With five kids between the ages of 1 and 11, our house and schedule are regularly chaotic. So when the holidays roll around, I brace myself for the madness that is Christmas plays, classroom parties, work get-togethers and family functions. It seems we sprint our way through Thanksgiving to New Year’s, barely lifting our eyes from our online present shopping to enjoy those precious few days of holiday cheer.

A friend recently asked how we manage it all with our already-busy lives, and I told her the truth — we say no a lot. Meaning, we fight to keep things simple, turn down invitations and only go to one extended family function a day.

It might seem backward to be antisocial during the happiest time of the year, but we disagree. Rushing from event to event does not necessarily mean a good time is guaranteed. In fact, with this many kids, we know it’s highly unlikely. We’d rather stay in, curled up on the couch watching a Christmas movie or baking something festive than brave the cold and crankiness that comes with overtired and overstimulated children. We prioritize the things we want to do most, and the rest we find the courage to turn down.

It’s not easy, and sometimes we question our decisions, but we also want our children growing up with warm memories of our family. I don’t want my kids to look back and remember being busy. I want them to cherish the times we made pies together or played board games. We want them to grow into adults who treasure time with their own families and give their children similar experiences.

Family always comes first for us, but extended family comes at separate times. We love to spend these wonderful days with both sides of our families, but we refuse to rush through those experiences by cramming multiple events into the same day. We’ve made separate traditions with both sides by being flexible and asking our families to do the same.

For instance, we usually spend Thanksgiving with my husband’s family, but the Friday after is a different celebration with my mom. When my brother comes to visit with his family somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we celebrate “Christ-giving” on a random day that works for all of our schedules.

We do the same thing over Christmas and New Year’s, spreading out the meals and time spent with loved ones over different days so that we have the opportunity to focus on the people we’re with. It’s more relaxing this way — and infinitely more enjoyable.

We’ve also trimmed the traditions we do in our nuclear family. We don’t bother with Elf on the Shelf because my kids never really got into it. And although both Zach and I grew up with the tradition of opening one present on Christmas Eve, we’ve found it’s hard to squeeze that in since we’re at his parents’ house on that day.

But we do love and make time to drive around town and look at lights one night. And the evening we decorate the Christmas tree, we enjoy a large charcuterie spread, Christmas music and a movie later that evening. There are others, too, carefully chosen and dearly loved.

We want the holiday season to be full of wonder and joy for our children, but also for us. Slowing down and cutting back has been the best thing for us, and it gives us the best holiday experience in the middle of this crazy life.

Rachel Higginson is a married mom to five kids. She is a New York Times and USA Today best-selling author who has received a Utopia Award for Best Contemporary Romance and Penned Con Award for Best Novella Series. She lives in Omaha.

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