We're expecting our first this winter and this topic has really been on our minds. We both come from really over the top, presenty families and that just doesn't mesh with our lifestyle anymore. But boy I do love the holidays. We kept the things from our families that still mean something to us and cut out the other crap.
To make it feel like the holidays we:
Bring out the hot chocolate and buy those crack them yourselves nuts.
Get a Christmas tree from a local farm, they always have trains and horse rides and things to make it a fun outing. We decorate the tree very simply with nut ornaments, wax snowflakes and such.
Frosted sugar cookies
Christmas music...this in one of my favorite holiday traditions
Watch a few Christmas classic movies
For decorating we bring out the warm, wintry blankets and throw on a holiday table cloth. I also like to get the scraps for wreaths or garlands from the Christmas tree farm to bring in more holiday smell. I also have yet to be able to go a Christmas without a bright red poinsettia.
Go out and look at the Christmas lights.
We also try to do some give back thing, angel kids, food bank, etc to get a real, authentic, warm fuzzy feeling inside =)
We decided to do present limit, we've done this for ourselves since our first Christmas got out of control. Honestly I do wrap a few empty boxes to shove under the tree because it was a little hard for us to see only a couple of presents under there when we had been used to seeing mountains. We don't do Santa so that minimizes stuff. We really wanted to focus on giving one or two nice gifts that will be really enjoyed, are useful, and are of good quality along with a couple of "use them up" gifts (mostly food items in our case). We do stocking, but those again are "use them up" gifts.
To make the holidays more peaceful, we don't try to do any over the top cooking or entertaining because that really seemed to bring out the worst in our families growing up. We do a simple Christmas eve fondue for Dh's heritage and a Christmas morning brunch. We do not spend a lot of time visiting family either since ours live very far away. Trying to fly all over the country or oversees for the holidays really didn't make the holidays enjoyable.
The holiday season for us is about snuggling in for the winter. Putting up a few decorations over a couple of weeks, getting the tree, listening to music. Simple, peaceful and not focused on gifts, but still a time that feels special.