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It's 10:30 on a typical mid-December weeknight, and you're staring at a pile of unwrapped presents in one corner of the family room and a stack of unaddressed cards in another. The kids' gift lists have grown as though on steroids, and you still have three batches of cookies to bake for tomorrow night's dessert swap. At this point, the South Pole is looking like a pretty good escape.
Sound familiar? "At this time of year, women are assigned the role of caretaker of everyone's dreams," says Wayne M. Sotile, PhD, director of psychological services for Wake Forest University's Healthy Exercise and Lifestyle Programs, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Not only are they head chef, decorator, buyer, and hospitality director, they're also producer of the next generation's mental movies about the season. Indeed, the desire to create ideal holiday memories is enough to bring out the perfectionist in even the most laid-back mom.
Patricia Kulmoski knows the feeling. Two Christmases ago, the Pittsburgh accountant and mother of three, ages 11, 9, and 5, was so busy moving that for the first time she put up an artificial tree and skipped decorating the house. She still feels guilty about it. "To this day I feel like the world's most horrible mother," she says. "Of course, it wasn't a horrible Christmas -- the kids loved their presents, they loved getting together with their cousins, and the most important thing is that we were all together. But I worried about the kids thinking for the rest of their lives, 'Remember that one Christmas when Mom only put up that plastic tree?'"
The good news is that you don't have to give up on memory making to have a saner holiday. By being picky about what you focus on, you'll make the season special and still have enough energy to enjoy it.
Sure, you could skimp by serving store-bought sweets and sending pre-signed cards. But what if you get pleasure out of molding marzipan or writing a personal note to everyone on your carefully cultivated list?
"The key is to be deliberate about how you're spending your time," says Dee Love, a human development specialist in the School of Consumer and Family Sciences at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana. "So many things about the holidays are special to us because they happen only at this time of year. The temptation is to accumulate more experiences than we or our families can realistically handle."
If you pick out the perfect velvet ribbon to tie up the evergreen boughs on the mantel, then make your famous lemon bars and take them over to the neighbors' party, then get the family dressed up for the holiday concert, and afterward drive everybody to the downtown park to look at the light display, you've just fallen victim to "stressor pileup," says Love. "Instead of enjoying any of these experiences, you end up frazzled, the kids are overstimulated, and everyone feels dissatisfied."
So take stock. Pick one thing to do well, whether it's serving a sit-down dinner for 20 or helping your kids make a gingerbread house. Think about "what you'd really miss if it weren't part of your holiday season" and what you could live without, suggests Barbara Fiese, PhD, chair of psychology at Syracuse University, in upstate New York.
After hearing about how a friend waited in front of a department store at 5 a.m. to buy her child the toy of the moment -- and got knocked down and bruised in the rush -- Alicia Birckhead, 37, decided she could live without shopping for gifts. Now Birckhead, a medical secretary in Fairfield, Pennsylvania, spends hours with her daughters, 10 and 13, making handmade gifts for relatives and close friends. She and her husband have freed up time by scaling back on holiday party going. Invitations to work-related get-togethers get an automatic no -- "we see those people all the time," she points out -- and friends' gatherings rate a yes only if they easily fit the family's schedule. Meanwhile, the girls' apple jellies, handcrafted ornaments, and decorated T-shirts have strengthened connections with the loved ones they don't often see. "When people put that jam on their toast in the morning," says Birckhead, "they're thinking about the person who made it."
Focusing on one area doesn't mean that you have to abandon everything else. The trick is to find ways in which you can get the most benefit out of a minimal investment.
"Instead of decking all the halls, concentrate on the one room of the house where you spend the most time," says Lisa Lelas, professional organizer and coauthor of Simple Steps for Every Holiday (New American Library, 2004). If everybody hangs out in the den or family room, that's where the swag, garland, and antique train set should go. (Just put poinsettias in the other rooms.)
The theory applies to gifts, too. Each year Judith Schneider, coauthor of The Frantic Woman's Guide to Life (Warner, 2004), reduces decision-making stress by giving everyone on her list similar gifts from one category. "This year," she says, "all my nieces are getting down throws in different colors and designs." Her nephews have gotten cologne and footballs in the past. Low-stress ideas for friends and coworkers include books, gourmet foods, and charitable donations in the person's name.
Committed to throwing more than one party? Schneider suggests doing all your entertaining in a single weekend instead of spreading it out over the season. Start with the most demanding crowd: You could hold a cocktail party for business associates Friday night and a casual open house for close friends and family on Sunday. "This way you have to do the heavy-duty cleaning and food prep only once -- the week before -- with touch-ups in between parties," she says.
From the aroma of mulled apple cider on the stove to the crunch of new snow on the driveway, the season is full of sensory pleasures. Allowing them to sink in is one of the easiest, quickest ways to restore calm.
"When you're baking cookies, enjoy the sensation of your hands in the dough. When you're out shopping, really listen to the holiday carols. When you walk back to your car, feel the temperature of the air on your face," says Leslee Kagan, clinical nurse-practitioner at the Mind/Body Medical Institute, in Boston. Being in the moment is the essence of mindfulness -- fully focused attention -- which is also key in reducing stress. After a few minutes of sensory indulgence, your heart rate will slow and your muscles will relax. What you're getting is a kind of mini meditation without having to sit down and close your eyes.
If you're so used to multitasking that you can't remember how to focus on one thing at a time, breathing will help calm you down. Kagan suggests a simple technique: Take a deep breath into your belly, and as you breathe out, say the number five. Pause, then breathe in and out and say four. Continue breathing and counting down to one. Try this when you're circling the parking lot or waiting in line. Instead of fuming over the delay, seize it as an opportunity to unwind.
At the end of November a few years ago, organizer/author Lelas and her husband decided to drop the kids off at Grandma's for the weekend and head to a resort town. There were outlets nearby, and the couple spent all day browsing the clothing, home-accessory, and toy stores, and the trinket shops selling candles, soaps, and baskets. In the evening, they unwound over dinner. By the end of the weekend, they'd filled up the SUV with gifts -- and renewed their relationship. The experiment was so successful that it's now an annual ritual. "It's easy to forget about your spouse during the holidays," says Lelas. "This gives us time together before the crunch. It's the only time we go into stores during the whole season, and it's turned a stressor -- shopping -- into something positive."
But new traditions need not be as elaborate, and many can "change and grow as families do," says Dr. Sotile, of Wake Forest University. Are the grown-ups going broke buying presents for an ever-increasing tribe of nieces and nephews? Suggest a $10 limit on gifts, draw names from a hat so that each sibling's family buys gifts for just one other family, or have a grab bag and trade gifts with each other -- all solutions that extended families have successfully adopted. "Don't be shy about being the one who spearheads something different," says Dr. Sotile. "Most people will welcome a creative variation that reduces stress or financial strain."
A good way to deal with seasonal demands? Accept them and aim to pamper yourself once the holidays are over. Every January, Patricia Kulmoski and her family go to a friend's vacation house at Pennsylvania's Laurel Mountain for the weekend. Kulmoski looks forward to time alone when her husband will take the kids snow-tubing and she can read, sip a glass of wine, or write in her journal.
"It can be a relief to let yourself off the hook and admit there's not going to be a lot of 'me' time this month," says Schneider. "Keep your energy up by looking beyond the holidays and planning what you're going to do for yourself in January -- a spa day, a new class. At night, when you get into bed, look through course catalogs or spa brochures and plan what your treat will be. It's a great way to unwind after a day of holiday craziness."
Times of stress bring out the narcissistic and impulsive 3-year-old in all of us, says Pauline Wallin, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, and author of Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior (Wildcat Canyon, 2004). "When we're under pressure we tend to regress to immature forms of coping," she explains. No wonder you spent the day sulking after someone grabbed your parking spot, or wound up arguing with your brother over who would sit where at your folks' dinner table.
Counter your inner brat by performing simple acts of kindness. "Let someone go ahead of you in line. Shovel your neighbor's walk," says Dr. Wallin. "Look store clerks in the eye, smile and say, 'Thank you -- I really appreciate your help.'"
As for your sister who never lets anyone get a word in edgewise, or your impossible-to-please great-aunt: "Look for the good intentions behind what they're doing," says Fred Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, in Palo Alto, California, and coauthor of the forthcoming Stress Free for Good (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). "You may not want to be around these people 24-7, but for a few hours you can remind yourself: 'My aunt criticizes because she wants everything to be neat and orderly -- it's her way of trying to help.' Or, 'My sister doesn't have much self-respect -- she talks so much to try to keep people's attention.'" You're not condoning the behavior; you're protecting yourself from being injured by it.
Finally, bear in mind that no matter how much thought and care you put into your holiday planning, you can't control the results. Be committed to process, not product, and enjoy the gifts the season delivers, whatever form they take.
Melissa Yarworth, 35, a mother of three in Sabillasville, Maryland, is a floral designer who gets great pleasure out of creating beautiful environments -- especially during the holidays. Last year, the Yarworths bought a new house, and the conditions of the sale required them to move in Christmas week. With no time to decorate properly, she and her children put up a tree and placed electric candles in the windows. "The furniture hadn't arrived, and boxes were everywhere," Yarworth says. "All we had in the kitchen were a microwave and a toaster oven. On Christmas Eve, we slept in sleeping bags. But in the morning the kids had their stockings, and we ate store-bought cheese Danish and opened our presents under the tree. We were home. It was a wonderful Christmas."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2004.