If your holidays and family gatherings are stressful and often disappointing, it is time to try something new. Using the holidays to confront family members in yet another annual sparring match is a certain recipe for a ruined celebration.
Instead, look at the holiday season as an opportunity to make peace with estranged family members, experiment with low-stress celebrations, and put yourself and those you care most about first. Try employing the following tips to help you reduce stress and enjoy the festivities more than you have in years past.
How to Better Enjoy the Holidays
1. Establish Your Priorities
Trying to satisfy the expectations of parents, siblings, or children during the holidays can overwhelm anybody. Selecting gifts, decorating, preparing food, and planning travel are physically and emotionally exhausting. Often, when the family gets together, members are expected to conform to their old roles based on birth order, gender, family rules, and rituals, ensuring that the holidays are “like they are supposed to be.”
According to Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “We tend to compare ourselves with these idealized notions of perfect families and perfect holidays.” As a consequence, the pressure to go along, rather than rock the boat, triggers resentment and conflict.
When your holidays become a time of guilt, anger, and regret, it is time to change the dynamics. Neither you nor your family are the same people who established your early roles and traditions.
Changes are inevitable in every family. Children grow up and become parents. Healthy, independent people age and become dependent. Siblings move across the country, pursue different careers, and develop different values. These changes require a new perspective and the evolution or replacement of the rituals and relationships that may have been satisfying in the past but are no longer appropriate.
The first step to a happy holiday is to determine what you want from the experience. What is important to you? What are your priorities for the season? Give up on the idea of a perfect family, perfect environment, and perfect gifts. These goals depend upon others whom you cannot control.
Consider what you want from the holidays, not what others want from you. Which traditions are important to you, which traditions should be changed, and which traditions should be discarded? Recognize the changes that have occurred in your life and other family members, and adjust your expectations accordingly.
2. Plan Your Activities
A common cause of stress during the holidays is the sense of being out of control. The normal demands of the year’s end are exaggerated by new tasks and approaching deadlines. In addition to their normal work schedules, family members must cope with shopping for gifts, making and sending holiday greetings, attending a plethora of seasonal parties, cooking special meals, and traveling or hosting a holiday meal.
In the haste of trying to accomplish it all, some things are inevitably overlooked or shortchanged, creating a crisis and more pressure as the holiday deadline nears. Scheduling your time to accomplish prioritized goals can reduce your anxiety and restore a feeling of control that may have been missing in previous holidays. Use your time wisely by doing those things you enjoy and eliminating or substituting tasks that you dislike or that bore you.
Tips to save time and get into the holiday spirit include the following:
- Shopping Online. The variety of choice is similar to in-store offerings, and prices are often lower. Plus, online shopping is more convenient. You can avoid crowds and the temptation to overspend. Gift wrapping is often available, and gifts can be sent directly to out-of-town recipients.
- Using a Professional Service. Retailers sometimes offer an affiliated service to assemble toys or complex gifts that invariably come with confusing directions and mismatched or missing pieces. While you might miss the opportunity to make a holiday legend, and you might spend a few more dollars, you also avoid frustration, family strife, and busted knuckles.
- Substituting Gift Cards for Non-Personalized Gifts. In today’s society of plenty, it is difficult to find a special or unique gift for everyone. Rather than purchasing something that will be little used and quickly forgotten, give your younger and older recipients an experience, such as tickets to a play or an annual membership to visit the local zoo. And instead of trying to discern the fashion tastes of adult recipients, give them a gift card and the opportunity to buy whatever most pleases them.
- Simplifying Christmas Decorations. If you enjoy stringing Christmas lights from pillar to post, creating stunning lighting displays, and putting pairs of colorful reindeer pulling a sleigh with Santa Claus on your roof, continue your tradition and revel in your creativity. For those who view decorating for the season as just another task that must be done, eliminate the frills and extras that have been unconsciously added over the years. Dressing a ceiling-high tree or setting out complete ceramic villages with miniature trees and artificial snow may be rituals better observed by families with young children than families whose kids are adults. If a tradition is important to everyone, delay its implementation until everyone is present and can participate.
- Limiting Social Events. Parties are an integral part of the holiday season and an opportunity to reinforce old relationships, celebrate accomplishments, and share common interests. At the same time, too many parties can quickly become unwanted, time-consuming obligations to be endured, rather than enjoyed. Furthermore, they tempt us to overindulge in food and drink. When you receive a party invitation, consider whether you want to attend before accepting. Do you have the time? Will you be around people you enjoy and who accept you as you are? Will your other obligations, especially to family, be affected? If you decide that you had rather spend your time elsewhere, send your host a note expressing your regrets and including well wishes for the season and go about your other plans without guilt.
- Sharing Responsibilities. In many cases, the responsibility for preparing and serving a holiday meal falls upon a single person or a subset of the family. As a consequence, these family members spend their holidays running between the kitchen and the serving table, being sure that everything is perfectly cooked, and everyone’s special dish is available. If preparation, cooking, and cleaning require the bulk of someone’s time on a special day, consider going to a restaurant or ordering out your meal instead. Or you can simply spread the work around via a potluck: One sibling brings salads and others bring special side dishes and desserts, while the host prepares and serves the entree. Everyone should be involved, including cleaning up afterward.
3. Control Your Excesses
For many, the holidays are the culmination of a year-long journey. As a result, we tend to over-celebrate. We eat too much, drink too much, and spend too much without thinking of the consequences. Moderation is the key to a successful season, free of holiday weight gain, hangovers, and high credit card balances.
- Food. According to the Calorie Control Council, the average American may consume more than 4,500 calories and 229 grams of fat during a typical holiday meal – the equivalent of 2.25 times the average daily calories required by a normal person. Consider reducing your calorie intake for a few days before and after the holiday. If you cook, offer lower-fat alternatives, such as raw veggies and hummus or fruit, for appetizers. Avoid casseroles as much as possible, and use lower calorie alternatives like fat-free milk when possible. You can eat the dishes you want, just reduce your portions. Consider a family walk between the main courses and desserts as well.
- Alcohol. Alternate soft drinks and fruit juices with alcoholic drinks and snacks. Having food in your stomach means alcohol is absorbed and processed much slower. When you feel tipsy, stop drinking until you feel in control. Since alcohol is a diuretic, you can become dehydrated – according to the Mayo Clinic, some authorities claim that hangovers are the result of dehydration – so be sure to drink plenty of water.
- Spending. While drinking too much may make you feel ill for days, overspending can affect you for months. Create a holiday budget before the holidays with a limit on overall expenses. Use cash or debit cards rather than credit cards. Instead of buying gifts for everyone in the extended family, set up a family lottery where each member purchases one gift with a maximum amount per gift for the family member whose name is drawn out of a hat. Rather than trying to fill a child’s complete Christmas list, select one or two major gifts that are special. Remember that children typically love whatever they receive, and don’t care whether gifts are inexpensive or not. Most parents have experienced the toddler who prefers to play with the box of the present rather than the present itself.
4. Have Realistic Expectations
Almost everyone enjoys the myths of Christmas and the perfect endings of Hollywood movies. However, the reality of the occasion for most is more likely to resemble “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” than “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Any parent who has been through a child’s first experience on the lap of a department store Santa Claus knows that plans for a perfect holiday are rarely met. Nevertheless, we tend to compare ourselves with these idealized notions of perfect families and perfect holidays – even though most families experience tension, melancholy, and dry turkey.
Expectations that family rifts and estrangements can be resolved over the holidays may be overly optimistic. Families that live apart but get together for the holidays tend to fall into old patterns and tension, opening past wounds and triggering hurtful memories. Laura Davis, author of “I Thought We’d Never Speak Again,” warns that no one should expect a Hallmark moment just because it’s the holidays. Reconciliation can be a long, difficult process. Claudia Grauf-Grounds, professor of marriage and family therapy at Seattle Pacific University, says reconciliation is learning to “balance connection and separateness. And there’s always tension in that.”
Even when reconciliation is not probable, consider forgiving the person with whom you are estranged. Letting go of your desire for revenge or bearing ill-will toward the person who wronged you can lead to personal happiness, better health, and greater psychological well-being, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While you can’t control others, you can control yourself. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, condoning, or excusing a wrong. It is a decision to cease being a victim and go forward with your life.
5. Take Care of Yourself
It is easy to become physically and emotionally exhausted during the holidays when the emphasis is on others, not yourself. Trying to combine work and preparing for the celebration often means that we become sleep-starved and run-down. In addition, immune systems – the system of cells, tissues, and organs that protect us from infections – become weaker during the winter months. Travel on crowded buses, trains, and planes exposes us to more respiratory viruses than usual. As a consequence, the likelihood of getting the flu or a cold is higher from mid-December to mid-January.
If possible, take a few days off before the holidays and pace yourself through the season, taking preventative measures to protect against colds and the flu. Drink plenty of water and eat fresh fruit and vegetables. Wash your hands frequently and consider getting the flu vaccine. While there is a variety of flu viruses and it is not always possible to perfectly match the vaccine with the virus that might infect you, the Centers for Disease Control notes that the annual vaccines contain protection for the three to four viruses that are expected to be most common.
If your holiday celebrations are especially stressful, consider doing something else this year. Rather than picking up the kids and traveling across the country to Grandmother’s house, start your own family’s tradition by celebrating at home. If your normal stay at your relatives’ house is three to four days, cut it to two days. In other words, if something isn’t working, try something easier.
Sometimes, avoiding a disagreeable family member isn’t possible. In those cases, remember that you control how you feel and react. Recognize your trigger points and avoid getting into a tit-for-tat confrontation. An emotional reaction invariably escalates a conflict – don’t be part of a duel when you have nothing to win and all to lose. Resist the urge to fight by listening and calmly asking questions of your assailant. Note that you respect this person’s feelings without agreeing to spar. If the hostility continues, walk away.
Therese Borchard, associate director of PsychCentral.com, gives an example of an appropriate response to a belligerent comment, such as, “I’ve always guessed that you were an idiot, and you’ve just confirmed that.” Rather than responding angrily, she suggests pausing, then saying, “I’m sorry, I have to run to the restroom, but hold that thought. Or, actually, don’t.”
The holidays present an annual opportunity to rekindle the feelings of family togetherness, precious memories of childhood, and the innocence of a time long ago. We celebrate our victories and commiserate our losses with those who are most important to us.
One chapter in our life closes and another begins. Turning the page brings a new year and new beginnings. As the season draws to a close, remember the words of author C.S. Lewis, writing about the beginning of a new year: “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
Do you struggle with family holidays? What do you do to reduce the stress?