A Stress-Free Holiday… The Best Gift You Can Give Yourself

It’s Christmas Day. Your teenage son is refusing to emerge from his darkened bedroom because the love of his life (relationship duration: three weeks) has broken up with him. Your favorite cousin has fallen (leapt?) off the wagon right in your living room and upended the rum into the eggnog bowl. It’s no longer “laced” with liquor – it’s positively trussed. And while we’re on trussing: Your turkey – that lovely, fresh 22-pounder you had to pay a proverbial arm and leg for – seems to be cooking at the rate of one pound per millennium. With any luck, you’ll be eating at sunrise, day after tomorrow. As for today, no one’s singing carols unless you count the $60-an-hour-plus-double-overtime plumber you had to call to fix the overflowing toilet in the guest bath.

Or perhaps Chanukah is your holiday, and you had to burn your way through three batches of latkes before you got a perfect platterful for that special first-night dinner. And now your anorexic sister is picking at one with the tines of her fork, looking for “a spot that’s not so greasy.”

Your hypercritical mother is telling her to knock it off and eat already, but is simultaneously giving you a look that says, “Who could expect anyone to choke these down?” Your husband, who would gobble potato pancakes even if they’d been fried in 40-weight oil, is keeping his mouth full and his eyes on his plate. Doesn’t he know he’s sup-posed to tell everyone how wonderful they are? How wonderful you are, trying year after year to make a happy holiday dinner for your not-so-happy family?

No one, however, seems to appreciate a thing you’ve done. Any surprise you’re feeling put out? Or experiencing the slow, sinking sensation of disappointment that envelops you this time every year? Why isn’t anything going as planned? Where’s the picture-perfect holiday you worked so hard to create?
The real issue, of course, is why are you expecting a picture-perfect holiday?

Unrealistic expectations are a major cause of the stress so many of us feel during the holiday season, stress that undermines any possibility of joy, connection and contentment we’re hoping to experience.
Unrealistic expectations are not, of course, the only source of seasonal anxiety, stress and depression. In fact, there are so many pressures surrounding the holidays it’s a wonder most of us make it through them emotion-ally intact. So in an effort to help you and yours enjoy the season, here’s a look at the major problems most of us encounter – and some strategies for dealing with them.


It’s an ugly tendency and it can take many forms: Your table must look like Martha Stewart’s (even if the woman runs afoul of the law, you know her poinsettias will be perky). Your child must have this year’s top-selling toy, even if it means fighting off a horde of similarly pressured parents who are grabbing for the only one left on the store shelf. Or perhaps you just have to bake a batch of your famous, fabulously decorated sugar cookies for every last man and woman in your office.

Regardless of the form it takes, perfectionism will eventually net you nothing more than disappointment, frustration, and exhaustion. We know this, yet we strive for it anyway, bombarded as we are by TV specials, seductive advertisements, and glossy magazine articles that set unrealistic standards for our holiday celebrations. What we have to remember is that it’s all just so much hype.

So put the magazines down and turn the TV off. And challenge yourself instead to look at the holidays as a time to accept yourself as a fallible human being… and one who cannot be expected to pull off a production worthy of the crew of “White Christmas.” Relax your standards, do the best you can and accept whatever that is. You might actually find yourself with enough energy to enjoy the holidays.


No one’s going to change just because it’s holiday time. If your parents normally war like the Roses, they’re not suddenly going to morph into Ozzie and Harriet. If your mother-in-law criticizes every little thing you do, don’t expect compliments now, no matter how wonderful your new stuffing recipe really is. And keep in mind that children who fight will do their fair share of scrapping on any holiday, no matter how fabulous their gifts are, no matter how happy or grateful they should be.

No fantasy family is going to arrive at your door and seat itself around your holiday table. But take heart: Even if you can’t will that perfect family into existence, you can ease whatever tension your actual parents, siblings, aunts or uncles might bring to your celebration. The key: Stop trying to control them!

Controlling people takes a lot of energy, and it’s always a losing battle. All you truly can control is yourself and your reaction to others. So why not quit trying to make everyone behave as you’d like them to and spend your effort instead on accepting their imperfections, just as, hopefully, you’ve accepted your own. Cultivate forgiveness; these crazy-making creatures are your loved ones, aren’t they? Lastly, practice patience, and perhaps everyone will relax. And wouldn’t that be a wonderful holiday gift?


Traveling can be extremely stressful during the holidays, especially for people who aren’t seasoned or willing travelers, and especially since 9-11. So what happens when family members are scattered and the pressure’s on to “come home”? Suppose the trip means enduring crowds at airports, mind-numbing weather and security delays, or the probability of being stranded in some remote terminal where the only source of sustenance is a Coke machine? If you can’t handle that kind of stress, don’t pressure yourself to travel. By the same token, don’t expect others to come great distances to you. Their absence during the holidays doesn’t mean they don’t love you or miss you.

The fact is there are many other days in the year, many other more relaxed opportunities to make long-distance trips. And in the meantime, on those holidays when you might not be able to be together, you still can share your feelings and maintain your closeness. Call, send small treats, special notes, videotapes – anything that will carry the warmth you feel in your heart for the folks on the receiving end.


Holidays can be excruciating for those who are alone, whether they’re single, divorced, widowed or newly separated from a spouse or significant other. At a time of year when we’re inundated with images of joyous families and loving couples, people who are unattached often feel as if they’ve been cheated out of the biggest blessings life has to offer. Many also are made to feel as if they don’t measure up; after all, if they did, they’d have families or spouses of their own!

The truth is there’s nothing wrong with you if you’re flying solo through the holiday season. Remind yourself that you’re being bombarded by advertising, and refuse to allow yourself to be brain-washed!
Instead, decide how you want to spend your holiday time. If you’re hurting from a fresh breakup, or in pain because of the loss of a spouse, “celebrating” might be the last thing you want to do, and a quiet retreat might offer you some healing time. By the same token, it might do you good to be around friends or family, particularly if they’re at least somewhat sensitive to how you feel or what you’re going through.


Don’t believe the ads. Your husband will know how important he is to you even if you don’t get him a new set of golf clubs. And you can tell your wife you love her; you don’t need a diamond to say it’s forever.
Show you care by getting gifts that are meaningful to those who receive them. And show yourself and your family some care by being responsible with your money. Sink yourself into gift-giving debt, and the only people you’ll really make happy are the ones who’re selling you all those things you can’t afford.
If money’s tight, be creative. Consider as gift possibilities homemade food or crafts, favorite or funny old photo-graphs, a special piece of music… whatever will let the recipient know the present is especially for him. That, not price, is what makes a gift valuable.


No getting around it: There’s just flat-out too much to do. Add to your already full (and probably hectic) schedule a few hundred extra hours of gift shopping, specialty cooking, card-writing, entertaining, and preparing for out-of-town guests, and what have you got? An old-fashioned nervous breakdown! Try to bring the stress level down a notch by following some of these suggestions:

  • Prioritize. Make a list of all the things you think you want to do, and then cut it back to what you really need to do.
  • Make a goals list. If you’re over-scheduling yourself or expecting to ac-complish too much each day or week, make adjustments so your goals realisti-cally can be met.
  • Give gifts that don’t require driving around or mall-hopping. Go online to order everything from tickets to toys. Shop the catalogues. But be sure you place your orders early!
  • Play Secret Santa. Assign each family member one recipient to shop for. That will cut down on the buying time.
  • Consider catering part or all of the holiday meal. If that’s too pricey, ask guests to pitch in by bringing or helping to prepare food. When you consider the time saved, hors d’oeuvres that you didn’t have to make might taste even better than your own!


You did it all, right? The calling, the inviting, the shopping, the cleaning, the cooking. No one in your family ever lifts a finger. If it weren’t for you there would be no holiday celebration. In fact, if it weren’t for you, the whole darn family would disintegrate!

Well, you’ve got some options: You could stop taking on all the responsibility. Or you could stop expecting others to be as interested as you are in planning and executing the holiday festivities. It’s your choice to give your time and energy. And if you’re stressed-out and resentful because you feel as if it’s become your job, talk to other family members about taking on some of the necessary tasks.

Remember: You don’t have to do everything. Delegate to your kids, make re-quests of your cousins, hide the remote from your husband! And if you continue to feel stuck, consider taking a year off and celebrating in a different and perhaps more meaningful way: Volunteer at a homeless shelter, deliver meals to shut-ins. You’ll be giving to people who’ll truly be grateful.


Whatever can go wrong will. Expect things to go perfectly – or even somewhat on schedule — and you’re setting yourself up for a major stress attack. You can avoid this by building in extra time to compensate
for everything from traffic delays to botched gift orders. Know that schedules will fall apart – this is what they’re sup-posed to do during the holidays! Prepare to laugh in the face of disaster, and challenge yourself to be as flexible and as creative as you can be.


Overindulge, and all you do is hurt your health and erode your emotional stability, leaving you even more vulnerable to the stresses that accompany the holidays. Sweets and alcohol are the big temptations this time of year, and no one’s going to tell you to stay away from them. After all, overdoing it is one of the privileges of the season, isn’t it?

But if a fistful of chocolate or an extra couple of trips to the punch bowl make you feel good temporarily, the extra pounds and pounding headaches they bring on will make you miserable. Overeating and drinking fix nothing. If anything, they’re an all-too-handy method of masking the true causes of your tension and anxiety. So force a little discipline on yourself! Say “no thanks” when someone asks to freshen your drink or slice you an extra piece of pie. There will be big payoffs in terms of your health and emotional well-being…and your reflection in the mirror come January 2!


Keep things in perspective. Remember, the holidays are just holidays, festivals whose true meaning has noting to do with your ability to set a fabulous table or buy a perfect gift. You might celebrate them lavishly or conservatively, but the manner in which you do celebrate is your choice and should not be dictated by Madison Avenue.

Remember, too, that real problems don’t go away just because it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Chanukah. The date on a calendar won’t chase away illness, loneliness, or financial hardship. You can, however, take your own action to chase off the blues and manage your stress level. Identify what’s making you anxious or unhappy. And instead of re-acting, decide how you’d like to deal with the problem. Take a moment; take a deep breath; hang on to your sense of humor. Above all, try to keep things in perspective. It’s your capacity for forgiveness, patience, and acceptance that counts this time of year. Cultivate those qualities, and you’ll feel proud of your-self and your efforts, even if the end results aren’t perfect.