This year, the first signs of the holiday season edged ever closer to Halloween, often appearing in early November. This phenomenon of ever-earlier holiday decor seems to be world-wide. Friko, one of my favorite bloggers, noted it in her area of the UK. And my brother Mike, who lives in Bangkok, Thailand (a country that is predominantly Buddhist, but that celebrates Christmas enthusiastically anyway), snapped a cell phone picture of the holiday decor already evident at his local mall a week ago.
Christmas decor comes early to Bangkok, too!
For many of us, these first signs of the holidays bring not comfort and joy, but feelings of stress as we imagine the whole holiday scenario: the endless to-do lists, the shopping, the cooking, the planning, the fraught family get-togethers, the dreams of a Hallmark Christmas rudely interrupted by stark reality, coping with life changes while observing long-held traditions, the anxiety, the depression, the feeling of being overwhelmed.
As another holiday season is relentlessly upon us, what can we do to decrease this stress and increase our joy this time around?
If you're feeling overwhelmed. Pare that daunting to-do list down a bit. Cut corners for your own mental health. Even small changes can made a difference. Cut a few items from your holiday menu and concentrate on the ones you and your family enjoy most. Don't make ten varieties of cookies when you know which two the grandkids love. Turn a party into a potluck. People love to share their specialties so make a party of sharing favorite cookies or holiday treats or seasonal entrees. It cuts your work and brings more variety and fun to the gathering. If you're the designated provider of the traditional family feast this year, don't be ashamed to ask for help. Your mother or mother-in-law may be happy to lend her expertise or siblings may be willing to help. If you are preparing some family favorites -- like pies and some side dishes -- that can be made in advance, this collaborative effort can become a separate, fun and memorable holiday celebration -- and maybe a new tradition!
Making adjustments to your meal timelines can also help when family feasts start to get complicated. When, in my late twenties, I first began hosting family holiday meals, I cooked and served the meal the same day. As years went by and Aunt Molly stopped driving at night (and yet didn't want to stay over because of her sickly cat at home), I re-scheduled our holiday feast for mid-day. And I would roast the turkey the weekend before, carving the meat and freezing it, as well as preparing and freezing some side dishes. Then on the holiday, I would re-heat the frozen items and make whatever was best fresh and have the meal easily on the table by noon. The scenario shifted again as Aunt Molly became housebound. Her kitchen was tiny and she didn't like us using it much. So we would transport Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in coolers -- to be briefly reheated if necessary -- and enjoy it at her home. Again, because I was working long hours up to the holiday, I would prepare as much of the meal as possible the weekend before and freeze it. Though I initially feared that this would interfere with the taste and quality of the food, no one ever complained. We simply enjoyed the food -- and each other.
If you're feeling that your life is totally interrupted. Even in the midst of busy holiday preparations and celebrations, you'll feel better if you can keep up some of your normal daily routine. Make exercise a priority. It will not only keep life feeling normal, but will also help protect you from runaway holiday weight gain! Make time to see friends briefly, to meditate, to journal or to pray. Make a trip to the library instead of the mall. Remember an older friend or relative whose life has slowed down and who may be feeling lonely in the busyness of the holiday season. Schedule time just for you -- and for you and your significant other -- to be alone, to decompress, to relax in between the celebrations.
If you're feeling shopping and/or budget challenged. Besides skipping the mall and shopping online, you might also consider making simple gifts this year or agreeing with family to draw names instead of buying gifts for everyone in the family or making the decision as a family to give gifts only to the young children. You might decide to give your adult children family heirlooms as gifts this year. Or get creative in a new way and make a scrapbook or a video of family members' lives in pictures. That can feel more personal and loving than a store-bought gift.
When I wasn't sure what to give my niece Maggie for her 5th birthday recently and also worried about the cost of shipping a gift all the way to Bangkok, I decided to make a music video of her life so far. Animoto.com made it easy. And my brother told me that the family was so moved, they passed a Kleenex box around the circle of their immediate family, Thai in-laws and family friend Nora who was visiting from the U.S. Later, Nora told me that of all the gifts Maggie received that day, the movie of her life was her favorite. Putting it together didn't cost a dime. And the time and effort it took to gather all the digital photos together was a true labor of love that warmed my heart as well.
If you're dreading a family dinner/donnybrook. Accept the fact that it's not in your power to transform a family holiday into a Hallmark event. Then look for ways to mitigate disasters. If alcohol fuels family fights, try serving non-alcoholic, but festive drinks, letting people know in advance that the holiday at your place will be alcohol-free with no BYOB as an experiment this year. Let some key family members know that you're hoping people can simply enjoy the holiday and being together without dredging up past feuds and that you won't be jumping in to referee this time around. Plan some distracting activities -- watching a favorite holiday movie together, playing games or taking an after-dinner walk together as distractions that might help to derail some of family conflicts.
It may also help to give family members an escape route --- the freedom to make excuses (without any guilting or questioning from you or the rest of the family) to stay just a little while, visiting briefly and leaving before any of the conversation becomes heated.
But if the day degenerates into hopeless squabbles, it may be the way at least some of your family likes to mark the holidays. Stand back. Take a deep breath. Take the dog out for a walk and enjoy the quiet. And next year perhaps you can plan to be a guest at some other family member's house -- and make a brief appearance, escaping in advance of the donnybrook. Another tip: this year or next, spend one of the holidays with someone else's family. It can be much more relaxing and enjoyable to be a guest and to be part of a whole different family dynamic -- just for a change.
If you're finding the celebration all work and no fun. When you're the hostess, the holiday go-to person, the designated party planner, the holidays can, indeed, seem more work than fun. Whether you're organizing the festivities at home, at work or both, schedule a treat for yourself somewhere in the timeline. Plan an hour, an afternoon or even a spa day with a good friend during or right after the holidays. My friend Mary lives for Black Friday. I find the prospect of shopping on that day horrifying. But, somehow, when we do it together, it is an incredible pleasure -- and has become a tradition for us. Whether you take a brief holiday hiatus to relax or plan a day doing exactly what you want to do the day after a major event, you'll have something to anticipate that may go a long way toward alleviating some of the stress of the season