You're Doing the Holidays Wrong

It's that magical time: to reflect on what's important, to share traditions, to wrap presents in the dead of night, to deeply regret having invited three families over on New Year's Eve... They don't call it the most wonderful time of the year for nothing! 

Cartoon mom during the holidays
Photo: Leo Espinosa

We all want to enjoy the holiday season, but so many factors conspire to make it feel more horror show than ho-ho-ho. Whether your anxiety is run-of-the-mill or heightened by family strife, it's intensified by the pressure we all feel to suck it up and put on a happy face for the kids. We'll give you strategies to get through—and even enjoy—the season.

Merry Stress-mas

"Every year, December kills me," says Gennifer Birnbach, of Yorktown Heights, New York. "It's not just gifts for the kids—it's for teachers, support staff, bus drivers, mail carriers, waste collectors, after-school sitters, and instructors for activities." There's also an element of keeping up with the Joneses: If everyone else is giving the teacher a $20 gift certificate, you can't help but feel pressure to pony up the same.

We're also plagued with skewed expectations. You may have an image of your loved ones gathered around the tree í la It's a Wonderful Life, when, in reality, holiday events with your clan are more reminiscent of an episode of Family Guy. Danielle McLeer, mom of Ian, 10, and Molly, 8, can relate. "My husband's parents are divorced, so we split the holiday among three families," says McLeer, who lives in Springfield, New Jersey. "We always have Christmas Eve at my sister-in-law's house with my mother-in-law, and it ends late. Then I'm up early the next morning preparing a Christmas brunch for my father-in-law and his family. As soon as they leave, I'm getting ready to host Christmas dinner for my folks. By the end of the evening, I'm totally exhausted from entertaining and all the family drama." It's gotten so stressful, in fact, that McLeer and her husband are considering skipping the festivities entirely and hightailing it to the Bahamas, even though they really can't afford it: "We want to enjoy our time together, not deal with chaos and aggravation."

Then there's the reality that the holiday hustle and bustle means out-of-whack schedules—skipped naps, late bedtimes, and disrupted routines—as you schlep your children from one grandparent's un-childproofed house to another. "Sure, all those relatives love playing with your kids, but at the end of the evening they don't have to deal with the fallout of an exhausted, cranky child," points out Jessica Maria, mom of Isaiah, 5, and Asher, 2, in Santa Rosa, California.

Stopping the Insanity

There's no way to wave a wand and have poof! an unlimited holiday budget, or poof! easy-to-please relatives. But these tactics can help.

1. Reframe Your Expectations

Take stock of your time, money, and energy, and do what's right for you. "Every year, I'd host my family for Christmas Eve, and it was a huge production: cocktails and appetizers, sit-down dinner with china and crystal, dishes that would take hours to prepare," says Daniella Kohler, of Fairfield, Connecticut, mom of Charlie, 9, and Dylan, 6. Last year, Kohler opted instead to throw an informal buffet: "I served precooked ham, roasted potatoes, and a vegetable noodle kugel, and when people asked what they could bring, I told them a dessert and side salad," she says. "For the first time, I could sit down and enjoy my meal."

2. Find Time for You

cartoon family during the holidays
Leo Espinosa

"Many of us already push ourselves to the maximum under even ordinary circumstances," points out Mary Fristad, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, psychology, and human nutrition at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, in Columbus. "Then the holidays come around with a whole new set of demands and tasks, without enough time or resources to complete them." That's why it's crucial to schedule downtime to allow yourself to do something enjoyable, even if it's simply savoring a cup of coffee alone. "Fit it in first," says Dr. Fristad, who recommends that you block off a 15-minute chunk of time each day for yourself during the season.

3. Create Traditions That Work for You

When Birnbach and her husband lost their jobs during the recession of 2008, money was so tight they had to tap into their 401(k)s to buy holiday gifts for their kids. "I told my relatives we couldn't afford extra presents, so we decided to hold an informal Hanukkah gift swap instead," she remembers. The extended family met for latkes and Chinese food and played dreidel. "We picked numbers out of a hat, so everyone got one gift," she recalls. Whoever didn't like their present could exchange it with someone else. "The kids had a blast. They didn't care what they got; it was just fun to open presents," recalls Birnbach. The game proved so popular that her family does it every year.

4. Don't Be Afraid to Say No

After one-too-many meltdowns by her kids, Maria decided she'd had enough. Last year, she told her family that the only holiday event they'd attend was Christmas dinner; other than that, they were staying home. "I ruffled some feathers, but what helped me was realizing it was okay to prioritize my own kids and husband," she says. "Everyone was welcome to stop by our house, but my kids needed to wake up in their own beds and stick to their schedule."

5. Unplug From Social Media

Sick of seeing your sister-in-law's flawless homemade ornaments on Instagram? Disconnect. The more you use Facebook, the worse you feel about yourself and your life, found a University of Michigan study. "I have clients who log off of social media for all of December," says Amanda Clayman, a New York City financial therapist. If that seems too extreme, stick to less than five minutes a day, and try not to post anything (since posting begets checking). "Just remind yourself that you don't need to compare your behind-the-scenes life to someone else's highlight reel," Clayman points out.

6. Budget

Maria factors holiday expenses into her annual budget, and every month she squirrels away a certain amount to cover them. "This way, I don't get blindsided by a big bill later with no idea how to pay it," she says. Unless you're sitting on unlimited funds, this planning is a necessity, says Clayman. Ideally, you've done it months in advance, but even if you haven't, just writing down what you expect to spend (factoring in gifts, tips, decorations, food, and travel) can go a long way. "You may need to dip into a contingency fund if you didn't budget for these earlier, but this way you can create a plan over the next six months to a year to pay it back," explains Clayman.

Ultimately, when it comes to the holidays, it's all about finding the moments—and new ways—to cherish and love one another, says Dr. Fristad: "By slowing down, you're able to appreciate the time you spend with each other and develop traditions you'll pass on to your own children. And ultimately, that's the best gift to give."

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