8 Tips To De-Stress Your December

December doesn't have to be stressful, no matter what holiday you celebrate. The increasing dark of the Northern hemisphere can be a signal to turn inward to your family, to create more warmth, light and peace in your home. It can be a time for cozy connection and deep joy, whatever your personal beliefs.

The key is deciding what kind of experience you want to create, and meshing your expectations with your family's.

Imagine it's next January 1. Won't it be terrific if you find yourself rested, refreshed, and contented with your life? Imagine being able to:

  • Use this holiday to have some wonderful, deep time with each member of your immediate family. Your whole family will start the year feeling energized and connected.
  • Give presents that delight the receiver, and therefore delight you. You don’t go over budget, and most of the time your present is something you make or do for the recipient-- with your child, easily and joyfully.
  • Feel healthy and maintain a steady weight. Instead of overeating, you feed your hungry heart with connection to others, and with giving to others. You spend time outdoors. You nourish yourself and your family by cooking healthy food. In short, you nurture your own body and soul, as well as your children's.
  • Find meaning this year in brightening the season for others.  Through your example, your kids begin to discover the spirit of the season and feel the gift of being angels to others.
  • Feel clarity, going into the new year, about the ways you want to make your life different in the future. You even make a plan that will be easy to stick to, that will help you change ONE important habit.

Does this fantasy seem alluring, but impossible? It isn’t. More and more families are saying no to the Holiday Frenzy and inviting connection, joy and peaceful reflection into their homes in December. Here's how.

1. Decide what’s really important to you and just say No to everything else.

We all have full lives the other eleven months of the year. Adding an elaborate agenda to accomplish during December can only send your household into a tailspin and your blood pressure through the roof. The guaranteed result is tantrums from the kids and tears for you.

There is a simple answer, if you’re willing to be ruthlessly honest with yourself about what you can actually handle. Start by sitting quietly for five minutes with your eyes closed, seeing in your mind the scenes you want to create this December. Then open your eyes and write down your top priorities. Be realistic. If you want homemade presents, you probably won’t also have a clean and orderly house. Decide what really matters to you.

Next, sit down with your partner, if you have one, and your kids if they’re old enough. Serve something delicious that reminds you of the season – holiday cookies, or eggnog. Talk about everyone’s ideas of what would be a perfect holiday season.

What do you need to do so it feels like Christmas, or Hanukkah, or Kwanza, or the Winter Solstice, to you? Maybe you always decorate the house with greenery, or bake cookies. Maybe you’d like to make presents, or start a new tradition about kindness or gratitude. Maybe advent calendars or latkes are essential.

Get out the family calendar, and think about when these things will get done. What events do you expect to attend? Do the hard work of writing down the things you agree to do, and saying no to whatever doesn’t nurture your family. (Anything that stresses you out does not nurture you!)

Agree on how much time is to be spent with the immediate family, how much with extended family, and how much with your community, such as your annual tree trimming or Hanukkah party, or church and school events.

Just say no to holiday events that don’t hold meaning for you, including most work events. If you must spend time at work-related holiday events, be sure to acknowledge them as work time that’s cutting into the family time you want to prioritize this season. Take other time off to make up for it. For instance, you might leave work early to pick your child up after school for a special afternoon together doing something meaningful and holiday related.

If your kids are old enough that they want to spend time with their friends rather than just family, that's terrific. Plan now to include their friends in any events where it feels appropriate – baking pies for the local soup kitchen, or gathering greenery to decorate the house. Your kids will probably jump at the chance for a small party, even if it’s a party to make holiday decorations.

This family meeting about the Holidays is a great time to express what YOU most want this holiday – special time to connect with each member of your family.

2. Prioritize Connecting with your Family.

Now you have a sense of what you’re actually going to do this December. Your first rule is not to do holiday tasks alone, unless you feel nurtured by them. If you like nothing better than to put on music and fill the house with good smells, then I wish you happy baking. But don’t set yourself up to feel like a martyr at midnight, when you find yourself bleary-eyed and facing a sink full of dirty dishes. Always find a partner for these holiday tasks. It’s a great opportunity for fun with family members, and the kids love the one-on-one time with mom or dad. And if you can’t recruit anyone, consider that maybe you don’t actually need to do more decorating, or baking, or whatever, if it isn’t important to anyone else. Who are you trying to impress, after all?

If your kids are too young to help, then it becomes even more important to limit what you do. What they want this holiday season is connection with their parents, not perfect decorations, or lots of events, or even, ultimately, presents. Your kids need you to be in a good mood, ready to make merry and make meaning. Keep it simple. Don’t try to create some glossy magazine vision of the holiday. Remember that your mood matters more to your kids than anything else.

Hopefully, you already have family traditions that give you special time alone with each family member, such as a father-daughter brunch once a month at a favorite diner. You can make your holidays more meaningful, though, with this golden opportunity for one-on-one time. Make a plan with each family member to do something delicious just with them.

Some ideas for “dates” with your kids:

  • Work together to make a present for another family member.
  • Bake cookies for her class party.
  • Work out together – it’s a great antidote to holiday calories and stress.
  • Go for walks together in a part of town where you can admire the holiday decorations, or out in the country to gather greenery.
  • Take advantage of the early dark to bundle up and stargaze together.
Photo: Susan Collins

3. Reject commercialism.

None of the holidays we observe in December are designed to include purchasing things from stores. Each is an opportunity to celebrate – the birth of the Savior, the return of the light with the Solstice, the Seven Principles of Kwanza, and the miracle of faith symbolized by the Hanukkah lights.

The pressures of commercialization do a disservice to these sacred days, to our wallets, and to our children. Our children have been trained to think of the winter holidays as a time for loot, beginning when we put them on a bearded stranger's lap and have them recite a list of possessions they covet. Kids who watch TV have an especially difficult time, as the seasonal ads whip them into a frenzy of desire that can only crash and burn. The first question they hear upon returning to school is usually “What’ja get?”

After having spent years buying too many presents – originally one for each night of Hanukkah – our family settled into making each of the eight nights meaningful in it’s own way. One night is the big present night, where the kids each get one “store bought” gift. One night is “Homemade presents” night. One night we throw a Hanukkah party with latkes, another night we go to family. One night is Tzedaka night, when we discuss good causes and donate money to them. Each night is special in its own way, and presents take a back seat. We work hard to de-commercialize what can so easily become a feast of more, more, more, rather than a feast of lights and miracles.

De-commercializing Christmas can be even more challenging, but it's certainly possible. I know families who give four presents to their child for Christmas: "something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read." Others give a present from the parents and a present from Santa. Add a stocking, time to play with your child, and a few annual traditions, and it's plenty. The gifts you do give will be treasured.

Set a budget for each gift, add them up to be sure you can handle the total, and really stick to it. You might try online shopping, so you can do it at night without the kids around, avoid the exhaustion and crowds, and diminish the importance of holiday shopping in your family life. You’re also more likely to stick to your budget.

Some families de-commercialize the holidays by making presents. It isn’t free – you have to buy supplies – and it takes time, but it can be cheaper, more fun, and more meaningful than a "bought" gift.

If you choose to make presents, sit down with a list of people and decide what you’re making and how long each present will take. Your goal is to delight your giftees with a token of your affection, not to garner status points or exhaust yourself. One strategy is to make big batches of something that most folks will enjoy -- fudge, or bath salts -- so that many of your gifts can be made on one Saturday, with the help of your child.

If your whole family is making presents – and what kid doesn’t like to make presents? – try scheduling some weekend afternoons when everyone is working on presents. You can count on having to help the younger members of the family, but it’s worth it. If you make this a family tradition, you’ll find that they get more independent each year in making ever more lovely presents. Click here for presents you can make easily with your kids.

4. Create traditions that make merry, make meaning, and bring your family closer.

Children love tradition and ritual. Repetition, the comfort of belonging, the sense of wonder, magic, and celebration -- traditions nurture kids and parents alike, and create a sense of shared meaning. They connect families.

Kids need the security of repeated traditions, and they’ll want you to repeat this year anything you’ve “always done” in the past. Honor those requests and savor those moments.

But if you're feeling like the things you do every year don't reflect your values, why not re-evaluate your traditions? Don't make this about more work; keep it simple. Just try altering your current tradition a bit, or try something new, and if you like it, repeat it. Then begin to talk about it and look forward to it with the whole family. Eventually, that tradition will take on a life of its own and will become a sustaining part of your family culture.

Holiday traditions that will have meaning for your family are plentiful; your job is to find the ones that feel best to everyone and are easiest to pull off.

5. Live the spirit of the season by giving to others.

It’s hard for kids not to get greedy at the holidays, especially if they’re encouraged to make long lists of their desired presents. One answer, of course, is to limit kids to one store-bought gift (although often a grandparent will add another.) But what we really want for our kids is not for them to feel deprived, but to find their own holiday spirit and discover the joy of giving to others. Did you know that the experience of giving actually activates an area of the brain that gives us physical pleasure?

But generosity doesn't come from guilt. Children begin to feel generous from the feeling of having plenty -- emotionally, even more than materially -- and develops as they have the experience of making others happy by giving to them. Our job as parents is to help our kids to have those experiences. Click here to Help Your Child Find Her Inner Angel (and the joy of giving).

Eventually, if your child is lucky, she’ll learn from experience that making someone else happy by giving to them really is more rewarding than receiving a gift herself. But that wisdom is something that usually develops only after one has had plenty of experiences of enjoying giving to others. 

6. Take time as a family for reflection.

Beyond the obvious opportunity for spiritual reflection and embodying the spirit of giving, the holidays are a great time for families to reflect, examine, and appreciate their lives together. It’s traditional at Kwanzaa to rededicate oneself to living a principled life. The rest of us usually rely on the New Year’s tradition of making a resolution, which is generally less than effective because one resolution is not enough to change a habit (that takes at least 30 days of sustained effort!). Here are a couple of ideas for family rituals to extend this practice:

  • Start a "Count Your Blessings" scroll. Take a roll of adding machine tape and let everyone write on it something they’re grateful for. The scroll can be taped in lengths around your house as a blessing, like a Tibetan prayer flag.
  • Ask each family member to write down one thing they want to leave behind in the old year, and throw it into the fire (or set it on fire in a firesafe iron pan). At the same time, they can write down one thing they want to create more of in their lives, and put that in a safe, special place. It’s even more effective if you help them write a simple plan to create what they want more of, and review their plan daily for 30 days as they create a new habit.

7. If you go on vacation, be sure it recharges and reconnects your family.

Some of us look forward to the kids’ school vacations as a chance to leave town in search of warm weather or winter sports. That can give you plenty of chances for family connection, especially if you forgo screens in favor of family board games. What you want to avoid, of course, is racing around before you leave, getting stressed out by a busy trip, and returning home in need of a vacation. Kids tend to get cranky and stressed with travel and schedule changes, so plan to do less, rather than more.

8. Cultivate enough-ness by nurturing yourself.

We approach the holidays each year with the secret hope that our life will be transformed. Somehow, our home will become picture perfect, professionally decorated and worthy of a magazine spread. Our homemade gifts will be the envy of the neighborhood. Our children, perfect angels, will be baking for the soup kitchen, starring in the holiday pageant, and certainly never bickering or ungrateful. We, of course, will look and feel fabulous, basking in the warm glow of the season as we greet our guests. It helps to make these fantasies conscious, so we can let go of them without guilt. I find I have to remind myself repeatedly throughout the holiday season that my happy mood and time with my kids are much more important than my vision of all I could “give” them – even the educational, values-laden experiences!

Media images of the “perfect” holidays can be discouraging, since real life never looks like that. Reducing TV time during the holidays can reduce that pressure, and give you more time for family games and connecting.

In addition to all the other ideas in this article, I encourage you to find ways to nurture yourself over the holidays. Go for long walks outdoors, take hot baths, work out at the gym, do yoga, trade massages with your partner or a friend, cook good wholesome food. The more full you feel inside, body and soul, the less you’ll need to pursue the holiday frenzy.

And the more you and your family will find yourselves making meaning, as well as making merry.

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