10 Steps to a Less Stressful Holiday

Here's one tradition you can afford to lose: the stressed-out feeling that comes from trying to do too much in too little time. Here's how to lighten your holiday load and keep in mind what really counts.

Sleigh bells are ringing, the candles are lit, everyone is awash in holiday cheer. But you're not feeling at all like one of Santa's little helpers. In fact, you're starting to feel like the Grinch. Your life has become an endless round of obligations: cards to send, presents to buy, entertaining, decorating. . . . But don't despair. Herein, some tips to help you simplify so you can get back to the spiritual heart of the holidays.

1. Ask for your family's input.

Everyone in the family has hopes and dreams for the holiday, but you can't read minds. Carole Bodger, author of Smart Guide to Relieving Stress (John Wiley & Sons, 1999), suggests that you call a family meeting. "Once the whole family is gathered, ask each person to take a moment to list his or her three favorite holiday activities -- story reading around the fireplace, attending a candlelit worship service, decorating cookies, helping out at a homeless shelter -- whatever they think would make for a special time. Then ask for three things they could do without. This will help you create a holiday that's guaranteed to contain at least one of everyone's favorites, along with ideas for streamlining the celebration.

"Schedule the meeting before the pressure starts to build," Bodger advises. "That way, you won't find out that your daughter really wants to sing in the church Christmas pageant after it's too late to sign her up."

2. Spend the holidays at home this year.

You have a newborn. Or a job deadline. Right now, the last thing you can deal with is the pressure of making travel plans for the busiest time of the year. "Explain to your parents, 'Mom, Dad, I would love to visit, but it would just be too much for me -- the kids are too little to travel, and I have only a few days off,' " says Dorothy Cantor, Psy.D., former head of the American Psychological Association. "Be honest. Your relationship should be able to withstand the disappointment." Then call the kids together for a family video or audiotape and get to the post office early to mail it. Phone your parents on the first night of Hanukkah or on Christmas morning and make plans to visit during the new year.

3. Limit the optional events.

There are the things you absolutely must do, such as attend your daughter's holiday recital or the preschool class party. Add to those the adult-oriented festivities -- office get-togethers, carol sing-alongs, New Year's Day open houses -- and you barely have a minute to breathe. To whittle down the list, set limits. Decide in advance just how many parties or other events you can handle, and give the green light to the first four invitations to arrive. Then politely but firmly refuse the rest. "If you decide to demur, do it gracefully," says Parents etiquette expert Peggy Post. "Even if you don't want to go, try to sound appreciative that you've been invited."

4. Resist the urge to be Martha Stewart.

The transformation seems to take place overnight. Suddenly, every house on the block has gargantuan wreaths over the door, tapered candles twinkling in the windows, and a display of light-up choirboys on the lawn. Have your neighbors tapped into some network of indigent elves looking for preholiday employment? "These days, it seems we no longer have to be just Martha Stewart," Bodger says. "We have to be Bob Vila too. We have to bake the cookies and nail together a little holiday dollhouse."

If you feel that holiday decor is a must, make an impact simply. Buy a fake tree (the current crop is amazingly lifelike) with prestrung lights for yearly reuse. Choose wreaths made of pinecones for a longer shelf life. And if you're committed to bringing home a six-foot spruce, drape it with a simple red ribbon and add tiny white lights and red Christmas balls. Voila -- a design statement worthy of Martha herself, with half the fuss.

Above all, stop torturing yourself. My house would never pass the deck- the-halls test. Our 5-year-old is in charge of the tree, and when he finishes hanging the ornaments, they're all two feet from the floor and huddled together for warmth. But who cares? His sense of pride in doing something for the family is palpable.

5. Get choosy about Christmas cards.

"No one has to send cards if she doesn't wish to," Post advises. "It's a personal choice." Check your greeting-card pulse. If you love sending cards, there are some ways to make it more manageable.

Start by asking yourself what holiday cards mean to you. Are they your way of keeping in touch when you've been out of contact? Then you can cut down by not sending to people you see all the time. Or you might want to reverse the process and send cards only to family and close friends. Don't get caught in the reciprocity trap. "In my family, we don't get a card back from every person we send one to," Bodger points out, "and it certainly doesn't make us hate them for life."

The key to making your life easier is to cross guilt off your list. If you've got hundreds of cards to send, consider preprinted ones. Next, automate. Hire your own children or a neighborhood teen to help out. Have them address envelopes and stick on stamps. Time elapsed: one night.

6. Stress the spiritual.

What parents need to focus on, given that they can't do it all, is activities that create meaning and memories. So read a book that discusses the religious aspects of the holidays. Attend a religious service designed for children. Buy an extra present for a children's charity and bring the kids with you when you drop it off. Trim the tree or light the menorah and then toast the season with hot cider. And don't forget to share your own precious holiday memories with your kids. Relive that first ride downhill on your brand-new Flexible Flyer. You remember, don't you? The flash of terror, then sheer exhilaration. That hill always looked so much less imposing once you'd made it down. On January 2, you'll look back and feel the same way about the holidays.

7. Winnow the Wish list.

It's not the great American novel. It's little Joshua's letter to Santa, and he's been scribbling since June. Is he getting everything he wants? No way. Generosity may be one of the hallmarks of the season, but that doesn't mean giving free rein to materialism. Sit down with your better half and decide in advance how many presents are appropriate. If Josh is over 5, ask him to prioritize. If he still believes in Santa, explain that room on the sleigh is limited. "Kids are going to ask for everything they see on television or at their friends' houses," Cantor says. "So there has to be a reasonable limit." Meaning that if Joshua's first choice is that $2,000 motorized miniature Jaguar convertible that Cody's dad bought for him, move on to door number two. You may also want to take a stand on violent or sexist toys. Don't let the holiday spirit weaken your resolve. Be true to your principles -- and your budget.

8. Don't shop till you drop.

Start early. And invite a friend along. You'll have more fun, and you can stop for a snack and a chat. "Give yourself frequent breaks while shopping," suggests Jeff Davidson, author of The Joy of Simple Living (Rodale, 1999). "It's not a marathon. Stop and enjoy the seasonal decor. There is absolutely no reason to make shopping for loved ones anything but a joyful experience." Make things easy for yourself. If the gift wrapping is free and the lines aren't too long, take advantage of the service. (In my house, Santa can be pretty bleary-eyed and grumpy on Christmas morning after staying up all night wrapping presents.) If you love that silk scarf, buy it in multiples. My aunt Sarah and my mom both adore the ones I gave them last Christmas. Luckily, they live at opposite ends of the country.

9. Hire some of Santa's helpers.

"Ask your local supermarket about holiday platters, catering for dinner parties, and home deliveries," Davidson says. And don't be shy. "When guests ask what they can bring," he advises, "tell them." Pay a helpful teen to assist you in the kitchen, and consider hiring a cleaning service so you're not left scrubbing the bathroom tiles the night before. That way, you can truly relax. It happens only once a year, and the extra expense will be well worth it. The bottom line here? Do whatever you can to make your life easier.

10. Give yourself a time-out.

Right now, before you have a nervous breakdown. Stop roasting those chestnuts. Stop burning that midnight menorah oil. And don't even think about answering the phone. "Give a gift to yourself -- and not just the kind that you wrap with a bow," Bodger says. "Take an invigorating walk or spring for a sitter and take an afternoon off. You'll appreciate it, and so will your kids. There's a good reason why flight attendants advise us to place the oxygen mask on ourselves first, before we help others. If we're not okay, there's no way we can take care of anyone else."

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Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the December 1999 issue of Parents magazine.

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