Getting to the Heart of the Holidays: 5 Ways to Have a Minimalist Christmas

I was taking the first sip of my Starbucks soy latte last month when I heard a shrill jingle and a wave of terror hit me. Was that Christmas music in November?

While the sound of “Jingle Bells” normally induces Christmas cheer, I felt nauseous.

With less than two months before Christmas, I had so much to do: Buy and put up decorations. Purchase Christmas gifts for Mom, Dad, boyfriend, Grandma, Grandpa, friends. Send holiday cards. RSVP to parties. Plan Christmas dinner. Hyperventilate.

“This isn’t what Christmas is about,” I thought.

I reminisced about baking gingerbread cookies with Mom and sneaking a taste of dough before she put them in the oven. I remembered unwrapping the board game, “Pretty Pretty Princess,” and being thrilled not because I had another toy, but because I knew my dad would play the game with me (tacky tiara and all.) Christmas as a child was about spending time with loved ones, not stressing over all of the things, things, and more things. But as “Jingle Bells” trailed off, all I could think about was my Christmas to-do list.

With my life and headspace tangled in tinsel, I thought, “That’s it.” I took my Starbucks napkin, grabbed my favorite pen, and began writing out my new minimalist Christmas rules.

1. Keep the tree simple

Decorating the tree to some 50s Christmas jams is one of my favorite festive activities. While I don’t have an ornament collection abroad in Seoul, I do love going all-out at Daiso (akin to a “Dollar Store” in the U.S.). But this year, I’m limiting myself to one set of ornaments and one tinsel strand in a two-tone color palette.

What’s most important about this rule is not that the decor looks minimalist, but that the tree is minimalist in terms of price and stress.

2. Host a potluck Christmas dinner

Christmas dinners are my second-favorite Christmas extravaganza. Well, I like the eating part. But the cooking? It’s exhausting. So instead, I’m hosting a vegan potluck dinner with some of my other vegan friends. That way, the workload will be spread out, and we can focus on eating until our ugly Christmas sweaters are too tight.

If you want to ensure your potluck isn’t all stuffing and desserts, share a food sign-up sheet with your guests via social media. Hesitant about what you want to bring yourself? Test out my favorite vegan Crispy Smashed Potatoes With Avocado Garlic Aioli or, for dessert, a crowd-favorite Peanut Butter Cup Pie.

Do you set a gift budget for the holidays?

3. Ask for charitable donations instead of gifts

I’m not a perfectly pious human. Rather, I’m a perfectly picky human. Instead of grinning and practicing, “Thanks for the fuzzy socks again, Aunt Delilah,” I’m asking for donations to a few charities that are close to my heart, such as my local Nabiya Cat Shelter and Teach North Korean Refugees. If you want to feel the warm fuzzies this Christmas, too, ask for donations in lieu of gifts to a charity local to you.

4. Gift experiences, not things

Living abroad makes sending gifts especially headache-inducing. Instead, I’m gifting experiences, not things. Some of the top gift ideas I have so far are movie tickets, spa days, golf games, and those ever-so-popular “wine and painting” events.

Following my lead? Bonus points for any gift experiences that include spending time together with the people you love. For example, instead of giving Mom a gift card to her favorite nail salon, plan a pampering date with her instead, so that you can get your nails done together. Or instead of giving your little sister a gift card to her favorite clothing store, give her an IOU for a mall date to pick something out together.

5. Limit Christmas commitments

While it’s exciting to receive invites to Christmas parties, I start stressing once it’s time to actually attend them all. This year, I’m limiting myself to three Christmas events (New Year’s doesn’t count). I’m prioritizing gatherings,  such as tight-knit dinner parties, where I can spend the most quality time with loved ones and relieve holiday stress.

And instead of spending my time hosting my own Christmas festivity this year, I’ll use the extra time and energy to give back by volunteering at least once in my community. While I usually like to volunteer with animals, this year I’m going to try and push myself to help feed the homeless community in Seoul. Perhaps I’ll make a few new friends to share the festivities with along the way.

After dotting the last period on my list, I took another sip of my latte and I savored the warmth. With Christmas stress downgraded, I felt a Santa’s bag-sized weight lifted from my shoulders. I was free to enjoy Christmas this year in the way it was always meant to be enjoyed: with my loved ones. “Silent Night” resonated from the speakers, and I caught myself humming along.