Holiday Stress Busters
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Holiday Stress Busters

Four strategies to make the season merry and bright.

Get Real

Peace on Earth? Good will toward all? With your hyper-critical Aunt Katie on her way over, your wallet feeling the holiday pinch, and the baking only half done? No, really, it is possible -- with these tension-taming strategies.

We want to do it all -- make that five-course meal for 25, lavishly decorate the entire house, deliver fresh-baked banana bread to the neighbors, create needlepoint stockings for the children -- but halfway through we realize that a) there's no time to do it and b) perfection is a bear. Most of us have unrealistically high expectations for the holidays. Yes, you want it to be magical for your kids. But is it worth driving yourself crazy? To scale back a bit to reality, try these tips:

  • Have a don't-do list. "Pick five to-dos to pass on," recommends Jannette Shaw, Ed.D., a psychologist in South Bend, Indiana. Ask your kids what they didn't like last year -- such as stringing lights on the shrubs or hand-making cards -- and skip it.
  • Give yourself a reality check. Tack up some sayings to help gain a little perspective, such as "Christmas means family" or "Take it one day at a time," by your phone or your mirror, or use them as screen-savers, suggests Dorothy Cantor, Psy.D., a psychologist in private practice in Westfield, New Jersey.
  • Rally the troops. When your kids start to moan, "I'm bored" on holiday break, point to the pile of fallen pine needles under the Christmas tree and the vacuum. Or when your sister-in-law asks, "What can I do to help?" have suggestions at the ready: "Would you rather boil the cranberries or polish the silver?"
  • Create a "Honey-Do List." Most men don't know where to begin when it comes to holiday planning, says Allen Elkin, Ph.D., director of the Stress Management Counseling Center, in New York City. Make a note with specific tasks ("wrap all Santa presents") with clear deadlines ("by the 24th at midnight"). Debbie Attar, 32, a stay-at-home mother in Chevy Chase, Maryland, makes her husband responsible for buying all the gifts for his side of the family. If he forgets, he can face their disappointment.

Manage Money Woes

It's hard to feel jolly when you're worried about credit-card bills arriving in January. But you also don't want to deprive your family of a full Christmas celebration (or listen to your kids complain about skimping). Here are some simple strategies to stay within your means without sacrificing any of the joy:

  • Give priceless presents. When Tracey McBride, the author of Frugal Luxuries by the Seasons (Bantam, 2000) and her husband Mike had to scale back on luxurious gifts, Tracey was afraid it wouldn't go over well with her three kids. So, the family, who live in a suburb of Los Angeles, went to a soup kitchen in the city's downtown to volunteer. Seeing how tough life was for others gave the kids the gift of perspective and also taught them the importance of helping others.
  • Party on, pot-luck style. To save when entertaining, use your delegation muscles. "Have a wine tasting party, so you're not stuck footing a huge bill for a holiday dinner," says Sarah Gomez, 31, a stay-at-home mom in Cohasset, Massachusetts. She assigns her friends one bottle from a specific region, like the Loire Valley or Napa. With each pal representing a different region, the partygoers get to sample a world of wine.
  • Dress up inexpensive gifts. McBride found some baskets at Wal-Mart last year for just 99 cents, filled them with shredded brown paper bags, fruit from the farmer's market -- apples, pears, figs -- and a couple of foil-wrapped gourmet chocolates. Baskets can set you back as little as $10 each.
  • Recycle your treasures. One of the best and cheapest gifts McBride ever gave her husband was refurbishing two timepieces his late father left him. "They meant so much to him, he cried," she says.
  • Give personal IOUs. Make a certificate on your PC that entitles the recipient to a chore -- baby-sitting, car washing, lawn mowing -- by you (after the holidays, naturally).
  • Strip your fridge. Save money on wrapping paper by using your kids' artwork to cover gift boxes, suggests Elaine St. James, author of Simplify Your Christmas (Anders McMeel, 1998).
  • Wax poetic. Write a letter telling your relative you are proud of his or her accomplishments of that year, says St. James. If the kids are too little to write, they can draw or do a collage that represents their affection for their assigned person.

Curb Relative Anxiety

While it may make you feel warm and fuzzy to have all the people you love in one place at one time, you could live without the tension of Uncle Joe feeding the puppy chocolate or your father-in-law spiking the eggnog. Staying sane during family gatherings means taking a few deep breaths, and using the following control tactics:

  • Create time limits. When attending parties, give yourself a pre-determined amount of time -- say an hour and a half -- and set the alarm on your cell-phone or Palm to signal your exit. You can tell the host, "This was lovely, but we're expected at another party."
  • Plan an outing. To keep relatives who are staying with you from feeling restless and to get them out of your hair, put your husband or teen in charge of entertaining. A trip to the movies, a play, or even just a backseat tour of your city's downtown can do the trick.
  • Rehearse your lines. "Don't expect people to change from last year," says Dr. Elkin. If your aunt always criticizes your food, be prepared to deflate her comments. Try something that protects you without attacking her like, "Maybe we can all chip in next year and hire a caterer." If your relative always complains about your gifts try, "Why don't you make a list of your favorite stores, and I'll just get you gift certificates from now on."

Fight Fatigue

You're on Holiday Time. That means you work longer hours (have to make those pre-vacation deadlines), stay up later (must finish those Christmas cards), and wake up earlier (gingerbreads to ice before school). The only sleep you catch is while you're in line to get the kids' picture taken with Santa. "Prepping for the holidays is like a competitive sport!" says St. James. Check out these energy-saving shortcuts:

  • Cut corners. When you're in the grocery store loading up on holiday ingredients, opt for the fresh-baked cookies, the pre-washed veggies, and the prepared cranberry sauce.
  • Avoid the mall. Karen Ghaffari, 32, an analyst in New York City, has nine nieces and nephews to shop for. Rather than run from store to store, she shops on line. "I order from, or and have the gifts sent directly to the place where my family is celebrating," she says.
  • Stick to a theme. "Instead of stampeding to different stores trying to find the perfect gift for each person on my list, I focus on theme-based gifts that I can individualize based on age and personality, such as ornaments or CDs," says Jessica Smith, 31, a mother of two and a publicist in Framingham, Massachusetts. Your friends and family will love the gifts, and you'll love the peace of mind you gained from the time you saved.