'Tis the season to be jolly — and stretched way too thin, what with all the shopping, prepping, and family obligating. So how can we tame the beasts of stuff and conflict, of travel and spending, so that we can get back to comfort and joy? We consulted our favorite experts and a few wise mom friends to learn the secrets of a lower-key approach to the season. Your merriest month awaits!
1. Simplify Your Priorities
The holidays bring loads of togetherness, in a more-the-merrier kind of way. But sometimes it can feel like too much of a good thing. To get a handle on the overload, a “values clarification” exercise can help you feel more in control, says child-psychology expert Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D.
First, ask yourself what your top priorities are this month, then write them all down: Being with family as much as possible. Eggnog. Spirituality. An absence of fruitcake. Stress-free joy. Now the hard part: Cross them off until you are left with the single value (or two, if you really can’t choose) that is your absolute priority. The point here is to focus on what you care most about.
Now ask yourself how you can arrange the season to be true to this one value as much as possible. If being with relatives is most important, say, then maybe you have to give up stress-free joy — and that’s okay. The end result of this exercise: “You realize that you’re making a choice, and you don’t have to feel resentful about it,” says Cohen.
2. Manage Relatives’ Expectations
Though Julie Henderson of Ridgefield, CT, would be perfectly willing to host a big get-together every year for her clan, “my in-laws like us at their place because they find our house too small.” Alas, this conflict — between the desire to be home and the pressure to visit — is as widespread as tinsel.
If being at home is your most cherished value (see #1) — more than, say, avoiding conflict — then you have no choice but to come clean. Etiquette expert Lizzie Post, co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette, 18th Edition, recommends saying, “I think this year we’re going to try something different.” If relatives complain, she adds, “Tell them what my grandmother said: ‘Children should wake up in their own homes on Christmas.’ It was her way of saying don’t feel guilty about starting your own traditions.”
A shout-out to the grandparents doesn’t hurt your case, either, says Jessica Potts Lahey, of Lyme, NH, a mom of four. “I told my parents that I wanted to create the sort of wonderful memories I had of Christmas morning when I was a kid.” Offer an eve instead or a different occasion altogether to spread out the warm holiday feelings.
3. Take the Focus Off Gift Giving
From gag mugs to random electronics, a get-together can feel more like a tag sale gone awry than a gathering of loved ones — to say nothing of the mall whirlwind that came before and the bills that come after. You can tone down the craziness with these less consuming ways to celebrate:
Establish a one-person/one-gift tradition. In my husband’s enormous tribe, we start at Thanksgiving by putting all the names in a hat, matching kids with kids and adults with adults.
Whip up edible treats that can be enjoyed, then (phew) gone.
Give a single gift for the group to enjoy: a board game (Dixit is a favorite of ours), say, or a puzzle.
Ask relatives about their fave tradition and then commit to doing it with them (to shift away from things), suggests Lucia Orth, a mom of three. “You might be surprised that it’s a simple thing like caroling or watching a silly movie,” says Orth, who lives in Lawrence, KS.
4. Tame Toy Lust
On the one hand, we worry that we’re spoiling our kids with more than they need, more than we can afford, more than our house can hold; on the other, we want our kids to get what their little hearts desire. What’s the happy medium? Try one of these approaches:
Lose the list. Instead of encouraging your child to spool out an endless tally of wanted items, ask her about the one or two things she might most like to receive. When our daughter was 8, this meant an American Girl doll, which she got (along with a few odds and ends) and played with for the rest of the day.
Start stuff-less traditions. The Hanukkah menorah and Christmas tree do this already, of course, but consider adding my household’s faves: a night spent in sleeping bags under the tree or eggnog with breakfast. It’s nice to be able to indulge the kids over the course of the season with a focus on experiences rather than things.
5. Defuse Drama
Large yuletide gatherings and family tensions go together like figgy and pudding. Luckily, kids don’t know that stressful family dinners are a cliché. And, ideally, yours will be too awash in seasonal cheer to notice that drama is sucking all the air out of the room.
But what if they do? You need to put your own oxygen mask on first, at least emotionally. Cohen’s advice: Depending on the situation, you might need to take some deep breaths, or go for a walk, or take your child off for some one-on-one playtime if she’s distressed.
Also give kids a heads-up. “People can get stressed around the holidays or when they’re with relatives,” you can say. “But we spend time together because they’re important to us, and we love them, even though they’re not perfect.” Luckily, nobody is.
Plus: Tips for Raising Kids Sans Santa
It’s a rare phenomenon that embodies both profound joy and utter fraudulence, but that’s Santa for you. And depending on your personal or religious beliefs, he is or isn’t going to sneak down your family’s chimney this year.
As Jennifer Shiao Page, an Amherst, MA, mom to a 4-year-old, puts it, “It just goes against my gut to perpetuate this story. But I don’t know what my daughter should say to other kids.” If this is your dilemma, try this advice from Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., a child psychologist:
If your child’s unhappy about missing out, think of Santa as the perfect case study for celebrating diversity. Say “Isn’t it wonderful how people are different and have their own customs and ideas?”
If your kiddo’s concerned about lying to pals, explain the distinction between a fun secret — like a surprise breakfast for Mommy — and a lie that hurts people. “Santa is more of a secret than a lie. For older kids, explain that Santa is a symbol of generosity and happiness. And that’s all good stuff!” says Cohen.