The holidays are here again. In preparation for writing these holiday stress management tips, I consulted with my 100-year-old grandmother who reminded me that Christmas celebrations used to begin only a few weeks before Christmas. The preparations involved baking and cooking with family and neighbors and making arrangements for the meals. It was a time for reminiscing and visiting with old friends and extended families, it was filled with traditions. The focus was on food and not gifts.
In my mother’s generation, the festivities began a week or so after Thanksgiving with a blend of cooking and shopping. Today, we can often begin to see the first signs of Christmas decorations and preparations beginning sometime after the Fourth of July. Ok, maybe not quite that early but just let the air chill down and thoughts of sugar plums and Santa begin for many retailers. Now, I must admit that I am a bit of a Christmas enthusiast and have genetically passed this on to my children. So I have no real objections to the early preparation for the holidays but I do acknowledge that prolonging the holiday can inflate our expectations, increase our sadness and worry and for many create months of stress.
To survive and even enjoy the holidays here are a few thoughts:
Throw Perfection Out The Window
If you expect perfection, this is what will probably happen—-The turkey will be dry, the extended family will fight (even if only in a passive aggressive manner), some or most of the gifts will need to be returned (you will have failed), the holiday cards may not make it to the mail until February (then they can be a valentine greeting) and the fears over money will keep you awake at night. Try lowering your expectations of yourself and others. Examine what is realistic. If you anticipate your mother in law will comment on the dry turkey, prepare yourself and laugh inside (inside only) at how predictable she can be and how smart you were to know the comment was coming. Look around and find the moments that feel perfect for you. Perhaps, Uncle Joe’s face when he bites into your famous apple pie or the smiles of those enjoying each other’s company. Perfection exists only in moments. Find yours this holiday season and savor it.
Examine What You Need and Want from the Holidays
When you hear that the holidays are fast approaching, do you find yourself taking a deep breath, your thoughts turn to dread and your body becomes filled with tension? If yes, then it is time to examine what you enjoy from the holidays. I am quite certain that as a child most of you did not cross days off the calendar because you were dreading what was approaching. Examine your memories and ask yourself what part of the holidays is most meaningful to you. Is it finding the right gift for somebody? Is it enjoying the twinkling lights near a cozy fire in your home? Is it the opportunity to spend time with friends and family? Find it and focus on it! Dismiss the activities and thoughts that start with I SHOULD and do the things that start with I WANT… If you are thinking I should wrap gifts but I want to bake cookies. BAKE THE COOKIES!!
Stay Organized and Simplify
Realistically, there are often many things to do to prepare and enjoy the holidays. This is a time more than any that it is important to be organized and simplify your tasks. Make a list. However, if there are more than 5 items on the list throw it away and start a new—more realistic list. A smaller list is more likely to focus on the absolute most important things to accomplish and is more likely to be completed. A longer list usually reflects our perfection needs, our ongoing internal monologue of things we need to do and the belief that a long list reflects how important and busy we are. Find short cuts to shopping, cooking, and baking and entertaining—it’s easy. The difficulty is in giving yourself permission to use them. Remember that the best gift you may be able to give this year, to yourself and others, is time. It will be easier to use the shortcuts if you remember that the reward is extra time that you can use to make yourself and others happy.
When you reflect on your memories from the past, many of them may involve family traditions. Traditions keep us anchored to our past; they give us a sense of connection, of uniqueness and of belonging. The holidays are often a time of reflection. For some it brings happy memories and for some it creates feelings of sadness and grief. However, many have shared with me that whether they rely on traditions from the past or have developed their own traditions, having them makes the holidays feel balanced. Traditions that are our own helps us stay grounded and focused on what matters. In our home, we hold to a family tradition on Christmas Eve where we eat only fish and white spaghetti and we break and share bread that has been blessed. As a child, a hated the meal (seven different kinds of fish—yuck), but today I recognize the power of this meal as we now have 5 generations who share in this holiday tradition. We use it as an opportunity to reflect on those you are gone and share stories with the younger generations about their past.
You may have silly or spiritual routines surrounding your holidays. Embrace them, embellish them and pass them on to the generations. Many gifts will not be remembered and the content of the family fighting will often be forgotten, but the traditions and memories that you create will be remembered and cherished.
Find Fun, Make Fun & Have Fun
The holidays should be approached as you would a vacation not a job. Time around the holidays should be embraced as you would a holiday. Making cookies on a Monday night and going to a movie on a Wednesday or stopping by to see a friend or family member on a Saturday afternoon. When we are on vacation we are flexible not as scheduled and we use our time for fun activities not things we “have to do” .Try approaching the holidays with this mind set. Remember that the holidays should not be limited to one or two days. This contributes to stress. Trying to decide whose house you will go to, who will be invited, who will be mad, and how will we find time for everyone adds to the feeling of stress. Use your calendar wisely. Christmas can be celebrated on December 26th or 27th—Santa is often flexible. Remember if the holidays are only about obligations, family battles, spending too much, eating too much and feeling stressed then you forgot how to have fun. If you need an incentive to have fun, please note that research has found that laughter really does reduce stress and protect our cardiovascular system. SCHEDULE THE FUN. MAKE IT A PRIORITY.
We all know about that “let down” feeling after the holidays. There is all the build up and excitement and then disappointment, regrets and bills become our new reality. However, those who made opportunities for giving to others during the holiday season report feeling less overwhelmed and disappointed by the holidays. True philanthropy is not about writing a check from your excess funds so you can have a tax write off. It is about giving of your time, your voice, your compassion and your resources. When we focusing our thoughts and actions on others, our mood tends to improve, we feel more hopeful and optimistic and less disappointed.
We are all moved by stories of need and inequities in our communities and our world and then we justify our lack of action. We remind ourselves that we don’t have time to volunteer or that we have so few resources of our own that we can’t afford to give to others. While much of that may be true, I would like to challenge each of you this holiday season to think about giving and how it may enrich your lives and the gift of a “tradition for giving” that you will give to your family.