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How to Prepare for a Stress-Free Christmas Holiday Season

By Michael Lewis

christmas morningMaybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.

The thoughts of the Grinch as he puzzled over the meaning of Christmas in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” are worth pondering in the coming season of excess, expectations, and exchange. Scholars trace the beginnings of  Christmas to the winter solstice of Scandinavia, celebrated in early Rome as Saturnalia for the God of Agriculture, and by Christians as the birth of Jesus Christ. It was considered to be decadent by early Puritans, and was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. It was finally declared an American holiday by President Ulysses S. Grant on June 28, 1870, along with New Year’s Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving.

According to the National Retail Federation, the Christmas holiday season represents 20% to 40% of annual sales for many retailers, netting more than $563 billion in 2011. China, the new “North Pole” for America, is the country’s largest supplier of Christmas tree ornaments, artificial trees , and toys. The busiest travel week of the year for airline travel is at Christmas, even though 88.6% of those traveling go by automobile. More than 19 billion cards, letters, and packages are delivered by the U.S. Postal Service in the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Americans love Christmas – and the 50% of people who actually budget for Christmas will invariably spend more than originally planned.

Take Steps to Prevent Stress

As much as we love Christmas, it is a period of abnormal stress. According to the American Psychological Association, as many as 69% of people are stressed by a “lack of time, money, and/or the pressure to give or get gifts.” Divorce filings are higher in January than for any other month, and you are 5% more likely to suffer a heart attack during the Christmas season than at any other time. Enjoying the season is more likely if you lower your expectations, spend more time to prepare, and “go with the flow.” Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take to achieve these goals:

1. Determine Whether to Keep or Discard Family Traditions
Continuing family traditions links us to the past, particularly the carefree days of our childhood when Santa Claus was real and Christmas morning was the most exciting day of the year. Most families have holiday traditions, some simple and others quite elaborate.

Whatever your family practices during the season, if what was done in the past doesn’t work today, stop or change the practice. Just because something is traditional is no reason to keep doing it.

2. Establish a Budget
More than one-half of Americans don’t budget for Christmas. The families who do budget expect to spend $750 on gifts in 2012, or $271 on average per child, slightly higher than what was spent in 2011.

While keeping your spending within the constraints of a Christmas budget can be difficult, it is much easier than coping with months of debt repayments in 2013 to buy gifts that may end up being sold on eBay in January. The stress accompanying the debt can be avoided by realistically considering your current financial circumstances and future needs, settling on an amount you can comfortably afford, and staying within that limit.

3. Maintain a Schedule
Many families have two working spouses; single parents often work two or more jobs to make ends meet. The demands of preparing for the holidays on top of a normal work week can be overwhelming for most people. Generally, the excitement of the season and the anticipation of a perfect Christmas will inspire you to draw down energy reserves to get things done, usually by giving up leisure time and sleep. Hopefully, the inevitable crash will occur after the gifts are open, the guests are fed, and visitors leave – but not always.

Everyone remembers a meltdown or two during Christmas. Scheduling some downtime every day and week is important to save your sanity and enjoy the company of your loved ones.

celebrating

Plan the Perfect Holiday

It’s important to remember that there is more to Christmas than the giving and receiving of gifts – there are decorations to be made and hung, food to be prepared and served, and homes to be cleaned for guests. However, if you can stay within your budget and set aside sufficient time to complete all these tasks, you and your guests will delight in a stress-free and memorable holiday.

Gifts

The bulk of time and money spent each Christmas revolves around gifts – choosing, buying, and wrapping presents for those we love. This year, consider the following:

  • A Family Gift Exchange. As families get larger, the costs of buying gifts can be a financial burden. To reduce costs and the time spent shopping, establish a dollar limit for the individual gifts, as well as any other desired criteria (for example, only clothes, toys, books, and gift cards).
  • Gift Cards. Gift cards allow the receiver to pick his or her perfect gift. In fact, more than 77% of shoppers gifted cards in 2011. Most retailers offer their own, and also accept gift cards issued by major credit card companies, which can be combined to purchase more expensive items. However, when choosing a gift card, be aware that some may charge inactivity fees after one year if the card isn’t used.
  • Internet Shopping. Shopping online is faster, often cheaper, and far more convenient than visiting brick-and-mortar stores. It is easy to compare prices, gift wrapping is often available, and your purchase can be delivered wherever you choose. Most Internet retailers also guarantee delivery by a certain date.
  • Price Comparison Apps. Shopping apps enable in-store price comparisons and an easy way to verify and obtain discount coupons to save more money. Consider free apps, such as Price Check for Android devices and Google Shopper for the iPhone.
  • Personalized, Inexpensive Gifts. These are unique and meaningful. For example, the small illustrated book “I Like You” with a personal note to a family member, business associate, or friend will be cherished and kept for a lifetime. A letter to a friend recalling a special time together or simply telling a loved one how much they mean to you will be remembered for years and always appreciated.
  • Paid Gift Wrapping. Paying to have your gifts wrapped can save you time as well as money spent on excess wrapping paper, tape, bows, and gift cards. Many retailers offer an in-house service and include free gift wrapping with each purchase. Professional gift wrappers charge a different rate for different sizes of packages, which can run as low as $5.
  • Charitable Donations. Making donations to charity in lieu of buying and receiving gifts can make you feel good, and it teaches your children the joy of giving while helping those less fortunate. Consider Alternative Gifts International, where $45 feeds an American family of five for a week; Heifer International, which provides domestic animals, such as cows, sheep, goats, and chickens to poor families around the world; or Kiva, which makes micro-loans to third world entrepreneurs.

If your holiday includes children, involve them in the gifting process so they can learn how much better it feels to give than to receive. Take them shopping to buy inexpensive Christmas gifts that they can wrap themselves. Let them print their names on the gift cards and pass out the presents they’ve purchased and wrapped.

gifts

Decorations & Cards

Decorations can be as simple as a single wreath on the front door, to rivers of shining, multicolored lights, animated figures, and revolving displays. They can be erected during a single evening, or take months of painstaking deliberation, meticulous preparation, and days of elaborate construction.

If you tend to take the minimalist approach or your time and budget are limited, consider these ideas:

  • An Artificial Tree. While your initial expense may be greater than a real tree, artificial trees can be stored and reused for years. Available in a variety of heights, flame-proof, and often pre-decorated, the newer artificial trees are almost indistinguishable from a real fir or pine, missing only the aroma. They are easily erected and dismantled without the need to vacuum dry needles from the floor, and they don’t choke landfills.
  • Ornaments. The appearance of an ornament is less important than its meaning or the memories associated with it. My favorite is a bedraggled, yellowed angel with a missing halo for the top of our tree which I inherited and still reminds me of my earliest Christmases. Children are exceptionally creative and, given the opportunity, will envelop a tree with homemade decorations and chains, each more treasured as the years fly by.
  • Greeting Cards and Annual Letters. The practice of sending tens or hundreds of seasonal greeting cards is observed less and less each year, particularly those which are mass printed and signed. Few recipients do more than glance at a card, note the identity of the sender, and mentally add another name to their own list of cards to be given in return. Sending non-personal, generic cards to a group of near strangers is not worth the effort or expense. Mass-mailing eCards is even more inane and may be viewed negatively by the receiver. On the other hand, a personal note and a signature on a unique card or a letter chronicling family/personal events of the previous year mailed to family and friends is a custom that will never go out of style. It is also a chore that can be done prior to the beginning of the multiple duties required during the Christmas season.

decorations

Food

While turkey is now the most common dish served during Christmas Day dinners around the world (replacing Tiny Tim’s roasted goose), fried chicken, ham, and fish remain popular. Our childhood memories of Christmases past often include aromatic, mouthwatering, belly-filling, belt-busting meals of savory meats, fresh vegetables, and sugary, meringue-topped desserts, but rarely the hours of exhaustive preparation, mounds of dirty pots and pans, and obligatory cleanup by those responsible for our repasts.

Try the following to save time in the kitchen this year:

  • Bake and Freeze in Advance. Rolls, coffee cakes, muffins, and breads can be made, shaped, placed in pans, and frozen up to six months before serving. Unbaked pies and cookies can be prepared up to two months before a meal. Appetizers and casseroles taste just as delicious even if they have been frozen for months. Spreading your food preparation over several weekends before the crunch of the season can help to keep you sane and rested.
  • Use Professionals. Many grocery stores and restaurants offer holiday specials where complete meals are delivered or can be picked up the day before Christmas, so your only duty is to pop them in the oven and serve. The ability to choose à la carte allows for a selection of not only different foods, but different caterers.
  • Share Cooking and Cleaning Duties. To spread the workload around, one member of the family can bring appetizers, another can supply a vegetable dish, and another can provide dessert, already agreed to beforehand to ensure everyone’s favorites will be available. Cleanup is also shared – those who eat but don’t cook must clean.

christmas dinner

Home

Preparing a home for a family gathering can be time-consuming and nerve-wracking, especially considering all of the other pressures of the season. Even those who are willing to live most of the year in casual disarray often go over the top in cleaning when parents and siblings are visiting. Such standards are hard to maintain when children are part of the family unit.

If your expectations for a clean home exceed the likelihood of being able to provide it, consider changing your routine:

  • Hire a Cleaning Service. A single day of heavy cleaning can work wonders – even if it is expensive, consider the service to be a present to yourself.
  • Send Overnight Guests to a Hotel. Most people don’t have houses large enough to accommodate extra people without some sacrifice by the people already in the home. Some guests might feel like they’re imposing, while others just enjoy a few quiet moments away from the festivities. Locate a hotel near your home where they can stay and let potential guests know that while their presence is welcome 24/7, it is not mandatory.
  • Move the Festivities. Young families often get into the habit of visiting their parents’ home year after year for the holidays. However, when the parents are no longer around, the young families are left with no traditions of their own. Consider changing your holiday destination to a different family member’s home each year to emphasize the family unit, not the locale. This then results in all family members sharing the burden of preparing for, hosting, and cleaning up after holiday gatherings.

fire in the fireplace

Final Word

The holiday season provides the opportunity to spend precious time with family and recall former joys of past years when you were just a participant, not a preparer or presenter of the event. Christmas is special, but it is also a hassle, particularly for those who bear the brunt of the duties.

The theme of the holidays is selflessness – giving of oneself to others – but selfishness has a place at the table too. You have the right to enjoy your Christmas as much as any of your guests.

What other methods do you use to alleviate stress during the holidays?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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