Christmas is ONE WEEK from today, which is… weird. It’s just really weird. This was a strange year for me, and the holidays came up quickly. I had finals for the first time in 20 something years, and Tegan’s play was wrapping up. When those two things were over (the first week of December), life suddenly exhaled and went “whoosh”, and things got quiet again.
And now it’s one week before Christmas.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have REALLY stressed out during some Christmases past. Like, truly, severely stressed out. I held myself to this ridiculous expectation of having to have everything perfect… from the (of course, homemade) advent calendar, to the paper snowflakes, to the photos, to the parties and the light displays and the hot chocolate and the cookie baking and the shopping and the wrapping and the Christmas cards and the new pajamas and the Christmas Eve church services and the big Christmas day spread of food,
and and and and….
And we were going to be happy about it, dammit! It was exhausting. I’m exhausted right now just thinking about it.
A few years ago, I decided that that really wasn’t too fun, and I wasn’t going to stress about it anymore. The first thing that went were the Christmas cards. And you know what? Life went on even though we stopped sending Christmas cards. (The sad thing though is that since we stopped sending cards, we almost completely stopped receiving cards as well… which makes us appreciate the ones we do get all the more).
But we didn’t stop doing everything. In fact, we still actually do a lot of things on the above list. It’s just that we now do them because we want to do them, not because we feel like we have to do them. And it has made all the difference.
Here’s a partial list of some of the things I keep in mind every year to keep the holidays (much) less stressful. I can’t rightly say stress-free, because… well, because life comes with stress sometimes. But the following surely helps.
1. Adjust your expectations. Your house doesn’t really need to be cleaned in every corner to have company over. If it’s stressing you out, skip it! NO ONE WILL JUDGE YOU IF YOU DON’T DUST YOUR CEILING FANS (and if they do, honestly, are they the kind of people you want to be inviting over in the first place?) They came to see you. You don’t HAVE to send Christmas cards. You don’t HAVE to make 87 kinds of cookies. You don’t HAVE to read “Twas The Night Before Christmas” just because it’s Christmas Eve. It’s not going to be perfect. It never is. That’s okay. Let go of whatever’s not serving you. Let yourself off the hook, rid yourself of the need to be perfect, and just enjoy the holiday. If you’re expecting a perfect holiday, with perfectly coiffed children, and perfectly well-behaved pets, and chestnuts happily roasting in an open fire… you’re likely going to be disappointed. Instead, enjoy it for all its beautiful, messy imperfections, no matter how they may unfold.
2. Keep your kids a top priority. This is perhaps the most important thing of all, especially during a time when many parents are finding themselves reacting to stress and/or unusually high energy by controlling, punishing, etc. This is a time when kids need parents who are patient, calm, and looking out for their best interest. Are they getting enough rest? Are they eating nourishing foods? Do they WANT to go to another holiday party? Do they WANT to sit on Santa’s lap? Getting tuned in, staying super connected, and respecting their needs and desires will not only be a great thing for your relationship, but it will also alleviate a lot of the collective holiday related stress.
3. Go with the flow of changing needs and preferences. This was one I had to learn over time, to be sure. At the time of this writing, my kids are 20, 17, 13, and 9. Christmas is different than it was when they were little … and that’s okay too. They’re not interested in the same activities. They’ve outgrown certain traditions. Not taking it personally when they say, “No thanks” to driving around the neighborhood to look at the Christmas lights goes a long way towards lessening your holiday stress. Kids grow, things change, holidays are different. The upside? Kids grow, things change, holidays are different. A new thing for us this year is that the 17 year old offered to cook Christmas dinner (he’s making lasagnas), and the 13 year old offered to bake some of the treats and cookies. Which just means that we get to enjoy them in a whole new way. And that’s really, really cool.
4. Focus on the little things. In a practice that really should continue all year long, enjoy all the fun little things of the holiday! Making the paper snowflakes, decorating the gingerbread house, picking up the special drink from Starbucks, watching the favorite Christmas movie for the 87th time, enjoying hot cocoa made from scratch (or from a canister, if that’s more your style!), just being together. This is the 21st Christmas we’ve had since we’ve had kids, and while we’ve done some pretty cool and big and interesting things during the holidays…. it’s the little moments that I remember the most. Because in reality, they’re really not so little. They’re the important stuff.
5. Simplify your gift-giving. It has taken us a little trial and error, but streamlining our gift-giving has helped a lot in terms of keeping our focus less on just getting a whole bunch of “stuff” and more on picking out the few things that we know someone else will love. Mike and I stopped getting gifts for each other several years ago (though he does break the rule sometimes :)), mainly because we get what we need throughout the year, and we’d rather spend our Christmas money on the kids and/or other people who may need it more than we do. For the kids, we generally do “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.” We’re not super rigid about sticking to it exactly, but it is a great place to start, and it’s made us really think about what we’re getting them. It also feels like it makes each present more meaningful than when we’d get piles and piles of gifts, just to…. get piles and piles of gifts. We do buy for all the nieces and nephews, but for the adults, we do a name drawing for each side of the family, so we only buy for whatever sibling, parent, or inlaw that we’re paired with. Which makes it fun, and easy, and lets us think about something that will be meaningful and enjoyable for that one specific person. Your mileage may vary of course (you do you), but this way has worked well for us, and made gift giving fun again, instead of stressful.
6. Keep only the traditions that are important to you. When Spencer was born, I went a little crazy with the new traditions we “needed” to follow. From the books we’d read, to the movies we’d watch, to the activities we’d do. And because life happens, and things change, and kids grow, I’ve had to accept and realize that not all traditions have to be kept. We did hang on to a couple though. Christmas Eve is always sacred, and has been for the past 20 years. It’s just for our own core little family. We’ve gone to church some years, we’ve stayed in and watched movies some years, we’ve hung out and had carpet picnics some years…. but we’ve always spent it with just us, and if I have to, I pull out full mama bear protection over that Christmas Eve bubble. The kids all exchange presents on Christmas Eve too – they do a name drawing among the siblings, and all really enjoy it. I really, really appreciate Christmas Eve with all six of us, and I know that it’s not something we’ll have forever. We also watch the same movies every year, though not everyone chooses to watch anymore. There are still a couple of cookies that I HAVE to make too (black and whites and Oreo balls are my specialties.) But other than that, we’re …. fluid, and we let the kids lead.
7. Don’t be afraid to say no. Just like with point number 1, there should never be any “have-tos” during the holiday season. You don’t have to go to that party just because you were invited. You don’t have to go caroling. You don’t have to go to that cookie swap or that White Elephant gift exchange. If you and/or your kids are feeling stressed, burnt out, or like you’ve taken on too much, it’s perfectly acceptable (preferable, even!) to politely decline.
8. REST – I PROMISE you that the world won’t come to a standstill if you take an hour or an afternoon or a whole day to drink tea and watch Christmas movies. I promise you that the holidays will still come and go and be perfectly fine and lovely and joyful if you ignore the chores one day. I’d even argue that taking care of yourself and making sure that you rest is every bit as important – if not more so – than anything else on your holiday to-do list. Unless literal LIVES hang in the balance, it’s okay and good and vital to rest, recharge, and take some regular time for yourself…. even during the hustle and bustle of the holidays.
9. Live in the present. One of the lessons I find myself needing to learn over and over again (and have written about several times on my blog) is the importance of living in the present. This is never more applicable than during the busy and stressful seasons of life. I took a Buddhism class this past semester, not because I want to convert to Buddhism, but because I needed a religion credit and I always found it interesting. Lo and behold, I learned some hugely meaningful things in this class, one of them being…. the importance of presence. There is only right now. Truly getting this, and LIVING this, is life-changing. For real. My therapist, who is not Buddhist, and does not resemble Buddha in any way, has stressed this same point to me many many times. In fact, one of my biggest take-aways, over 18 long months of therapy, is this: “Right now, there is no problem to solve.” Problems come when we’re focused on the past, or worrying about the future. When you’re really and truly in THIS MOMENT, there are no problems. Including the shopping, the wrapping, the cleaning, the baking, the decorating…. right now, there are no problems, and therefore, no stress.
10. Remember your reason for the season. I deliberately said, “your” instead of “the” because my reason for the season might not be the same as yours. Christians like to say that Christ is the reason for the season, but I think that it’s important to remember that 1) most of what we do at Christmas time has been adapted from Pagan traditions, not the other way around, and 2) that there are many many more holidays than Christmas, and that they’re all celebrating something different. I know it’s a cliche. It is. But whatever the season means to you, focus on that rather than on the busy, the crazy, the chaos, the stress that the holidays can sometimes bring. And the rest of the extraneous “noise” tends to fade away.
Just because you’re invited to the stress of the holidays, it doesn’t mean you have to accept.
Wishing you all a calm, peaceful, and stress-free holiday, no matter what it is you celebrate.