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simple Christmas tree, slow simple winter holidays

Winter Holidays: The Slow and Simple Edition

Welcome the winter holidays: a season of togetherness, festivity, and warmth — right in the middle of the gloomiest, darkest, coldest time of the year, when we most need a pause and a good dose of cheer. We need all of that. But with every passing year, I hear more and more people expressing what they also need: ways to keep it simple. Slow, simple winter holidays.

What would a “less is more” version of the winter holidays look like? The slow and simple edition? I see this as a great opportunity to practice being really intentional and ask ourselves: What do I really value? What is it that makes this season magical for me, and can I experience it without buying into all that other people tell me I need to buy into? Can I tweak or change traditions if they no longer serve me? Here’s what I’ve found useful in trying to create a clutter-free, slow, simple holiday time.

 

Simple Decorations

holiday wreath and winter greens on the porchReal winter evergreens are the loveliest thing on earth: they fill your home with their fragrance, last for a long time, and are fully biodegradeable.

I grew up in Nordic evergreen forests, so the deep forest smell of spruce and pine greens inside the house signals to my brain that I am home.

There are lots of ways to harvest them sustainably: go to places where Christmas trees are sold to collect the trimmings or fallen branches, or look by the curbside. Last year, a neighbor had trimmed a large cedar and left the cut branches on the curb, so we picked them up, carried them home, and “decked the halls:” wreaths and garlands for the porch and arrangements for the inside along with candles and pine cones. (I also think that collecting a branch or two on land that’s not yours is not a huge deal, but obviously you have to make the call yourself.)

For a wreath, I wove this hoop out of vines that I can now re-use and dress differently each year. I love to use the deep greens of cedar and pine as a base, then add the grayish hues of sage, rosemary, or silver-dollar Eucalyptus, and finish with cones, winter berries, and ribbons.

handmade holiday wreath

The same theme repeats itself in our Christmas Eve dinner table setting: winter greens, pine cones, and candles.

Christmas Eve table setting with evergreens

For the Christmas tree, apart from the tiny LEED lights and some baubles, everything else is natural materials: burlap ribbons, pine cones, dried orange slices with cinnamon sticks, and these wooden ornaments from my native Finland that I love.

decorating Christmas tree

 

Simple gift-giving

When it comes to gift-giving, I stand by this piece by Becoming Minimalist: let’s keep it sane.

  • For kids, I like the four-gift rule: “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.”
  • Handmade gifts
  • Gifting experiences
  • Gifting consumables: chocolate, nuts, fruit, wine, local specialty treats.
  • Gift donations

brown paper wrapped holiday gifts

Here are some hand-made gifts I like to make and give:

  • beeswax candles (making them is now a November tradition for my friend Annina and I)
  • a jar of our homemade granola (recipe in this book)
  • lavender sachets (from this book) or eye pillows
  • jars of apple butter or blueberry jam
  • a photo book (a favorite of grandparents)
  • DIY bird nest necklace
  • woolens: last year I knitted these socks for just about everyone in my family:

hand-knitted socks

Also check out this post all about handmade holiday gifts.

Slow, simple winter holiday traditions

When I was growing up, my family had a lot of Christmas traditions. Christmas Eve always followed the same formula, and that’s what made it feel unlike any other day of the year.

Now that my partner and I get to figure out our own traditions, we’re leaning towards a slightly more flexible approach.

I’ve been asking the question: what are those moments when we’re fully in the “flow” mode, that feel special and invite us to pause? I’ve come to realize that the cue for that feeling is often something really simple. It may be just lighting a pillar candle and turning on some Christmas music when the late afternoon starts to darken outside. It may be cozying up inside with woolen socks, candles, and hot cocoa when it’s snowing outside. It may be baking gingerbread cookies with my daughter when we both may just end up eating more dough than actual cookies. It’s the smell of evergreens inside the house, beeswax candles burning, winter oranges in a bowl, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and cardamom in gingerbread cookies baking in the oven or in the traditional Finnish blackcurrant juice glögi simmering on the stove. It’s sitting down for my annual Solstice reflection ritual on Winter Solstice.

None of that is complicated or costly, nor does it need to be.

I’d love to hear from you: what ways have you discovered to make the most out of the season without adding more unnecessary stress, waste, or consumption?

 

citrus and citrus essential oil

Energize Your Winter Days with Citrus

Food is medicine. Whether it’s winter blues or the common cold, you can find potent remedies among edible plants that really, really help. You don’t need an advanced degree in herbal medicine; some of the most powerful healing foods are available at the grocery stores and markets. And as the days get shorter and colder, the zesty, bright-colored citrus is your #1 energizer and immunity booster.

Somehow, citrus and winter go together. As early as the 18th century, people in North America and Europe would get to relish the once-a-year Christmas orange. I grew up near the Arctic Circle, so the oranges I knew in my childhood were sad and shriveled Navel oranges that had clearly been harvested too early and sat in shipping containers for too long. We didn’t know any better, of course.

Since then, thankfully, I’ve come to know what it’s like to bite into juicy, sweet, aromatic citrus fruit. (And now I can get them from Florida, which is not too terribly far.)

Here are five ways to tap into the energizing properties of citrus fruits to brighten up your winter days.

 

Energizing citrus essential oils

Citrus fruits and aromas are known to uplift the mood, ease anxiety, and enhance focus. I love using a citrus essential oil to energize me on winter mornings when I sit down to work. “Lemon is cool and joyful while orange is warm and pampers. And grapefruit boosts energy in an entirely different way,” says aromatherapist Caroline Schroeder. Any blend with bergamot is nice. Or just inhale the smell of an orange — that works too!

 

Citrus cleaning products

If you make your own cleaning spray, you can add any of the above essential oils for a clean and bright feel to make clean-up time a treat.

 

Citrus-scented body care

I use minimal body care products, but I do use a moisturizer with citrus scent, and I notice I feel strangely happy when I apply it. Why not make those most ordinary moments of the day ones that you look forward to?

Fresh eating

Eat them fresh! The vitamin C in citrus supports immunity through the cold season. Vitamin C helps the body to absorb iron, which also fortifies you against fatigue. Whenever I research mood-boosting food groups, citrus fruits keep coming up… and is it any wonder: just look at those colors!

 

Citrus desserts

Last but not least: chocolate and orange. Need I say more? Dark chocolate with orange peel has become my favorite of late — it’s right up there with chocolate and peppermint as a winning wintertime combo. Last year, I became obsessed with the idea of a chocolate and orange flavored dessert for Christmas. After a long search, I found this recipe and it’s what’s on the menu for Christmas Eve at our house this year: The Jaffa Cake Cake from Primrose Bakery.

orange chocolate cake
Image: thehappyfoodie.co.uk

 

Postscript: Citrus Fruit and the Local Diet

I’m a local food advocate. But I don’t only eat local food (at least, not at the moment). As Helena Norberg-Hodge writes, localization “does not mean that people in cold climates are denied oranges or avocados, but that their wheat, rice or milk — in short, their basic food needs — do not travel thousands of miles when they can be produced within a fifty-mile radius.”

Fanatical, all-or-nothing attitudes tend to backfire more than do good. Perfectionism in the local food movement — or in the sustainability movement at large — only discourages people from trying to do anything at all. I say this as a recovering perfectionist. So yes, I’m a local food advocate. And yes, I sometimes eat imported oranges.

Having said that: this fall, I decided to try to grow some citrus myself. So I added a lemon, a Satsuma mandarin, and a limequat — all dwarf-size fruit trees — to our homestead. They grow in containers and can be brought into the sunroom for the winter. We just harvested our first and only Satsuma a couple of weeks ago, and I gave it to my husband who was trying to get over a head cold. So right there, the immune-boosting power of citrus in action — and this time as a homegrown version!

dwarf mandarin orange tree

gardener's hands

Play in the Dirt: The Potent Antidepressant Called Gardening

 

Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.

           – John Muir

 

Could gardening act as a a kind of anti-depressant? I’m thinking of a dear friend who’s going through a divorce and a lot of exhausting relationship drama. She has a place where it all dissolves and falls away. Her apartment building has a few raised bed boxes for the residents, and this year she got one of them to grow some vegetables. There, sitting on the edge of her garden box and trellising the tender peas, pulling the weeds around the carrots and checking on the broccoli florets, she says, her mind is at ease, no matter what is going on.

Ask any gardener, and they will tell you something similar. The garden is their happy place — the place that de-stresses and relaxes them, chases away the blues, and puts them in the “flow” mode of just enjoying the present moment.

In a lovely essay, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks writes:

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.

 

One explanation for the happy gardener

Now scientific studies are starting to bring to light a fascinating explanation for the healing, even euphoric effect of gardening. The secret, it seems, lies in the soil itself. Gardening increases our exposure to beneficial micro-organisms that live in the soil, some of which have anti-depressant qualities. Researchers have been particularly interested in Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless microbe that can be found in soil and water. Initial studies suggest that the immune response to M. vaccae triggers the release of serotonin in our brain. Serotonin is our bodies’ “happy chemical” that reduces stress and contributes to a sense of well-being.

children's garden book
Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal, from “Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt” by Kate Messner.

 

But no single microbe is a miracle cure. More likely, says Daphne Miller, M.D., it’s the exposure to a diversity of micro-organisms that is healing for our immune and nervous systems.

 

Why we need a diversity of microbial exposure

Unfortunately, exposure to a diversity of micro-organisms is exactly what’s lacking in our microbe-phobic, over-sanitized modern lives. We’re killing the microbial diversity that we’ve evolved with and seem to need for our well-being. Asthma and allergy, for example, are lower in farming communities than in urban areas, as farm children get exposed to a diversity of bacterial species through their interaction with animals and farm dirt. These very bacterial and fungal organisms promote a healthy immunological response.  

As Maya Sherat-Klein writes in The Dirt Cure, “It turns out that all the things that are messy and dirty in the world, the very things we thought we needed to control and even eliminate to stay alive, are actually the very elements necessary for robust health.”

So go ahead. Get your hands in the dirt and let your kids play in it too. Glove-free digging, handling compost, saying hello to the occasional earthworm — and above all, eating the fresh, not-obsessively-scrubbed garden produce — may be one of the best things you can do for your health. Unlike with pharmaceutical anti-depressants, gardening has no side effects. Warning: it may be highly addictive though!

I think it’s an addiction we can say yes to. Not only can gardening act as an anti-depressant, but it results in fresh, healthy, nutritious food, which also tends to correlate with overall well-being.