If you’re like me, every holiday season you tell yourself the same thing: “I’m not going to get stressed out this year.” Perhaps you whisper it over and over as you stuff your face with an entire bag of red-filled Oreos. (You wouldn’t eat so many, but they’re seasonal.)
Nevertheless, the weight of the season eventually gets to you, and you find yourself filled with dread when you should be filled with spirit. Or spirits. (Same thing? Same thing.)
I can’t say I’ve figured out how to make the holidays a breeze, but I have racked up a few ways to not freak out quite as much this time of year. Here are my seven simple tips to keep the stresses of the season from getting the best of you.
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I used to see those people with festively lit houses and want to be just like them. Alas, I don’t like cold or ladders, so our house usually sits woefully dim. A few years ago, to make up for our lack of lights, I packed my pajama-clad family into the car, bought hot chocolate to go and drove them all over town to pick out our favorite decorated houses. Now this has become one of our most anticipated holiday traditions. And a glorious celebration of laziness, I might add. (Note to Hallmark: Create new “Lazy Day” holiday. To be celebrated once a year. Or whenever. Or not.)
Oh, how I long to be one of those cute families picking out a freshly cut tree. It makes for a far more magical photo op than a dad dragging a giant dusty bin out of the basement. Alas, thanks to certain family pets (ahem, JIMMY I know you’re reading this), we are artificial-tree people. But you know who doesn’t care one bit? Um, anyone.
A well-placed, pine-scented candle can fake out a lot of people. Our tree is 100 percent real in spirit, though—it’s big and holds lots of ornaments. And we have a ton. They’re not matching or highbrow either—we’re talking homemade school ornaments, bucktoothed photos of my husband and me as children, and Keepsake Ornaments marking everything my son’s been into since the year he was born. (Although our Bob the Builder Keepsake Ornament has been moved to the back of the tree because at 12 years old, someone has entered the too-cool-for-school years.)
I had a very brief moment years ago when I thought we needed a theme for our decor, like “blue and silver” or “everything plaid” or “highly breakable.” That was quickly abandoned when I realized that all of the fun for us at Christmas is seeing that giant, fake, beautiful tree that holds all of our family’s memories. Even you, Bob.
The urge to capture every magical holiday moment with an equally magical photo really used to get to me. I needed something to put in our holiday picture frames, the commemorative Keepsake family photo ornament, the dog photo ornament (yes, I’m one of those nuts) and, of course, our family Christmas card. I thought I needed ironed clothes, perfect smiles and sorta-posed, sorta “oh hey you just caught us in this totally unplanned moment where we’re all amazingly happy and showered” scenes.
As time goes by and I look back through my holiday photo albums (yes, I’m one of those nuts, too), I realize that some of my favorite photos are the ones where my dogs are blurry because they can’t keep their tails still. Or where my son and husband are smiling with their mouths but not with their eyes, irritated because I made them miss part of a Green Bay Packers game for a “candid” photo shoot. Those are the memories that make me laugh, the ones I hold close. Those are just the times I want to remember.
Photos bring me to the yearly Christmas card. Not only did I think I needed a perfect photo, I used to have this notion that I needed to write a personal message on every last card so they’d be special. No wonder I dreaded sending them out.
Then, last year, when I was especially behind, I finally came to my senses. There’s no need to write a novel. Just by sending a card, our friends and family will know they’re in our thoughts. I then make a note of the folks to whom I want to write a little extra (Hint: check out these Christmas card-writing tips and ideas from Hallmark writers) and try to drop them a note sometime post-holiday season. Oh, and also…did you know there’s no award for people who send their Christmas cards on time? I work for Hallmark, and I am here to tell you, there is no award. If January 14 or March 3 feels more doable, by all means, go for it. Whoever judges you? Off the list. Which means fewer to send next year….April-ish or so.
The hunt for the elusive perfect gift doesn’t have to be a hunt at all. Do you have some idea of what your loved one’s favorite store is? Grab something—anything—in your price range from there. They’ll be flattered to know you made an attempt, and they can always go exchange it for something they like. It’s basically like a gift card in the form of an actual thing in their hands. And who knows? You might pick something perfect. I’ve accidentally done that a few times myself.
Getting together with friends and family is, for the most part, why many of us love the holidays in the first place. But it can also translate into a mild case of the dreads if you’re not careful—from who’s hosting to what to serve to avoiding controversial topics like politics and fruitcake. Here’s what I’ve learned: Food can be store-bought. People generally eat what you put in front of them. And if they don’t? More for you. (Suggested main dish: red-filled Oreos. Hello, they’re seasonal.)
If you’re hosting, have something planned to keep people busy and off controversial topics. A board game or white-elephant exchange works. Also, let people help. Farm out as much as you can. Assign dishes, activities, everything. Taking on too much is a recipe for stress overload.
More than anything else, what used to stress me out about the holiday season was the general sense that everything needed to be perfect—that every moment needed to have all the makings of a Capital-T Tradition. All that changed a few years ago when we began what has become my son’s favorite holiday tradition of them all—going out for burgers and seeing a movie on Christmas Eve. Yes, we do what we also do several times throughout the rest of the year. Yet, somehow, doing it on that one day makes it special for him.
Kids are easy like that. In fact, when I look back to the holidays of my childhood, one of my favorite memories is our tradition of making homemade pizza for Christmas dinner. Something you can only do, I don’t know…any night? But it’s when you do it and how you feel that makes it so memorable. That realization is perhaps the biggest reason I’ve gone from holiday-stressed to unnervingly calm during the past few years.
I hope these suggestions have helped you. If not, head straight to the grocery store and grab the first seasonal junk food you can find. After all, tree-shaped cheese curls sounds like a mighty fine new tradition to me.