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It's Silent Night time again -- and all is not calm. Mom, expected by everyone to embody the joyous holiday spirit, wakes up each morning with that reindeer-caught-in-the-headlights feeling of having too much to do and only a small Advent-calendar window of opportunity to do it in. The kids are in a sugar-induced, jingle bell-fueled state of hyperactive euphoria, hubby "Scrooge" isn't much help, and each day is a blur of furious activity. But while hectic holidays may be as much a given as poinsettias by the front door and stockings on the mantel, it's one tradition you can leave behind this year. Use these sanity-saving suggestions from our experts to learn from your Christmas Past mistakes, so Christmas Present has more cheer.
1. Let Go of the Need for Perfection Christmas Past: Last year, you tried so hard to make the season picture-perfect that you were left snarly and exhausted by December 24. Now you're even more determined to work to make this holiday everything your kids, husband, parents, in-laws, siblings, and cousins could desire.
Christmas Present: Lower your expectations -- before they come crashing down altogether. We all have fantasies of what the holidays should be like, constructed from Miracle on 34th Street, assorted idealized TV specials, and our childhood memories. But when we become focused on reenacting these warm-and-fuzzy visions -- and ignoring reality -- we run the risk of ruining everyone's special time. "Parents go wild wanting to make sure everything is perfect," says Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD, a psychologist in Brookline, Massachusetts, and author of Playful Parenting. "The extreme example is a parent telling her kids, 'No, I don't have time to play with you because I'm too busy wrapping presents or decorating the house.'"
Instead, Dr. Cohen urges families to take advantage of the vacation time that the holidays bring. "You're off from work, your child's off from school, so spend the time doing what you both love to do. If you'd really rather be sledding, then go sledding." What you hope to share in December is not your to-do list, but genuine closeness and intimacy. "The beauty of the holidays is real human connection," says Flo Rosof, PhD, marriage therapist and director of the Life Development Center, in Huntington, New York. "The rest is just icing on the cake."
2. Write and Wrap a Little at a Time Christmas Past: 'Twas the night before you-know-what, and the only creature stirring in the house was you, faced with an Everest of unwrapped gifts and unwritten Christmas cards.
Christmas Present: As you bring presents home from shopping expeditions throughout the season, make it a habit to wrap them later that same day, says Ronni Eisenberg, a professional organizer in Westport, Connecticut, and author of Organize Yourself! and Organize Your Home! "It's the pile-up," she explains, "that makes people feel overwhelmed and angry." For maximum efficiency, she advises designating one table or corner in your home as gift-wrap central with rolls of paper, tissue, bows, ribbons, scissors, tape, and cards all ready to go. Avoid the what-present-is-this guessing game by sticking on a gift tag with the recipient's name right away.
Tackle holiday cards the same way, and fire back a return greeting within a day of receiving one. A brief heartfelt note is all that's required. In addition, pay a teen to input your address book into the computer and print out mailing labels in advance. (And ask her to store the data on a disk to use next year.) If the thought of inscribing those greetings still curdles your holiday eggnog, whittle down your list or rethink the practice altogether. Life coach Cheryl Richardson, author of Stand Up for Your Life, says firmly, "If I'm sending cards out of guilt or obligation, I won't send them -- and I don't."
3. Savor a Silent Night Christmas Past: Sleigh bells ring, were you listening? You'd have loved to, but you couldn't hear over the Chipmunks blasting in the mall, the cars honking over parking spaces, and announcers yelling on TV and radio commercials. Whatever happened to heavenly peace?
Christmas Present: Treat yourself to a noise-free night. Richardson suggests turning off the TV, computer, and ringer on the phone and just sitting by the tree, the menorah, or the fire with your husband and kids. Inhale the scent of fir or baking cookies, and gaze at the flickering lights or flames for a while. Even squirmy kids love to lie under the tree, and they'll learn firsthand that lovely holiday times can occur without a high-volume soundtrack.
4. Don't Shop Till You Drop Christmas Past: Year in and year out, selecting and buying gifts has required your all: that is, your parents already have it all, your kids want it all, and your best friends and spouse deserve it all. Not to mention that your holiday credit-card balances stuck around into swimsuit season.
Christmas Present: Place a limit on the number of people you're giving to and the amount you're spending on them, and both your psyche and savings will benefit. In a study last year in the Journal of Happiness Studies, Tim Kasser, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, surveyed 117 people about their holidays and examined the factors associated with the most satisfaction and feelings of well-being. One finding: People who had more family and religious experiences at Christmas reported greater happiness, while those who spent more money buying gifts and even those who received more gifts were more stressed and less happy.
Eight years ago, Richardson and her six brothers and sisters decided to keep buying individual gifts for their parents but to draw names from a bowl at Thanksgiving so each would have one additional sibling or in-law to give to (the nieces and nephews did the same). At first, she recalls, "My siblings and I felt guilty about not getting each other something. We were uncomfortable arriving with just one bag." They got over the guilt quickly, however, when they realized how much they gained in time and energy for each other.
5. Remind Your Kids of the Reason for the Season Christmas Past: Angels most of the year, your kids were transformed into grabby, selfish little urchins as soon as the tinsel and holly went up.
Christmas Present: First, be clear about the messages that you're sending your children. If you're warning them in March that they better be good or else Santa will bring them coal, no wonder they get confused in December when you lecture them about the true meaning of the holidays. Then, if your kids are throwing their presents aside as soon as they open them on the big day to move on to the next item, "it's a sign they're getting too many things," says Dr. Cohen. He advises fewer gifts and slowing down. Also, explain to your children the importance of showing gratitude. Dr. Cohen says that a 3- or 4-year-old is mature enough to help you decorate a thank-you card, or say what you should write in it.
6. Keep Your Cool with Difficult Relatives Christmas Past: You can't stand the mandatory time with your in-laws; everything about them drives you crazy, and vice versa.
Christmas Present: Realize that, like all other moments in our existence, the holidays are fleeting. "Think to yourself, 'It's just a few hours,'" counsels Dr. Rosof. "Say, 'I have to do this only once or twice a year, and I'll try to make it as pleasant as I can.'" Be careful, too, about venting to your spouse in front of the kids. "If you're going to be visiting relatives you don't like, don't say nasty things about them in front of your children," says Dr. Cohen, "because they'll repeat verbatim what we say behind people's backs."
7. Plan Ahead for Easier Cleanup Christmas Past: You reveled in all the joys of the holidays, but hated the cleanup after it was all over, to the point that you considered a ban on all festivities.
Christmas Present: Strive for a Christmas that's better for the earth, and you'll make it better for yourself, too. Some examples of how easy it is being green: Buy a live tree that you can plant in your yard or give away after the holidays; decorate it with popcorn and cranberry garlands and gingerbread men that you can toss into the compost bin afterward; and package presents in reusable gift bags. A joy-to-your-world bonus: In his study, Dr. Kasser says that people who reported engaging in more environmentally friendly practices were happier at Christmas.
8. Take a Holiday Time-Out Christmas Past: Maybe it was the first season without a loved one, or a long-term relationship recently ended. From November through the New Year, you were grouchy and blue. And what made it worse was everyone barking, "Hey, where's your holiday spirit?"
Christmas Present: Inform your friends and family that you're trimming back on celebrating this year. "As much as the season is about joy and cheer, it should also be a reflective period where we think about who is no longer in our lives," says Richardson.
"Clients have felt a tremendous sense of relief when I've said to them, 'Sit this holiday season out.'" Of course, you can't escape the holidays completely, especially if you have kids. Still, Richardson recommends opting out of nonessential activities and events and giving yourself an occasional evening of doing whatever comforts you -- wearing your baggiest sweatsuit, curling up on the couch with the dogs, and watching old movies or reading a novel.
"When we give ourselves permission to grieve and just be with whatever sadness we have," says Richardson, "we can move through it more quickly and end up feeling less pain."