How to Make Christmas Happy and Hassle-Free

If there’s too much to do and not enough time, here’s how to really enjoy the holidays.

Leona Laouras tensed up just thinking of all there was to do. She had to leave home at seven to teach high-school English in Park Ridge, Ill. Then she’d tutor until five. With luck, there’d be time for some holiday shopping before a rushed dinner. Afterward, she would have to drive her daughter to Christmas-pageant practice and hurry home to finish making a quilt, a present for her aunt.

Christmas celebrations mean pressure for most of us. No matter how hard we try to enjoy the season, with so much to do and not enough time, we end up rushing and pushing. But there are ways to have a simpler, old-fashioned holiday, with fewer hassles. Here’s how to avoid the pitfalls and get through the season calmly and at peace:

Deck Some Halls. More than at any other time of year, people need realistic expectations of themselves in December. “The holiday begins so early, you’re forced to keep up enthusiasm longer than is possible,” says psychiatrist John Buckman, of the University of Virginia. You can’t expect to live up to the images on Christmas cards — or the extravaganza it seems your mother put on each year. The holidays should fit what’s possible, not necessarily what’s ideal.

Every December, Jean Staeheli, coauthor with Jo Robinson of Unplug the Christmas Machine, gathers her family around a calendar and asks, “What do we want to do to celebrate this year?” They plan specific times for shopping and baking cookies. Knowing what she’ll be doing and when, says Staeheli, keeps her from feeling overwhelmed.

Robinson asks each member of her large family to bring one dish for the holiday meal. A New Jersey mother bakes lots of one kind of cookie, then goes to a “swap” where she and friends trade — each taking home a variety.

‘Tis the Season to Be — You. To reduce stress, “tailor the holidays to yourself,” explains Marjorie Baier, an associate professor at the Jewish Hospital College of Nursing and Allied Health, in St. Louis. Think, “I’ll celebrate my way” — and then do what you love.

Jean Staeheli’s family used to take an annual December “hooky day.” Free from jobs and school, they’d start the morning with her two daughters’ favorite breakfast. Then they’d bundle up and drive to a Christmas-tree farm. Later they listened to carols and decorated the tree with ornaments they’d made over the years.

Kathleen Burgy, a psychotherapist in Mill Valley, Calif., spends Christmas Day with her brothers and sisters — then goes on retreat to a monastery. Quiet nature walks, meditation, and work in the garden help her focus on the meaning of the season.

In Naperville, Ill., Mary Benfer celebrates the meaning of Christmas by teaching her children the importance of kindness. When she sets up her crèche, she leaves Jesus’ manger empty. Then, whenever a child helps with cleaning or shoveling snow, she writes the good deed on a piece of paper and lays it in the cradle. On Christmas morning, she puts Jesus on his “good-deed mattress” and shows her children what a nice bed their loving deeds have made.

Peace on Earth. Seasonal get-togethers can be fertile times for old feuds, misunderstandings and anger. “If you haven’t gotten along with Uncle Gus all year, he won’t change at Christmas,” warns psychologist Marta Vago, of Santa Monica, Calif. Recognizing this can protect you from feeling resentment.

Work at staying polite and emotionally distant when holiday gatherings bring you together with someone unpleasant. “Sometimes stress comes out of every nook and cranny of the other person’s conversation,” explains Dr. Jonathan Himmelhoch, a University of Pittsburgh professor of psychiatry. Stay neutral and avoid the emotional content of what the person says. Accept the fact that whatever’s wrong with a relationship, it won’t get sorted out around a Christmas turkey.

God Rest Ye Merry… Keeping physically fit can also help you avoid holiday stress. Psychiatrist Norman E. Rosenthal, director of seasonal studies at the National Institute of Mental Health, and author of Winter Blues, fixed a room with bright lights and exercise equipment to have a cheerful place to fight winter blues and work off Christmas calories. “You have to actively plan to keep from getting dragged down,” he says.

The excitement of seasonal activities can keep adrenaline flowing and disrupt sleep. If you travel, especially across time zones, you’ve got a “double whammy,” says Dr. Paul Fredrickson, codirector of the Mayo Clinic’s Sleep Disorder Center, in Jacksonville, Fla. Try hard to keep doing whatever you normally do to relax, like exercise or read. When you miss sleep, give yourself a few days of catch-up time. Don’t expect to bounce back from a “sleep debt” in just a few nights.

Alcohol can also disrupt sleep. Worse, drinking at party after party can have a cumulative effect: When the partying stops, people get hyper and irritable, explains Dr. Mary Dufour, of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. To avoid this, Dufour says, “I make one glass of wine last an evening by taking little sips.” Or she has soda or mineral water with a slice of lime, which looks like a mixed drink.

Psychologist Nancy Dess applies the same vigilance to her holiday diet. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, people often gorge and then fast, says Dess, an expert on eating and emotional health at Occidental College in Los Angeles. The result: depression and physical stress. To escape overindulging at holiday parties, Dess keeps her energy on a constant level by having regular, substantial meals.

All I Want for Christmas. “During the holidays, people become accountants,” says psychologist Vago. They feel obliged to spend as much on a gift for someone as that person spends on a gift for them. But, says psychologist John Carnes, of St. Petersburg, Fla., “a gift is just a gift, not a testimonial to the depth of your feeling for someone.”

“It’s the loving message behind a gift, not the gift itself,” explains H. Ronald Hulnick, coauthor with his wife, Mary, of Financial Freedom in Eight Minutes a Day. Instead of just shopping “smart,” concentrate on shopping “heart.”

Jo Robinson finds out what was important to people in their childhood, then gives them a gift that will evoke that happy memory. When her husband was a child, his grandmother gave him pomegranates for Christmas; last year, he found one in his stocking. An aunt’s father used to decorate the house with cedar boughs; Robinson made sure her aunt woke up one Christmas morning with cedar all around her bedroom. “A food or smell can bring back a magical time,” Robinson says.

Several years ago, Mary Hulnick set up a video camera in her living room and sat down in front of it. “I want to tell you a few things from my heart,” she began. For 30 minutes, she told her husband why she loved him — how much she appreciated his loyalty, sense of humor, and tenderness. “It was the most caring gift I ever got,” her husband says.

The Hulnicks sometimes invite friends over for a special dinner, after which they give them the “present” of telling them why their friendship is so valued.

Good Will to All. “Grief is magnified at Christmas,” observes psychologist Carnes. So is loneliness. Finding a way to give to others can fill an empty heart — and warm a full one.

One San Francisco mother of three was recently separated from her husband. Her daughters spent Christmas Eve and morning with her, then left to see their father. Instead of remaining sad and alone, the woman went to a soup kitchen and helped prepare hundreds of Christmas meals. “The best thing you can do is something for someone else,” she says. “When I talked with people who came to eat at the soup kitchen, I felt grateful for all I have.”

Jaye Bryant, a retired businessman in Great Falls, Mont., spent six hours one Christmas taking neighborhood kids to slide down a snowy hill. As the children whooshed to the bottom on inner tubes, Bryant met them and dragged the tubes back up. “At the end of the day, I was sore and wet,” he recalls. “But it gave me a good feeling to see the kids enjoy themselves.”

Joanie Connor, a California hairstylist, decided to have a happy Christmas in spite of being a continent away from her family in Boston. She invited eight friends, also “holiday orphans,” for Christmas. Each brought a potluck dish and simple gifts. As they listened to Christmas music and set the table, they drank champagne. “We were all a family together,” Connor says.

“During the holidays, everyone wants to be closer to people they love and to be connected to something larger than themselves,” says author Jo Robinson. You can get those basics through imagination and perseverance.

Every New Year’s Day, California writer Iris Lorenz-Fife holds a bring-your-leftovers open house. Friends arrive with pots of soup, halves of pies, and their last remaining Christmas cookies. During the day they hike through a nearby forest. Says Lorenz-Fife: “It sets a tone of renewal for the whole year.”

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