Hassle-Free Holidays

Prevention Magazine . December, 2005
Ways to reduce stress and give the season meaning


So call me Scrooge. I got to a point several years ago when just thinking about the Christmas-Hanukkah season made me want to run away. Life was busy enough without the shopping, cooking, spending, and partying that these holidays always entail. The sight of Martha Stewart creating gigantic, glowing wreaths from scratch and baking batches of perfect designer cookies was utterly depressing. How could I ever measure up? Better just write the family an apology and hide in a hotel—or, better yet, someplace on Maui—until New Year’s Day.

Holidays are often stressful, but ideally they can be oases in time that nourish us emotionally and spiritually and reconnect us to our best selves and to one another. Taking a few minutes to think about the following four simple questions can reduce holiday stress by helping you focus on what’s most important to you.

What does this particular holiday season really mean to me? This Christmas will usher a new grandson into my family and the world. To add to the delight, my son Justin and his wife, Regina, are naming him after my dad, who died nearly 30 years ago. I am already overflowing with gratitude and planning the holiday around little Eddie’s arrival and his mother’s comfort. Thinking through what’s most important to you about the holidays this year, and then honoring that with your time and resources, sets the tone for how meaningful your celebration will be.

If spiritual significance is what matters, you need to prepare for it. My friend Elisa’s annual December ritual involves getting together with three old friends for an afternoon to reflect on the question, “How is the Christ child being born inside me this year?” Each woman takes a turn talking about a spiritual quality—or a service project—that she feels quickening within her. One year, Elisa spoke about a desire to help the homeless. She started volunteering at a shelter twice a month, and by the next Christmas, she was collecting personally meaningful presents for the homeless people who came there. She knew that Ralph needed new shoes, for example, and what size he wore. When she asked me for a donation, she had a list of people and their specific needs. Although I contribute to the homeless several times each year, the money goes to a general fund. But because of Elisa, Ralph—a person who is very real to me now—has shoes.

With whom do I want to spend the holidays?

My husband Gordon’s son and his family are very clear about holiday visiting. They come to Colorado for Thanksgiving but stay home in Arizona for Christmas in order to establish their own family traditions. Anyone from either side of the family is welcome to join them for Christmas—or not. There’s no pressure or expectation, just clarity. And that puts everyone at ease.

Establishing whom you’ll visit, or who will visit you and for how long, can avoid hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and time crunches. Loving communication, with a clear statement of what you want to do and why, is the key to arranging family get-togethers. If the presence of a distressing relative at a family gathering is too difficult to manage, you have the right to set healthy boundaries by turning down an invitation or by not extending one. Be prepared for consequences. You may be greeted with anger, wounded silence, or guilt-tripping. However, that could be the beginning of honest communication and reconciliation—a true holiday miracle. You need to decide if it’s worth the risk.

How much time and money can I spend?

Getting real about your resources helps minimize stress before and after the holidays, when those mind-bending credit card statements show up. The key to giving from the heart with clarity and integrity lies in making a budget. Decide well in advance how much time and money you have to spend and then stick to those limits scrupulously.

My friend Connie, for instance, has more time than money. Every year she allots about $100 for Christmas gifts. That amount allows her to buy jars for the jams she prepares in the summer and baking supplies for the candies and cookies she makes during Christmas week. I always look forward to her homemade goodies, which bring some old-fashioned cheer into our home.

In recent years, my family has confined our gift giving to children. Adults get charitable contributions in their name. The Seva Foundation, for example, provides money for eye surgery for a person in India or Nepal. A small gift can help restore sight to a blind person. Now that’s a miracle. A gift to the Red Cross can help families rebuild their lives after this year’s devastating hurricanes, and it will surely help others in times to come. Donate online at American Red Cross.

Are old traditions meaningful?

You change and grow year by year, and so does your family. So old traditions may no longer make sense. For years I continued to make my mother’s traditional fruited gelatin mold for Christmas—the one with maraschino cherries peeking out from the center of canned pineapple rings. It took a few years after her death for me to admit that hardly anyone touched the fabled mold anymore. The sight of those Day-Glo cherries nestled in artificially flavored gelatin just wasn’t appealing to a health-conscious crowd. So I made a bold strike for freedom. The mold is history. We put a picture of Mom on the table instead. It’s much more meaningful to reminisce and to celebrate her life rather than her cooking. The tradition of displaying pictures of our loved ones who have passed is new. We hope our children will keep it going when we’re gone, making the holidays an opportunity to give thanks to those who came before them and to inspire those who will remain when they, too, have passed from this world.

My wishes for you this holiday season are fruits of the spirit—love, joy, and peace. Taking the time to think about what the holidays mean to you is the foundation for a stress-free, peaceful season of light. May you and your loved ones be blessed, and a blessing to this world.

Tips for a meaningful holiday

  • Sponsor a needy child from overseas in honor of your family. (Try Save the Children or Christian Children’s Fund.) A few cents a day gives a child food, clothes, and an education. If you have kids, they will enjoy the letters from your “adopted” child and will experience the joy of helping others.
  • Make a pact with a friend to complete your shopping a week before the holidays begin. Check in with each other to keep on target. The holidays are much more meaningful without a mad dash to the finish.
  • Let go of holiday guilt. Even if you don’t send out cards this year (or if you get to it in February), your cookies go unbaked, and the dog eats Uncle Harry’s gift, your loved ones will still love you.

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