If you’re like many Americans, the first jovial notes from Andy Williams wafting through the speakers on your radio as it’s tuned to your favorite station strike dread in your heart. You realize that the holidays are upon you and you are already feeling behind and stressed out about it. The only tune some of you are singing is The 12 Pains of Christmas. Is it January 2nd, yet?!
Relax! Grab a mug of mulled cider and let’s go over your Holiday To-Do list that seems to have grown longer than Santa’s Naughty & Nice lists combined. My guess is that a majority of the things on that list are self-induced torture. You don’t enjoy them, you’re not sure why you do them but in the mad-dash of the season you’ve never stopped long enough to re-evaluate their purpose.
Before you look at that overwhelming list again, take a moment to talk with your family about your priorities for the holidays. What do you want to do, see or accomplish as a family? Write those things down at the top of your list. When you put first things first, the true importance of the other things on your list will come into focus.
In an attempt to give you a head-start on the sleigh ride to holiday cheer, let’s take a look at some of the typical “expectations” we place upon ourselves during the holiday season and see if we can tone them down a little, shall we?
Why is it necessary to send cards, pictures or family letters in December? I understand that we want to reconnect with old friends and family members whom we rarely see. However, if this task brings more drudgery than delight perhaps we should consider doing this at another time of year when we don’t have a deadline looming over our heads. The end-of-the-year holidays give us enough to do without buying, signing, addressing and mailing 400 cards. Why not consider sending those adorable pictures of your kids or that family letter at another time of year? For example, Valentine’s Day is all about showing love to others. Let people know that you are thinking of them with love when they will least expect it. Chances are that it will be a nice surprise…and, if yours is the only family letter they receive instead of being one of 50 crowding their mailing box at Christmas time, they might actually read it.
Why does everyone need to have a party in the two weeks before Christmas? There are 49 other weeks of the year when we could plan a party for our group, organization or staff. The next time someone suggests a party in the weeks before the holiday, try suggesting an alternate date two or three weeks into the New Year when schedules are typically less hectic. If you are an employer or head of a volunteer group and you’d like to use the party as an opportunity to recognize the hard work of your employees, consider doing it at another time of year when everyone’s attention won’t be pulled in so many different directions. You might be surprised at how many people welcome the idea. If you are already overwhelmed with holiday invitations then take some time to choose the ones you will accept based on your family’s pre-set priorities.
Why do we feel the need to bake 17 dozen different cookies right before Christmas? Step away from the mixing bowl for a minute. No one needs that much sugar. There is nothing wrong with baking a few cookies with the kids as a fun family activity. But, if you would rather do a polar bear swim than bake and you end up throwing 2/3 of them away after Christmas because three of your neighbors, Aunt Betty and all of the kids in your Sunday School class gave you plates of cookies then it is nothing more than a waste of food. Try scaling it back to one or two batches spread out over the entire month. The bathroom scale will thank you come January.
For some, the anticipation of holiday get-togethers with family makes this anything but the most wonderful time of the year. However, holiday dinner is not the time to address family tensions. Try these tips for making family interactions merry and bright:
- Address any issues well before the holidays, at a set time and not in the heat of the moment.
- Embrace flexibility. Decide which aspects of the holiday or your family relationships are most important to you and which are not worth a battle. Sometimes just knowing that you’re right and your sister-in-law is wrong should be enough. You don’t need to prove it.
- Re-evaluate whether or not your expectations of yourself or others are realistic. Remember, people are more important than your list.
- Set boundaries around the things that are most important to you and kindly but firmly stick with them.
- Solicit the support of your spouse or a trusted loved one before an issue arises. He can’t read your mind so don’t shoot him a glare in the middle of a confrontation and expect that he’ll know he’s supposed to intervene.
- Remember what your teacher always told you, “Just ignore them.” Don’t take the bait. You have the power to stop provocative conversations and antagonistic comments in their tracks before they have a chance to turn everyone Grinchy.
- If you genuinely cannot have a happy holiday with the prospect of family visits looming on the snowy horizon then perhaps it’s time for a change of pace. Ask another family member to host dinner or have mom and dad stay with them instead of you. You might just need a break from hosting to regain your focus on the season.
This is the one item I would encourage you to add to your holiday To-Do list. Very few things in life will refocus our priorities on what matters most like volunteering to help those who are less fortunate than we are. Call some local charitable organizations to determine their needs and then get to work filling one or two of them. This is an excellent way to remember the true meaning of the holidays and realize that our problems are often not as big as we believe.
I heard that collective groan of despair as you looked over your holiday gift list and then did the math. This is one of the biggest areas of stress surrounding the holidays. We are in one of the worst recessions in history so why do we need to buy gifts for all of those people? Start by setting a budget and sticking with it. Once you’ve purchased or decided on a gift for someone do not allow the clever, sentimental marketing tactics of corporate America to lure you into unnecessary purchases that will be forgotten as soon as the wrapping paper is thrown in the trash. If holiday giving is no longer a joy but more of a chore, I want you to take a look at each person on your list and genuinely ask yourself why you are buying them a gift. Do they really need anything? Are you simply exchanging gift cards with them? To reduce financial strain, try coming up with creative ways to give to the people you love without spending money:
- Set a date to clean your friend’s house or babysit her kids.
- Make a meal during the holidays for that friend or family member who is feeling overwhelmed.
- Try cutting back on gifts for your kids, as well. Suggest giving each child three gifts in honor of the three gifts of the Magi. Studies have shown that children become bored after two or three gifts. More stuff means more clutter, not more love.
- Give a charitable gift in honor of that hard-to-buy-for loved one. Many organizations such as World Vision or Heiffer International offer catalogs with options to purchase useful items for the less fortunate. Instead of another candle, why not give Cousin Sally a card telling her that, in her honor, you purchased a flock of chickens for a widowed mother of five in Mozambique?
- If you have a large extended family, suggest a Secret Santa or White Elephant gift exchange. It will add some mystery and fun to your festivities.
- Purchase an inexpensive but meaningful ornament. They’ll remember you every time they decorate their tree.
Learn to Say No…and Yes
This is, perhaps, the most important tip I can give you. You must learn to say NO to your perfectionism and NO to demands from others that do not fit into your family priorities. Give yourself a break to enjoy the holidays before they’re gone. Learn to say YES to help from others, especially your family members. Allow your husband to help decorate the house and your mother-in-law to help cook. Get the kids involved in the preparations. Your living room does not have to be decorated like a Martha Stewart Living centerfold and the outside of your house does not have to resemble Clark Griswold’s light display. Your dinner won’t be perfect and the tree might be tilted. The point you need to remember is that by freeing up some time in your holiday schedule you will be able to take a deep breath and a step back to enjoy and make lasting memories with those you love.
Kim is the wife of one rockin' Worship Pastor and full-time mom to four crazy and beautiful kids. Toss in a part-time job, housework, a blog, training for a foster care license and what passes for a social life these days and she’s still wondering how she fits 32 hours into a 24 hour day.