Four Christmases ago, I had a toddler and a newborn and was so sleep-deprived that I kept doing things like accidentally using the debit card from a defunct checking account and racking up overdraft charges (why didn’t I just cut up that debit card and throw it away? There is no explanation...), and driving home from Target after leaving an entire bag of Christmas presents in the shopping cart in the parking lot. I also accidentally threw out an entire book of Christmas stamps while addressing our holiday cards.
Nowadays, if I start to feel a little stressed about the holidays -- frazzled and time-crunched and overtired -- all I have to do is think of December 2006 and suddenly the current holiday season seems breezy and relaxed. Isn’t it nice how that works? Thank God it’s not four years ago, I think to myself. At least I’m not leaving bags of toys in the Target parking lot!
It’s that time of year, though, right? When we run around in a fever of to-do lists and cookie exchanges and shopping trips, winding ourselves ever more tightly and feeling ever more Scrooge-like as our blood pressure stages a revolt? It’s hard to enjoy the holidays when you’re stressed about the cookies you forgot to donate for the first-grade Winter Sing and you just realized you’ve got nothing to wear to that “cocktail-chic” holiday party your neighbors are throwing tomorrow night.
But wait -- it doesn’t have to be this way. Truly, the holiday season can be transformed into one of peace and joy instead of stress and mess. I know, because my family has done it. And it’s all about making your holidays “small.”
Consider: The thing that causes stress at holiday time is the excess of it all -- excess shopping, excess spending, excess cookies and decorations and social obligations and special events and parties and fudge and eggnog. (Although, really, exceptions may be made for those last two, in my household at least.) So how do you shrink down the holidays, and thus your stress level, and still keep things fun and festive? It’s easier -- and more rewarding -- than you might think.
- Limit gifts. Seriously! In my family we give one or two gifts each to our two daughters. They get others from grandparents (and Santa!), but this way they’re learning early to keep their expectations modest. And you know what? They don’t miss a thing. Believe me: If you scale back your gift-buying, you’ll be less stressed about your finances come January.
- Downsize your décor. Some people love to trim a towering tree and go all out with blinking outdoor lights. But if the thought of lugging boxes of decorations down from the attic and arranging china nativity sets gives you a headache, give yourself permission to leave most of it boxed. Trim the smallest tree you can find, skip the yards of garland, put out only your most sentimental favorites -- whatever suits you. Then put Martha Stewart out of your mind and enjoy your (relatively) peaceful, uncluttered holiday house.
- Feel free to decline. One way to shrink holiday stress is to downsize your social calendar. Sure, it’s fun to see friends and socialize with neighbors at holiday time. But can you really attend every sledding party, caroling concert, and holiday event that comes your way without going a little nutso? If you’re like me, the answer is no. Pick one or two favorite holiday events each year that your family can’t live without -- maybe it’s your best friend’s kids-included Christmas party, or your town square’s tree-lighting ceremony -- and forget the others.
- Do what makes you happiest, without guilt. Last year, for the first time, my husband and I decided not to travel at Christmas, even though we knew our extended families would not be able, for various reasons, to come to us. It had been a stressful year; we didn’t feel up to lugging two children under six on a day-long road trip to stay in an overcrowded house where neither one of them slept well and our sanity thusly suffered. We bucked tradition and stayed home for the holidays, just our little family of four. My husband took vacation days off from work, and we spent our days not driving for hours with cranky kids but taking our daughters sledding and ice skating and baking Christmas cookies. On Christmas Day, an ice storm foiled our best friends’ travel plans, and we extended an impromptu invitation for them to join us for dinner. It’s one of my all-time favorite memories, the eight of us around the table, our collective four blonde girls looking like Scandinavian sisters, everyone laughing and happy -- one of our best Christmases ever. Sure, it can be hard to do what you want to do over the holidays rather than what your parents, siblings, or in-laws want and expect. But if you’ll enjoy your holiday more, and feel less stressed, by making your own traditions, do it -- guilt-free.
Listen, the holidays should be about love, fun, and rituals, not about tearing your hair out from stress. (Or leaving your purchases in the big-box store parking lot.) Try making your holidays smaller, and see if it doesn’t make you feel a whole lot saner. And in the meantime, you can always do what I do, and remind yourself that at least you’re not night-nursing a newborn. (Or are you?)
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