Simplifying Our Christmas: 7 Inspirations That Work for Us

The holidays are always a challenge for those of us trying to simplify our lives. From parties and pizzazz, to shopping and shipping, it can be a whirlwind of spending and schmoozing.

Many of our past holidays have been a Nomads’ Christmas, wandering around the world. But this year we’re happily nested in our cozy little apartment, so we’ve been looking for ways to keep it simple while enjoying our holiday with family and friends. Here’s what we decided to do:

1. Go Natural. We love natural decorations – from pinecones and acorns to evergreens and magnolia leaves. These materials have the added advantage of being totally recyclable … and we don’t have to store anything in our meager storage space.

For us the main attraction is a Christmas tree, and our favorite is a fragrant Fraser fir. I know that many of you are over the needles and hassle. But we love the whole experience of finding the perfect (for us) tree, getting it home, discovering the little bird’s nest from past years’ inhabitants, wrestling it into the stand, enjoying it first with only little white lights, then spending the evening decorating and reminiscing over every tiny ornament (see #2).

2. Curate Our Collection. Although in many ways we’re minimalists, the one place we allow ourselves a little indulgence is in our Christmas ornaments – but on a very small scale. Over our years of travel we used to collect big things – masks from Bali and tagines from Morocco. But that kind of accumulation no longer fits our simplified lifestyle. Now we pick up tiny mementos during our gallivants and turn them into Christmas ornaments. There’s just one catch: everything has to fit in one shoebox. That’s right – it’s like portion control for Christmas ornaments. Every ornament we choose to keep has to be very special and carry a great story.

3. Use What We Have. We don’t buy special Christmas tchotchkes. In our house most things have to do double duty.  Our Kentucky Folkart Horse “Pansy,” with her festive makeover, will stand in for Rudolph.

4. Be a Borrower. Since we live in a small place, we keep our kitchen gear simple and basic. So when we needed a rolling pin (not in our gear) for Christmas cookies, we didn’t run out and buy one. We borrowed it from Terri’s sister, Nancy.

5. Rent from a Thrift Store. When we’ve exhausted options #3 and #4, then we head to our favorite thrift stores for those special touches.

This year it was our turn to provide a wreath for the front door of our apartment building. We found one that we could fix up for $2.99 at Goodwill. And the reason we say “rent” from a thrift store is that afterwards, we will re-donate the improved wreath so they can sell it again next year. We just rented it for $2.99 … and we don’t have to store it.

6. Try Something New. Although traditions are a joy, they can sometimes introduce complexity and expectations that don’t always help you simplify. Usually we go to The Nutcracker, but this year we went to a Motown Christmas performance. Absolutely Fantastic!

7. Practice Small Acts of Kindness. This year instead of scrambling to buy Christmas presents for lots of people, we decided to focus our energy and resources on bringing joy to special people throughout the year. This decision not only simplified our life – it focused our intention to make a difference in the lives of others.

* * *

We would love to hear if you decided to simplify your holiday this year … and what did you do. In the meantime, we wish you all joy, health, and happiness during this festive season.

Peace and Joy!
Terri & James

P.S. If you’re thinking about simplifying your life in the new year check out our Simplify Your Life Series to gather ideas from us and all our readers. It may be one of the most satisfying decisions you’ll ever make!

The Quest to Simplify Our Life

Simplifying Our Life: The 7 Changes That Made All the Difference

Sage Simplicity Stories: 51 Thoughts to Simplify Your Life

Simplify Your Life: It’s Your Money – Keep More Of It!

Simplify Your Downsizing: The 80/20 Rule

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We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

50 thoughts

    1. Tracey, as we move into smaller spaces storage becomes more of an issue. And while Christmas stuff is cool, it can take up a big chunk of space. So the shoebox-full of ornaments is just our cup of tea. We hope you have wonderful holiday. ~James

  1. Wonderful and practical tips – I’ll have to return to them whenever we base ourselves somewhere in a place that doesn’t move. 🙂 We have a tiny Christmas tree in our camper, given to us by my best friend, who felt we should have something festive this time of the year. It’s five inches tall and fits in a shoe box with other miscellaneous items.

    I love the gift of care and experiences. Mark and I don’t do the Christmas gift thing and won’t be around friends or family, so that’s easy. I’m curious about how your family members react when you don’t give them a physical gift snd they hand you something…

    And, what a great idea to collect ornaments as souvenirs – practical, small, and memorable.

    Happy holidays, you two, and have an amazing and special new year!

    1. Happy Holidays, Liesbet! I love that you guys keep your Christmas tree in a shoe box – so perfect for camper life. Like you, we just make the most of wherever we are at the time.

      Over the years we’ve gone through lots of gift-giving phases with our family and friends – it’s always evolving. And I think that’s really natural. We tend to give and encourage “experiences” throughout the year, whether it’s attending Christmas shows together or visiting faraway family. In the past we’ve given friends gifts like “10 Hours of Baby or Pet Sitting” – always a popular choice. 🙂 And these days, gift exchanges tend to be consumables like Christmas cookies. If we receive a tangible gift from someone, we generally respond with invitations to dinner, etc.

      We wish you and Mark a fabulous holiday and new year!

      All the Best, Terri

    1. Jo, giving gifts is a hard habit to break, and honestly, it takes cooperation of all sides. Most of the people that we know have all the stuff they could possibly want and have no problem enjoying special time together and experiences rather than gifts. ~James

    1. Thrift stores are a minimalist’s friend. A few years ago we hatched a plan to pack a few things in our car, travel to a place that we wanted to live for a while, rent an apartment and furnish it from thrift stores. We did exactly that in Asheville, NC and at the end of our time there, we donated everything back. It was a great experience and fun challenge … as well as an easy way to make a move. ~James

    1. Right back atcha Janet! As we’ve discussed, there’s no better time than the present and why wait? Together, we’ve created our own little “Catalpa Colony of Consciousness.” 🙂 It was a pleasure to have you be a part of our holiday fun and we’re so glad you’re a part of our family. J&T

  2. So many good ideas. We’ve tried some and caved in on others. We still buy Christmas ornaments on our travels, but almost eliminated any other purchases. We don’t need another Santa, crèche, or hand-crafted bowl. We’ve got enough!! I’ll do a bit more weeding when we take down decorations after Christmas.
    Thanks for inspiring me to find ways to simplify. And to you both, a very Merry Christmas!

    1. It sounds like we are definitely of like minds, Rusha! I too do some more weeding out when we take the decorations down – mostly because it won’t fit in the shoe box. 🙂

      I see that your site is under construction. I can’t wait for the “Big Reveal” to see what you have in store for us. So, I have a technical question for you. How did you get the “Under Construction” sign? I need to change our theme because this one has been discontinued and is no longer supported, but I couldn’t find a way to temporarily suspend it so I can fix it.

      James and I wish you and Bert a fabulous Christmas! ~Terri

  3. I was forced onto the path of Christmas simplification by a downsizing move a few years ago; at first, I reveled in it, but now I am feeling sad about the loss of some of our holiday decorating traditions. I am simultaneously modern-minded and deeply sentimental, causing me to swing wildly from minimalism to wanting to nestle back into old routines. I’m sure I’ll settle in to one or the other at some point!

    Hope your whole holiday season brings you joy and best wishes for a great 2020!

    1. Lexie, we had our Christmas decorations under control in our small townhouse, and then we moved to a big house and things ballooned again. Now that we’re in a small apartment, we have motivation to keep things simpler and smaller again – and so it goes. I guess that for us this exercise is emblematic of a larger issue. At this point in our lives we’re striving to make sure that the choices we make are considered and that we aren’t being pulled along by old habits. As for your conundrum, I’m sure you will settle on one comfortable routine … or a compromise in the middle. In the meantime, all the best for a fun and relaxing holiday and a new year full of getting your feet out the door. ~James

  4. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you both!

    I have to confess that I went in the opposite direction this year… I haven’t had a tree for many years, but this year I bought a four and a half foot pre-lit fake. That’s as much tree as I thought i could handle. It sits on an end table, with the white silky table cloth I’ve always used as a tree skirt. Although I still have the decorations – in a grocery bag, not a shoe box – I thought it looked so pretty with just the lights I haven’t decorated it. (Of course, I have an eye problem that makes haloes round lights, so they look bigger to me,)

    I also bought a new wreath (Michaels, on sale) for the front door, and hung the old one on the garage. My house isn’t that big, so if I ever get around to moving to an apartment I should have room for the tree etc. Worst case, the box with the tree can go under the bed, lol.

    1. Kathy, it sounds like you’ve settled on a strategy that works perfectly and makes YOU happy. And that’s what’s it’s all about. For most people Christmas is a time of reflection, and a realistic look at how much effort goes into the holiday just makes sense, especially with changes in circumstances and preferences. We wish you a very happy holiday and a wonderful year ahead. ~James

  5. We have dramatic downsized, but I have kept few of our Christmas decorations that we collected over many years. Many great tips here, for me the best thing about Christmas is to be spending it with loved ones. Merry Christmas to you guys 😄

    1. Gilda, I totally agree that the holidays are about quality time with family and friends. Also, one of our favorite things is reminiscing about our travels as we decorate our tree with ornaments we’ve picked up on the road. We hope that you have a wonderful holiday full of all the things that make you happy. ~James

  6. Since moving to Spain we have simplified Christmas tremendously. I do miss the real fir tree which we always had in Canada. But they are in short supply here. We do decorate our palm tree in our yard though. We do enjoy Christmas on the beach, a tradition here. Wishing both of you a very Happy Christmas!! xo

    1. Darlene, I can totally relate to your new Christmas traditions. As expats in Sudan, we decorated a potted palm tree, and our time living in St. Augustine, FL and St Simons Island, GA gave us lots of chances for beachy holidays. And I must admit to feeling a smug superiority when I saw those poor northerners struggling with frigid temps, mounds of snow, and travel hassles. But I’m sure they were getting the last laugh during hurricane season. All the best to you for a wonderful holiday and happy New Year there in Spain. ~James

  7. Great list! We too keep things simplified and it makes for a much more enjoyable holiday season. No stress or fuss around here. Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a New Year filled with exciting adventures.🥂

    1. “No stress or fuss around here.” Everyone should be so lucky at the holidays Ingrid. At some point over the holidays I go to the mall and walk around to see the stressed-out shoppers as a reminder of how lucky I am. All the best to you and Al for a relaxing holiday and an exciting New Year of travel. ~James

  8. Peace and joy to you two, also Terri and James. Have a Merry Christmas and may 2020 bring many new adventures (that you’ll share with us).
    Leslie xoxo

  9. Sweet! I like your decorations. This year the theme at the holiday house at Bok Tower Gardens is “nature”. I will never be as committed to you are though – I can’t possibly fit my precious ornaments from all over into one little shoebox. I did pare down by half though – so that will have to do. Motown Christmas sounds great!

    1. Pam, we’ve had this shoe box idea going for a while, so we’ve upped our game when it comes to buying ornaments. We know that they have to fit into the box, so that helps guide out choices; sort of like furniture in our 700 sq ft apartment. 🙂 All the best for the holidays and best of luck in the New Year. ~James

    1. Thanks Alison. I guess that many of us are getting to the same place in our lives and it seems a good time to reflect. We hope that you both have a Happy Holiday and a healthy and exciting New Year. ~James

  10. I think my sentimental feelings about Christmas started to shift and fade when I was living alone for the first time and had no one to help me get a live tree. It took two trips to the store before I could bring myself to purchase an artificial one! There is nothing like the scent of a real tree. Now our winters are spent in Arizona, in a motorhome, far away from family, so our decorations are meagre and this year we are doing something completely non-traditional. We’re taking a bus tour to Laughlin Nevada, where we will enjoy the decorations and meals, and also spend Christmas Day seeing it all from a Polaris Slingshot that we’ve rented! Merry Christmas!

    1. Hi Judy, I think your approach to Christmas is wonderful. And a bus tour to Laughlin sounds like a blast! It will be fun to let someone else do the cooking and decorating. 🙂 Then there’s the Polaris Slingshot – you two really know how to live! I hope you have a very Merry Christmas.
      All the best, Terri

  11. I really like your #7, the substitute for the gift baskets that are more often than not filled with things that you don’t want/need. This year we gifted some (disclaimer: we are not affiliated with them!) Harry & David pears. No clutter is left after the original enjoyment, and maybe even a sweet memory will linger 🙂

    1. I think that for most of us, at least for those reading this post, it’s really about being mindful of the holiday and gift-giving and not getting caught in the cycle of buy-buy-buy. For some years Terri and I have been about experiences rather than things, and this idea works at Christmas as well.

      We hope that you have a Happy Holiday and an exciting New Year. ~James

  12. Since we spend most of the season selling wonderful fraser firs (the largest one we sold this year was 15′), we get our fill of “trees” by helping others find the perfect, for them, tree. We stopped gift giving several years ago, with the exception of the grandbabies. As you point out, experiences are so much better! Wishing you all the joys of the season and a healthy, happy new year!

    1. Laura, Terri and I were wondering how the tree selling was going. It must be going well, but I can certainly understand that you’d be “treed out.” As I said to someone else, we’ve been into experiences rather than things for a few years now, and honestly, all the people in our lives appreciate it more. One thing about adults of a certain (ahem) age, is that we have all the stuff we need, and with us, if we need something, we just buy it.

      So you guys hang in there a few more days and you won’t be having nightmares about Christmas trees. 🙂 All the best to you both for a great holiday and a healthy, travel-filled New Year. ~James

      1. James, we left the tree lot yesterday after another record setting season. We were in Parkland for 37 days. We have 2 days off then we start selling fireworks for New Years. We are hoping the money shakes out as well as the trees, then we are going to take a much needed break before starting a building project for my dad’s neighbor. Then we will head to NH to work for the summer. We are very much hoping this will be the last RV Park we work at and will alternate between trees and fireworks and “Sleeping Around” gear! Merry Christmas to you both and may 2020 be another minimalist travel adventure year!

  13. You two are inspiring and I especially love the acts of kindness rather than gifts. Last year, after being stressed about Christmas for decades, I decided to de clutter Christmas. The big meal always stressed me so now we do pot luck. We have grandkids and grandpas so rather than trying to plan a time for a formal sit down it’s buffet and sit where you want. Happy chaos ensues.
    Merry Christmas to you both and heartfelt wishes for good health and adventures in 2020.

    1. Sue, the complications you mention are exactly the kind of thing that, probably in the end, add more stress than pleasure to the holiday – at least for the folks doing all the prep and planning. We did pot luck this year, and boy oh boy, we’re never going back. And with everyone’s complex schedule, a buffet is a great idea as well. Happy chaos sounds perfect. All the best to you, Dave, and all the in-laws and outlaws for a Merry Christmas and an exciting 2020. ~James

  14. I love your minimalist ideas and I see how you don’t need extra “stuff” to experience the spirit of Christmas. I also relate to the lack of gifts, receiving a gift is nice but now I am grateful to be able to help others more. I feel already blessed.
    Our home is filled with decorations but it brings my wife joy to decorate at this time of year, some day she will minimize and love it, but she’s not there yet. It’s ok.

    1. David, as you know, Christmas is important to each of us in different ways, and its traditions are a big part of what make it special. The important thing for us is about making conscious choices based on our preferences now, and not being carried along by what we may have done in the past. Each of us may get to this place at different times, but as you say, that’s OK too. We wish you a happy holiday and 2020 filled with happiness. ~James

  15. Great post. I simplify by not having a Christmas tree and celebrating it with family who have. We also do not do Christmas presents. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but it works for me.

    1. Bertie, whatever works for you is best. I think that much of the stress at Christmas is caused by people getting caught in the “what we did last year” or “what we’re supposed to do” trap. No one wants to be the Scrooge that says: Let’s don’t do presents this year. Have a great holiday and all the best for an exciting 2020. ~James

      1. Thank you James! You are right, and I wasn’t the Scrooge on my own 🙂 🙂 – family decision, and I tell my friends that I don’t do presents, so that’s one less on their list, and they always seem happy with that. Happy New Year and gallivanting! I am looking forward to more of your posts.

  16. Love your simplified, eco version of doing Christmas. And the every ornament has to fit into a shoebox. That shoebox looks like it is full of lots of lovely treasures from the looks of it….I heard of some other great less consumption Christmas ideas such as couples buying gifts that both of them would enjoy and others giving gift cards which offer skills and time. “Rent from the thrift store” that’s great ~ we are huge fans of thrift stores and second hand clothing ones, both of which we frequent whenever we are in the States and need something. Most of both the clothes and goods are in perfectly good condition ~ but I do like the idea of then returning it right back after use!

    Great post.


    1. Peta, the only gifts we give each other these days are experiences rather than things. We try to stick to a “one in, one out” rule when it comes to physical possessions, so gifting experiences works great. And truthfully, who would rather have a new sweater as opposed to a nice dinner out. And we’ve been thrift store fans for ages. The example I gave someone else was: A few years ago we hatched a plan to pack a few things in our car, travel to a place that we wanted to live for a while, rent an apartment and furnish it from thrift stores. We did exactly that in Asheville, NC and at the end of our time there, we donated everything back. It was a great experience and fun challenge … as well as an easy way to make a move. We wish you a happy and healthy 2020! ~James

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