Let’s face it. Celebrating the holidays can be very stressful and depending on your family’s background and traditions, the tension can last for weeks. Even if you are able to keep plans for your festivities reasonable, you still have to cope with the behavior and expectations of others. Just trying to find a parking place near your favorite store can be a hassle on December days when every space is taken. This kind of stress is peripheral to the pressure we may feel from family to perform in a certain way (gatherings, gifts, etc.) on specific days like Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Some folks I know spend a majority of their time shuttling their offspring between households of extended family regardless of weather conditions, sleeplessness and exhaustion because it is expected they will do so. A perfect storm of stressors begins to build for many families around this time of year and often reaches a boiling point right at the time we long to be “merry and bright.”
Because this “holiday hoe down” happens every year, we ought to be smarter about planning for it and preparing to alter the course of our behavior, but most of us don’t. Bill Doherty, author of The Intentional Family, refers to this phenomenon as “Christmas amnesia” and notes that it is akin to “women forgetting the pain of childbirth soon after delivery. It is an amnesia that helps to populate the earth and keep the tradition of family Christmas alive.” We could make plans to do things differently, to allow for demanding people and difficult situations, but we often disregard our discouragement, delay making plans to do something different, and delve back into the same dilemmas a year later. This year, why not plan to do something different.
Be Honest about Discouragements
There’s no time like the present to take a few notes about what discourages you most. You may not be able to extricate yourself from some holiday hassles this year, but the hope of doing something different next year can help sustain you. While the feelings and thoughts are fresh, write them down. This will be critical in March and April when Christmas amnesia is likely to set in.
Plan Early to Do Something Different
You know that celebrating the holidays can have its anxious moments. You’re aware there are some people—often those to whom we’re related—who will be difficult. If you are the person in charge of seeing that the holiday happens for your clan (Doherty refers to you as the “Christmas Coordinator), then recognize you need help. The key to all these realizations is planning for changes before the season heats up and then letting others know early and often about the changes that will occur. What might that entail?
Developing Solutions for Old Dilemmas
If you are the Christmas Coordinator you’re very likely to assume a martyr role as the holiday approaches, doing more and enjoying it less, while your spouse and family sit on the sidelines and watch you work. Here are some suggestions to assist you in altering that behavior.
1) Involve other by asking for help with specific tasks.
Instead of saying, “I need help with the shopping;” say “I need you to purchase the gifts for your brother and sister. I’ll give you the list at least six weeks in advance.” Rather than bemoaning that you “always have to do all the decorating,” say “I need you to get all the boxes out of storage and set up the tree the day after Thanksgiving.” Others are much more likely to respond when they know exactly what they need to do to assist and how much time it might take.
2) Respect the old, but try something new. As families grow they include others, e.g., a new brother-in-law or sister-in-law, who will have new traditions. Take the time to discover how they celebrate. Do they exchange names for gift giving versus buying something for everyone? Do they swap “white elephant” presents in lieu of something more serious? Consider how you might honor the traditions of new members while trimming back some of the old.
3) Discuss gift exchanges and holiday travel well in advance.
If you want to spend Christmas Eve or Christmas morning in your own home and this challenges the expectations of others, tell them early (e.g. in July) and often (repeated monthly if necessary) about your plans. Expect change back messages on the part of other when you do this, but hold firm.
It’s not easy to make changes in family routines and rituals, but it is possible. Challenge yourself to think about the memories you want both you and your loved ones to have as they recall Christmases past. Will what you’re doing now cause them to remember you more like the happy and fun-loving Buddy in the Christmas movie Elf or someone more akin to the Grinch who stole Christmas? It’s really up to you.
Dr. Jennifer Baker