How to Simply Organize the Holiday Season and Preserve Holiday Memories and Traditions

How to simply organize and preserve holiday memories - from Catherine Saunders

I love the holidays. They're a time to celebrate with friends and family, gather around the table, establish new traditions, and make a lot of memories.

But it all takes a lot of work for us Moms.

In this post I'm sharing the why, what, and how behind my favorite tool for organizing and preserving holiday memories - no photos required.

For the last several years, I've stuffed the recipes, notes, lists, and to-dos for this season in a simple binder.

Beyond merely a tool to help organize the season, our holiday binder has become a way to preserve some of our most significant holiday memories.

You probably have what you need to put this together lying around the house, and a few minutes spent assembling this binder may save you lots of time when you're up to your eyeballs in wrapping paper.

Let's get started.

How to simply organize and preserve holiday memories - from Catherine Saunders

A Modern Holiday

Making and keeping memories

Most of us make a lot of memories during the holiday season.

We gather with friends, travel to see family, exchange gifts, cook and bake and attend school performances.

We snap photos of the kids all dressed up or opening gifts. We capture the results of all of our hard work and planning.

The holidays are an intense time of memory-making, but our memory-keeping doesn't always reflect the realities of the season. 

How do you spend the bulk of the holiday season?

Dressed to the nines, sipping champagne, and engaging in merriment? Good for you! Sounds festive and fun (and nothing like my holiday season!).

Maybe your season looks more like mine.

I'm responsible for a lot of our family's holiday "stuff," like gifts, travel arrangements, and get-togethers with friends and family.

I love the fullness of the holiday season, but it's not really reflected in our photos from Christmas Eve, when we're dressed up, the tables are set, and we're enjoying a beautiful meal with family and friends.

The realities of the season aren't really reflected in our Christmas morning photos, either. 

I love giving and receiving gifts, and those high moments are definitely part of the season, but those moments aren't what makes up the entirety of the season for our family.

And honestly, the end of the season almost always produces a bit of a let-down for me. After weeks of planning and preparation it's over - poof! - in a flurry of paper and pajamas and presents.

There's a lot more to that season than a few days of celebration.

The reality of the holidays

Over the years, I've tried to simplify the holiday season, but that sometimes feels like a futile endeavor.

Don't get me wrong: I adore this time of year. It's just an intense time of both fun and to-dos.

I make a lot of lists during November and December to keep track of what I hope to get done: gift ideas, grocery lists, meal-planning, wish lists for the kids, and so on.

And I spend a lot of the holidays working in various capacities to get stuff done: shopping online, booking travel, cooking, baking, and decorating the house.

Most years we host Thanksgiving with family and/or friends, which I love, but most of my memories of Thanksgiving are all the prep that leads to the actual celebration. 

I enjoy it, but when I look back at the photos from this time of year, all I see is the completed package, not the process. 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t take photos of my kitchen mess as I cook for Thanksgiving or snap pics of the kids’ gifts hidden in my closet - nor do I want to.

However, those activities, the ones that aren’t necessarily photo-worthy, comprise the majority of many Moms' holiday seasons.

So how do we preserve these everyday memories? And are these memories worth preserving at all?

My answers to those questions are "simply" and "yes." Read on.

How to simply organize and preserve holiday memories - from Catherine Saunders

Many Forms of Memory-Keeping

Memory-keeping can take a lot of different forms, beyond photos.

I’ll bet that even if you haven’t printed a photo in decades, you’re still engaging in some form memory-keeping, whether you realize it or not.

Think of the things you value from your kids, parents or grandparents, even great-grandparents.

I treasure my Dad’s letters and his military gear, neither of which are contained in a photo album, but all of which are preserved for us to enjoy.

My older sister has all of her Mom’s beautiful handmade quilts, which she stores in a special cabinet and uses around her home.

One of my most significant memories of my Mom will be her recipes, passed down to us simply by spending time in the kitchen with her and the other women in our family over the years, preparing our family's signature meals.

Photos can definitely transport us back to a moment, but memories also reside in everyday objects we use time and time again, year after year.

In this post I’m sharing a simple way to both organize and preserve some of your holiday memories and traditions for years to come - no photos necessary.

How to simply organize and preserve holiday memories - from Catherine Saunders

The Holiday Binder

Several years ago, my Mom sent me a link to FlyLady, a lovely woman from the American South who had a mailing list and a really basic website dedicated to simplifying routines around the house.

One of my favorite things FlyLady does during the year is a holiday prep series, which changed my approach to the holidays when I first implemented it.

One of her recommendations is to create a holiday binder, which I did seven years ago.

I haven't always walked through her entire holiday prep series, but that simple binder is now one of my favorite holiday traditions.

I keep it in our office or on a bookshelf, and find that I pull it out into the kitchen when I start planning for Thanksgiving. It lives on our counter until right after Christmas.

What is a holiday binder?

You may already have something like this in your house, but the concept is really simple. 

Our holiday binder is a three-ring binder that houses all of our holiday “stuff," like recipes, receipts, lists, and the like.

Mine used to be somewhat organized, but now, to be honest, it’s kind of a disaster.

I tuck recipes, lists, and notes in our binder. I used to think of it as just as a place to corral those things I reference every year.

But when I stumbled across a handwritten note my Mom had tucked into one of the recipes years ago, I realized this binder truly is a piece of memory-keeping.

How to simply organize and preserve holiday memories - from Catherine Saunders

Beyond merely a tool to help organize the season, our holiday binder has become a way to preserve some of our most significant holiday memories.

What goes in a holiday binder?

The short answer is this: anything you'd like to keep track of during the holiday season or reference back in years to come.

Yours will look different from mine, and hopefully less of a tragic mess, but I'll share the details of my binder to spark some ideas.

I hope you'll also get that this isn't meant to be some kind of coffee-table book.

I assure you mine is not pretty or organized (although I wish it was, and maybe I'll work on it before the next holiday season).

It's stained with the remnants of Thanksgiving dinner prep and filled with my least-lovely handwriting.

This is a simple, practical, workhorse-type of memory-keeping project.

What's in my holiday binder?

I keep all the nuts and bolts of our holiday season in my binder: my Thanksgiving recipes, gift lists, wish lists, receipts, order numbers, shopping lists, and notes.

Our old holiday-specific recipes live in plastic page protectors in this binder.

It's so well-worn that I know exactly which page to flip to if I need to reference our pumpkin soup recipe or the Thanksgiving shopping list I wrote years ago, which I still use to this day.

On recipes, I've sometimes jotted down the first year we made it or some other note about how we modified it over the years.

I punch holes in plain white paper and keep lists from past years or meal plans for long family weekends, and I try to date those pages so I know which year I created them.

I have notes from my Mom tucked into the page protectors.

I also have gift lists from the years when I've been particularly intentional about making them.

Over the years, all of these little bits of our holiday seasons have accumulated to form this messy, chicken broth-stained artifact.

How to simply organize and preserve holiday memories 7.jpg

Your Holiday Binder

Assembling your holiday binder

Keep it simple

I’d keep it really simple and do what you need to do so this fits your holiday and organization needs. 

For example, we usually travel at Christmas and host Thanksgiving, so that informs how mine used to be organized. Ha!

This year, I wanted to make sure I covered everyone in our family for gifts, so I kept detailed records of orders and shipping and all of that since last year I just totally dropped the ball because of our crazy travel schedule.

Consider what your season looks like and gather what will help you next year.


The format can be whatever works for you, but if you want some direction, I'd start with

  • 3-ring binder
  • Set of five dividers
  • A few page protectors to hold recipes, notes, or receipts
  • Some plain or lined paper, hole-punched


Divide the binder into sections so you can easily keep track of what matters to you.

Some ideas for your sections might be

  • Gifts
  • Cooking
  • Baking
  • Decorating
  • Travel
  • To Do Lists
  • Receipts
  • Thanksgiving
  • Christmas / Hannukah
  • Traditions

How to organize the contents

I would keep the sections of your binder based on topic rather than year and just add to the front of each section for each year.

For example, if you have a "gifts" tab, put this year's gift list on top of last year's list.

That way, when you flip to the "gifts" tab, you'll see your gift lists and receipts for each year, from most recent to oldest.

This is also helpful if you can't remember what you got someone last year or what you served for dinner the previous year. It's right there at the front of that section.

The benefits of a holiday binder boil down to several things I value: practicality, simplicity, and history.

Benefits of a holiday binder

I love being able to reference practical information while at the same time be reminded of what really matters to us, particularly at a crazy busy time of year.

When I see notes from Mom or gifts we bought for my sisters, I'm reminded how blessed we are to have a family we love and how great it's been to spend time together over the years.

How to simply organize and preserve holiday memories - from Catherine Saunders

Reflecting on past years gives me the warm-fuzzies. It fills me with gratitude.

Your memories matter

Sound like too much? 

Think about your past holiday seasons. Surely there were some when you did something new, or started a new tradition.

Maybe there's one you can look back on as the last season with a loved one.

Perhaps you spent a season away from family, which may have been challenging.

The holidays can tend to blend together in our memories, but in reality each season is its own. If we don't document them in any way, we won't have a way to recall those memories that made specific years particularly special.

But wait - before you think I'm advocating documenting every detail of every year, let me assure you I'm not.

There are years when I just used this binder and didn't add one thing to it. 

But in years when we something kind of set that season apart, I did add a new recipe or jot down a few lists and notes that take me right back to that memory when I come across them on my way to our turkey brine recipe.

As I look back at dated recipes or shopping lists, I'm reminded of those specific years - where we celebrated, with whom, what we ate and did.

And as I flip through those informal artifacts, it fills me with gratitude for those people in my life who have my back, who love me, and who are there for me, no matter where we live in the world.

The ability to recall and reflect on the past matters to me because I'm a big believer in the importance of history, especially our personal and family histories.

History gives us perspective, and perspective can positively impact how we view our present lives.

When we reflect on the past and see how far we've come, how much we've grown and learned, how much our circumstances have changed, we're reminded of the importance of both blessing and struggle.

I believe they're both integral to shaping who we become, to refining our character.

That may sound like a bridge too far to you, but as a former history teacher, I can tell you I mean every word.

How to simply organize and preserve holiday memories - from Catherine Saunders

Continuing an imperfect tradition

So, my holiday binder is kind of a mess. I've had it for seven years, some of the pages are falling out, there’s no rhyme or reason to it anymore.

The tabs are more like "suggestions" for organization.

And maybe I'll clean it up a bit before the next holiday season is upon us.

That said, I absolutely treasure this little piece of memorabilia.

It's practical and helpful every year, and over the years I can flip through the pages and recall those holiday memories that don't necessarily make it to my camera roll.

I'm determined to continue adding to our binder each year, maybe not perfectly, maybe not in the greatest handwriting, maybe not in the way I'd hope.

But if you're old enough to remember the second Bush presidency, you're old enough to know that the years fly by, and before you know it a decade has come and gone. 

You'll be so glad you hung onto a few of these bits of memory, if even just to help organize one of the more hectic times of the year.

I hope you'll consider preserving a few of your holiday memories in a really simple way.

What holiday traditions do you observe and/or preserve?

Let me know over on Instagram or Facebook. I’d love to hear from you!

xo, Catherine

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