, or electronic cards anytime just to remind someone that they're loved by you and God.
Instead of making the family portrait a holiday affair, take advantage of summertime reunions, a day at the water slides, a child's school program, or Sunday dinner. Take snapshots and enlarge one.
If you're part of a group that usually exchanges gifts, talk to them about alternatives. Agree to exchange only photos, or a service such as babysitting. Suggest adopting a needy group, missionary, family, or charity instead of giving one another yet another thing that doesn't fit, won't last, or (worst of all) needs dusting.
Arrange to have your holiday parties at public places so you (and others in the group) don't have to prepare and clean up. Remember: the goal is simplicity. Fancier eateries mean more complicated, expensive plans and ensembles.
Combine purposes by making your party a gift-wrapping, cookie-baking, or decorating party. Go bowling, miniature golfing, or skating, and enjoy the getting-together instead of the preparation. Go caroling or put in a shift at a soup kitchen; then adjourn to a local coffeehouse for a warm up. Make a special effort to remember and include those who are experiencing their first holiday after losing a loved one.
If you choose to give (and it is a choice), make it your goal to give at least one item that expresses Christ's love, whether in word or in deed. Increase your personal quota each year.
Spend the year collecting family recipes. Then distribute copies of the collection—or create a family birthday book or directory. Write a poem or story, or paint a picture especially for your spouse or your mother. Frame a child's finger-painting masterpiece or fingerprints for a grandparent.
If you normally do fall canning, do a couple of extra jars and set them aside to be used as Christmas gifts. Do the same with summer herbs: Make herbal vinegars or potpourri to give.
Don't be tempted to put something on your charge card and call it a gift. You don't really own anything you buy on time, and you can't give what doesn't belong to you.
Divide your list into paydays and purchase items throughout the year. Each time you shop, try to buy one gift—even a small gift certificate or prepaid phone card. Buy "out of season"; for instance, buy a set of garden tools on summer clearance; slippers, gloves, or mittens on winter closeout. Take advantage of fragrance sets that are popular around Mother's Day and Valentine's Day. Pick up extra certificates when you go out to dinner or the movies.
Buy from home-service companies like Avon or Tupperware that deliver to your home. Save time and postage by selecting and purchasing out-of-town gifts at chains that allow the recipient to pick up the gift at a location near them.
Give things to lessen someone else's holiday stress: a book of stamps, wrapping paper, gift bags, tree lights.
If you make gifts, mass-produce them. That is, give everyone a jar of home-canned apple jelly or a special bookmark. That way, you can buy supplies in quantity and focus on doing one thing well.
Pass along something of yours. Give your sister the Barbie doll you used to fight over. Maybe your friend collects thimbles, and you happen to possess a unique one.
Shop odd places: garage sales, antique and junk stores, bazaars. Pick up unusual items if you travel.
Don't wait for Christmas morning to open gifts. We open things that come in the mail whenever they arrive. If someone visits, we exchange and open gifts then. And we usually exchange everything else on Christmas Eve. This helps take our focus off the gift opening, and allows us several small, more meaningful exchanges. It's especially helpful for children who are easily overwhelmed by a flurry of paper and packages.
Make an effort to do kindnesses every day. Contribute regularly to a homeless shelter. Offer to babysit for a single parent. Visit a nursing home resident or shut-in neighbor who has no nearby family or friends. Help carry someone's packages or clean another's windshield of frost if you're physically able. When you see someone who's rushed, let him or her in line in front of you. Take a cup of cocoa to the crossing guard. Smile. Say something outrageous and unexpected like, "God bless you." Be open to opportunities—however brief—to share the gospel message.
The key to downscaling and de-stressing your holidays is having the right attitude. This isn't about the Grinch trying to steal Christmas. It's about a child of the King endeavoring to give others more of God, and give God more of you.
The first Christmas was a gathering of humble people and heavenly hosts whose greatest joy was simply to gaze upon the Savior of mankind. It helps me to remember that I need to clear away the clutter if the world is going to have a chance to see him still.