Are your holidays and family gatherings stressful and often disappointing? If so, it’s time to try something new. Using the holidays to confront family members in yet another annual sparring match is a certain recipe for a less-than-jolly holiday season.
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 With Your Family
1. Figure Out Your Ideal Holiday
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 families get together, members are expected to conform to their old roles based on birth order, gender, family rules, and rituals. But 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 parents 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 determining what you want from the experience. What’s 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 on 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 do you want to change, and which traditions would you rather discard? Recognize the changes that have occurred in your life and other family members’ lives, and adjust your expectations accordingly.
A common cause of holiday stress is feeling overwhelmed. In addition to your normal work schedule, you must shop for gifts, make and send holiday greetings, attend a plethora of seasonal parties, and travel or host a holiday meal.
Prioritizing your goals and setting aside time for them in advance can reduce your anxiety and restore a feeling of control that may have been missing in previous holidays. Use your time wisely by doing only those things you enjoy and eliminating or substituting tasks you dislike or find boring.
Other ways to simplify your to-dos so you can get into the holiday spirit include the following.
Online shopping is more convenient – and often more affordable – than in-store shopping. You can avoid crowds and the temptation to overspend. You can often have your online purchases gift-wrapped and sent directly to out-of-town recipients.
Use a Professional Assembly 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 spend a few more dollars, you’ll also avoid frustration, family strife, and busted knuckles.
Give Experiences and Gift Cards
In today’s society of plenty, it’s difficult to find a special or unique gift for everyone. Rather than purchasing something that will be little used and quickly forgotten, consider giving 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 tastes of a work colleague or secret Santa, give them a gift card and the opportunity to buy whatever pleases them.
Pare Down on Decorations
If you enjoy stringing garlands from pillar to post, creating stunning lighting displays, and installing colorful reindeer on your roof, continue reveling in these traditions. But if you view holiday decorating as just another task to get through, eliminate the frills and extras you’ve been accumulating over the years.
Dressing a ceiling-high tree or setting out complete ceramic villages 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. If it isn’t, do away with it.
Limit 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 truly want to attend before accepting it. 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 you’d rather spend your time elsewhere, send your host a note expressing your regrets and including good wishes for the season, and go about your other plans guilt-free. With so much going on over the holidays, hosts will understand if you don’t attend.
In many cases, the responsibility for preparing and serving a holiday meal falls upon a single person or subset of the family. As a consequence, these family members spend their holidays running between the kitchen and the dining room table rather than enjoying the meal.
If meal preparation, cooking, and cleaning require the bulk of someone’s time on a special day, consider going to a restaurant or ordering out instead.
Or you can simply spread the work around via a potluck. One sibling brings salads, others bring special side dishes and desserts, and 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 considering the consequences.
According to the Calorie Control Council, the average American may consume over 4,500 calories and 229 grams of fat during a typical holiday meal – the equivalent of 2.25 times the average daily calories the most people require. To make up for this, consider reducing your calorie intake for a few days before and after the holiday.
When it comes to parties and meals, go for low-fat alternatives, such as raw veggies and hummus or fruit for appetizers. Avoid casseroles as much as possible, and use substitutes like fat-free milk in recipes when possible.
If you still want to eat the dishes you love, reduce your portions and consider a family walk between the main course and dessert.
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.
Also, since alcohol is a diuretic, you can become dehydrated when drinking it. According to the Mayo Clinic, some authorities claim hangovers are the result of dehydration. So be sure to drink plenty of water.
While drinking too much may make you feel ill for days, overspending can hurt you for months. Create a holiday budget in advance to impose a limit on overall expenses, and use cash or debit cards rather than credit cards to avoid interest charges.
Instead of buying gifts for everyone in the extended family, set up a family gift exchange where each member purchases one gift with a maximum amount per gift for the family member whose name they draw out of a hat.
Rather than trying to fulfill 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 rather than the present itself.
4. Accept That Things Won’t Be Perfect
Any parent who’s been through a child’s first experience on the lap of a department store Santa knows that plans for a perfect holiday are often derailed. Nevertheless, we tend to compare ourselves with idealized notions of perfect families and perfect holidays.
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. 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. Reconciliation can be a long, difficult process.
Consider forgiving past wrongs, and accept that while you can’t control others, you can control yourself. Letting go of ill-will toward those who hurt you can lead to personal happiness, better health, and greater psychological well-being, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Remember that forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting, condoning, or excusing a wrong. It’s a decision to cease being a victim and move forward with your life.
If you have a family member you just don’t get along with, avoid them if possible. If you can’t, remember that you control how you react. Recognize your triggers and avoid getting into a tit-for-tat confrontation. An emotional reaction invariably escalates a conflict, so don’t get roped into one. 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.
5. Take Care of Yourself
It’s easy to become physically and emotionally exhausted during the holidays, especially when you’re focused on others, not yourself. Keeping up with work and merry-making often makes us sleep-starved and run-down.
In addition, our immune systems are weaker during the winter months. And holiday travel on crowded buses, trains, and planes exposes us to more respiratory viruses than usual. As a consequence, your 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 throughout 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.
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 Grandma’s house, start your own family tradition by celebrating at home. If your normal stay at your relatives’ house is three to four days long, cut it to two days. Allow yourself time to enjoy the season.
The holidays are an annual opportunity to rekindle feelings of family togetherness and recall precious childhood memories and the innocence of years gone by. Follow these tips to keep the holiday stress at bay and enjoy this special time of year with your loved ones.
Do you struggle with family holidays? What do you do to reduce stress and conflict?