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If holiday traditions stress you out, change them


The most common sentence I hear during December is some version of: “I hate the holidays!”

I’ve often thought: How can we, collectively, sit at the table on Thanksgiving to spend a moment of gratitude for the bounty of food set before us and by 4 a.m. on Black Friday be ready to ram a shopping cart into someone just to get the last flat-screen TV?

It begs the question: What have we done as a community of people to take a few special days such as Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas, and transform them into a mountain of anxiety and stressful obligations?

Many of us become overwhelmed by the holiday expectations. We have to have the happy family photo and the “success story” newsletter. We need the perfect party, with the matching china, and we need to give the perfect gifts.

Sometimes the biggest burden of all lurks in the complications of the holiday guest list. Can we bear one more holiday with Aunt Jane, who will be hitting the egg nog even before breakfast? Will we be safe to let Uncle Bob cut the turkey once he’s into a bitter dispute over the latest election results?

And much more seriously, some people may be grieving and feeling lost in a sea of sadness during what is supposed to be a most special time of year. All of this commotion is enough to make anyone throw up his hands and scream: “Bah, humbug!”

The question I get the most in my practice as a psychotherapist is how to cope with the combination of personalities on the holiday guest list. Not just where to go and what to do, but who to include along the way.

Often, ancient family tradition sends us racing across the country at a huge monetary expense just to spend our precious moments with—OK, let’s just throw it out there—people we may not even like.

In times gone by, these traditions made good sense. Families lived in close proximity and had some modest needs. Gathering together for a meal and exchanging some much-needed items was probably a good idea. And for the most part, our generation has given this tradition a jolly good try.

But some of us have, or may eventually need, to opt out of traditional holiday events because of family changes or travel distances. Others try to maintain the tradition, but often with a load of anxiety.

So how do we keep these sacred moments from becoming a recipe for disaster? What is the best recipe for a happy holiday season?

First and foremost, consider what you have to give. That’s right. Consider yourself first. Giving what you don’t have to give will cause you to feel resentment. That’s no favor to anyone.

If you knew my family circa 1997, you know much of our shopping was done at the Dollar Tree, where every item is one dollar. We started a great family tradition. Our kids got five single dollar bills: one to spend on each person in the family and one for themselves.

This taught them that a gift was about giving—not the cost of the gift. Some of our favorite memories are of running around the Dollar Tree hiding a scented candle or fuzzy socks.

Second, if you are a parent, think of your kids and your immediate family first. Kids love these special times, and they will form an opinion of the holidays largely based on the experiences you give them.

If you need ideas, there are great, inexpensive ideas to be found on the Internet for fun holiday traditions.

Third, consider changing traditions to accommodate family needs. You may want to include your extended family and friends in your festivities, but that can be hard when people live far away.

Many people are beginning to use technology, like Skype, to have a virtual visit with loved ones too far away to see in person. It really is the next best thing to being there, and I think we could use this technology much more often to stay connected.

Fourth, make a plan for handling those guests who are just plain difficult to be around during the holidays. Maybe they have an undiagnosed mental illness or just a difficult personality. It is common that the extra stress of the holidays might make things even worse.

For these visits, try putting on music you all enjoy, playing board games, telling jokes and singing songs. Sometimes in a little different atmosphere that predictable tension is not as strong.

But if these ideas make you laugh because you can’t imagine your family gatherings ever including such merriment, then it is likely you need to lower your expectations.

When you visit a difficult person, come prepared. The moment you start feeling like you are walking on crushed Christmas balls, have an escape plan: a good book, a long solitary walk or a project that might even involve the kids—who don’t want to face any turmoil either.

Fifth, keep in mind that the season won’t feel the same if you are facing a first holiday after a loss. Perhaps your “real” celebration will be different for a year or happen at a different time.

Finally, and most importantly, remember the spirit of the holidays. Let your heart be soft, and stick close to the ones you love.

In my young adulthood, I had some holidays that I spent alone, and I had the privilege of volunteering at a soup kitchen in Boston. I didn’t have anything to give but a warm smile and plate of turkey to those for whom the dollar store was not even an option. Those memories keep me grounded and let me know that there is always a place for you during the holidays. Find some peaceful way you can participate and enjoy your part.

Dr. Delise Dickard welcomes reader comments and questions. For contact information, see riversidecounseling .org.`