When I was a child, my mother and father did an amazing job of creating Christmas magic. I used to rearrange the presents under the tree every night and watch all those wonderful Christmas movies. And, like most kids, I got up at 5:00 am when it was still dark to sneak downstairs to see what Santa had left. I enjoyed every minute of Christmas dinner and then Christmas week when so many friends came to our ski town for vacation.
When I got married, I did everything in my power to recreate the magic of my own childhood for my daughters on Christmas morning. But I was also working long hours, so I also felt guilty. And I turned that guilt into buying more and more. As the girls got older, this became quite expensive. After my divorce, I really went overboard. They had to take a break from opening presents because there were simply too many! And it was certainly stressful trying to do more and more each year.
Why The Holidays Cause Stress
For many people, the holidays can feel stressful. This is in large part due to the massive cultural build-up of expectations that the holidays will be a time when families get together and all past wounds are healed (think Scrooge in The Christmas Carol). The reality is, this belief often leads to incredibly unrealistic ideas about what you owe your family during the holidays and ultimately culminates in a group of people getting together who don’t really want to be there.
Where is the holiday cheer in that? And how did we get here?
Dr. Mario Martinez, author of the Mind Body Code, says that the pleasure of mindful ritual—for example, going caroling or to a tree lighting ceremony with loved ones—has been replaced by mindless routines laden with obligation. These mindless routines often involve what he calls “ledger” relationships. A ledger relationship is when you feel obligated to buy a present for someone you don’t know (or even like) because it’s expected, or when you feel obligated to see a toxic family member out of guilt “because it’s Christmas.”
But just because you have a “Christmas Past,” does not mean you have to repeat it each year. You have the power and ability to make your holidays as joyful as you want and deserve them to be. It just takes a little planning.
10 Tips for Creating Joyful Holidays
If you are ready to lose the holiday stress brought on by feelings of guilt and obligation, here are some of my tried and true (and tested) strategies that anyone can put into practice—starting now!
- Release guilt and shame. Guilt is the feeling you have done something wrong or made a mistake. Shame is the feeling you are the mistake! When guilt and shame arise during the holidays it feels just awful! And truly releasing these feelings, takes practice and time. But you can start simply by acknowledging the Divine part of yourself that existed before you were born and able to experience feelings of guilt and shame. Try to find humor in the situations that bring up feelings of guilt and shame. Depending on the situation, humor can help you release tension and anger associated with shame.
- Write down your expectations. Write down what you wish for this holiday season. For example, do you want everyone to simply show up at your home and relax while you prepare meals, or do you want everyone to contribute? Do you envision your holidays as a quiet time, or do you love having lots of people around, including those difficult family members? Be honest with yourself about what you care about, how much time, energy, and money you want to spend. Acknowledge any unrealistic expectations. This can help you cultivate more peace during the holiday season.
- Update your gift-giving practices. A number of years ago my family updated our gift-giving practices. While abundance on all levels is something I believe in, I had been going overboard during the holidays for many years. The truth is gift-giving should be meaningful, and not stressful. Start by determining your personal truth around giving gifts. Do you need to stick to a budget? Do you have too many things and would prefer not to have more clutter. Would giving to others in need be a good fit for your family? Or maybe you prefer to enjoy a nice lunch or outing with a loved one—the gift of your presence.
- Be real about your finances. No one likes feeling as if the gifts they give are not equal to the gifts they receive. But no one wants to come out of the holidays in debt and unable to pay their bills either! If you find yourself in this situation after the holidays, it’s time to get real about money. One great way to ensure everyone is happy is to agree on a spending limit—whether it’s a total on what you will spend, or a “cap” on what each individual in your family spends per gift. While there will always be someone who breaks the rule and spends more, you don’t need to feel guilty.
- Stick to your routines. Most of us have our daily routines that structure our lives and keep us grounded. Often these are often disrupted during the holiday season. If you have certain routines that you love and are health-supporting, be sure to make time each day during the holidays to maintain those practices. Maybe you need to take a walk every afternoon or have a cup of tea to feel refreshed. Maybe you like to go to the gym at a certain time of day. You can still do this to maintain some semblance of normalcy during the holidays.
- Learn how to receive with joy. Most children know how to receive with joy. Sadly, as adults we often forget how to receive. In fact, in my practice I often saw women that only knew how to receive when they were sick! Relearning how to receive allows you to experience the joy of the season—and in your life! You can start by receiving compliments. If someone says, “I like your dress,“ respond by saying, “Thank you.” That’s it! Just “Thank you.” Keeping a gratitude journal is another great way to increase your joy. By the same token, if you have a “Negative Nancy” at your holiday celebration—you know the one that asks if you have gained weight or of what you did to your hair—use the tactics I’ve mentioned here to let it go. Then, if that person is someone that truly detracts from your joy each year, make a note to add that person to your “do-not-invite” list next year. Even if you still invite her, you’ve taken a step to increase your power and joy.
- Let go of perfection. Many people put pressure on themselves to make things “perfect” during the holidays. And when you perceive that you have failed to meet this unrealistic expectation, you can feel frustrated, disappointed, or even depressed. Coming to the realization that you don’t “owe” anyone a perfect holiday will truly free you from the stress of the season. When my friend was a child (and all through her college years) her mother threw huge holiday parties at their home. Everyone was invited—neighbors, friends, and anyone who didn’t have a place to go. One year the cat jumped into their very large tree pulling it down, breaking many of the ornaments, and triggering the house alarm so that the police arrived—just a couple of hours before their big Christmas dinner party! It certainly could have been a disaster. But my friend’s father (with the help of the police officers) stood the tree back up and re-wired it to the French doors. The family redecorated the tree with the salvageable ornaments, and everyone helped get dinner ready afterwards. They just laughed it off. Their guests got a laugh as well when they heard the story. So what if you spill the gravy at dinner, or you don’t get around to wrapping a certain gift? Remember the biggest gift you can give your loved ones and yourself is happiness.
- Be present. When we are rushed and distracted it’s not easy to feel the joy of the season. In fact, all the “hustle and bustle” contributes to stress. When you feel yourself living in the hectic pace, take a minute to slow down. You can use your breath to bring you back to the present moment. Breathing fully in through your nose and out through your mouth resets your parasympathetic nervous system. You can also try grounding. Or simply say to yourself quietly or out loud, “distracted” or “be present.”
- Practice Self-Love. We often forget to extend love and compassion to ourselves, and this can be especially true during stressful times. I like to say do unto YOURSELF as you do to others. This is the truest form of self-love. Take time to reflect on how you talk to yourself. Try to imagine you are talking to a precious child. You can even do this in the mirror. Or try writing a letter or short notes of appreciation to yourself as if a
- Choose rituals of meaning. Having the courage to mindfully choose the rituals that give meaning to your holidays (and ditching those that don’t) can feel empowering. Including holiday rituals that appeal to you—the ones that contain magic and meaning or truly speak to you—are a great way to continue family traditions or start new ones without the guilt and stress.
If you are willing to truly invest in what has the most meaning for you, you will also be a beacon of sanity and magic for which your entire family will be grateful. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. This will be a family legacy—a new mindful ritual—that everyone will want to carry on for generations.