I love the holiday season. I love putting my Christmas tree up immediately after Thanksgiving is over, I love when the temperatures plummet and I can build a fire, I love the food, and I love how stupid my cats look when they chomp on the branches of my fake tree. This time of year is all about an assortment of cozy, intangible things: giving, togetherness, charity, etc. Everyone talks the talk – but Christ on a cracker, people get intensely stressed out. It amazes me how common it is to squeeze past the point of The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
There will always be those people (you know them – don’t lie) who just can’t pull their heads out of the snow and appreciate this time of year. They have to complain and be bitter. Their lives depend on it, I think, otherwise they may deflate. There are others of us who want to savor the season, and we make an effort to every year. We try to make the sugar cookies look perfect, the lights over the garage taut and straight, our kids happy and entertained, and have the perfect, stylish centerpieces for Christmas dinner. None of those are bad things to want, or to have. But when the pressure becomes all-consuming, not only does the purpose of the holidays get crushed, but so does your sanity.
Below, you will find a list of things that will lighten your load this holiday season. These are not life hacks. They are not 3-ingredient recipes that will still wow your guests, nor never-before-seen ways of curling a ribbon. They are changes that are hard, and at times unpleasant to start. But they are long-term, and if you are serious about implementing them, they will drastically lower your stress level during this most joyous time of year.
Yes, you’re overwhelmed. Yes, the possibility of assisting others seems insurmountable right now. But it’s important to make a concerted effort to remember others. The concept of “the village” is valuable, although it’s been largely tossed aside these days. We were meant to help each other – and not only when it’s convenient for us. If you know someone who is overwhelmed, offer a spare afternoon to help them clean before their out-of-town guests arrive. If you know someone who is strapped for cash, offer to help them with some small gifts for their kids, or even offer to give them some of your childrens’ lightly used things. Offer to bake a pie or a casserole for someone you know isn’t the best cook. Offer to take someone’s kids for a drive through the neighborhoods with the prettiest Christmas lights to give them time. Offer to pick up someone’s family members from the airport. There are endless possibilities here, but the most important element of all of them is the offer itself. Do not wait to be asked. If someone turns down your offer, that’s ok. They probably have their reasons. But offer, extend the kindness first, and be glad to do it.
The village mentality dictates that these people will do the same for you when they’re in the more comfortable position. That’s how it works. It’s not a system of “you owe me,” but rather of “I’d like to return the kindness you gave when I was in need.” This is a practice that has been lost for too long, even though it’s foundational to our communities. The old-timey idea of neighbors running over a cup of flour because you were short for a recipe, or children helping older neighbors shovel snow from the driveway is not a pipe dream, nor a marketing scheme. It used to be reality, and can become so again as long as enough people participate.
Be Helpful to Yourself
You cannot be Santa Claus. Nor can you be Super Parents, nor The Best Husband/Wife Ever, nor The Most Thoughtful Child, nor any other interpretation of perfection. You can’t be those things because they don’t exist (except Santa, obviously). Doing it all, being it all, achieving it all, affording it all – you can’t do it. Not because you aren’t an exceptional human being, but because chasing all those things will make you a lesser human being.
I’m about to say something unpleasant. Maybe sit down first. Ready? You have to ask for help. You have to. You. Have. To. You are imperfect, and that is ok, and that is the way it will always be, so you might as well learn to be accepting of yourself. It is wholly, and entirely acceptable to ask for help from your family and dear friends. Once you’ve come to terms with the fact that you are not flawless and omnipotent, follow these two steps: Prep, and Delegate.
-Prep your kids by explaining to them that December is going to be a lot of fun, but it’s also very busy, and you’re going to need their help more than ever. This gives them a concrete reason to be more participatory. Prep your spouse by discussing the things you’re most anxious about, and be sure you’re on the same page about holiday plans, budgets, parenting choices, and anything else that’s important to you. Prep your friends who get upset if you don’t attend every holiday party, and explain to them that you have other time commitments.
-Delegate age-appropriate, helpful tasks to your kids. Not tasks to keep them busy – tasks that help. Invoke the words of the prep when they whine, and use consequences when necessary. Your kids are capable beings that can take care of the piddly stuff that muddles up your day and ends up in the Latent Stress Pile. Delegating to your spouse is very different than delegating to your kids. Coming up with a game plan of who is responsible for what is an equitable system. You also must trust your spouse to do the things they have agreed to be responsible for (Stop hyperventilating. Seriously, you’re going to pass out). Do not micromanage. You will perish under the weight of your own nitpicking. Delegating to your family can include things across a vast spectrum, from “Aunt Genevieve, please bring the turducken,” or “Grandpa Joe, please make sure Grandma Ethel does not get blitzed from putting Frangelico in her coffee.”
Save Time for Traditions
Traditions are not only a great way to bond and make memories with your family, but they’re a great reason to slow down and pace yourself. A few breathers during the holiday season are very helpful to put things back into scope. If you find yourself wanting to cancel or skip traditions, you’re too busy. Cut some of your expectations, or delegate to other people. Spending time with your family or friends is far more important than vacuuming Goldfish crackers from under the couch cushions or knitting brand new stockings for each family member.
If you don’t have any, or it’s not really your thing, I would recommend asking around or researching things out there. Not all of them are kitschy like the Elf on the Shelf, or involve too much time/money like going ice skating every year. You can go as a family to decide on one new ornament for the tree, or new candles for the Menorah. You could have a traditional “Christmas-time” food or meal. For example, my Dad used to make ice cream out of snow for us when we were little, and I still make it to this day. You can take an afternoon to put up decorations together, or celebrate St. Nicholas Day on the 6th (a mostly-German tradition that involves little gifts found in your shoes, or a big boot). There are thousands of options, or you can make one up that would be fun for your family. Regardless of what it is, it’s worth carving out the time to purposefully be together.
Don’t Pretend to Be Happy
It’s so tempting. But do not prescribe to the ill-guided belief that people should be happy 98% of the time, and that all life’s challenges should be like water off a duck’s back. That’s falsified contentment, and it’s a steaming pile of road apples. It will turn you into an unhappy, stiff-grinned exoskeleton of the person you used to be. It is not important to be happy all the time. It is important to acknowledge your feelings, whatever they may be, and react appropriately. You are allowed to be tired. You are allowed to be stressed. You are allowed to be overwhelmed. No one thinks you are weak, or lazy, or in any way lesser. I swear.