Laugh, Cry, Live

Pondering the emotional side of life, beginning to end.

'Tis the Season... to Flee Folly

How to de-stress the holidays and really enjoy this time of year.

“‘Tis the season to be jolly!” Alas for many people, “jolly” seems out of reach as their holiday to-do list grows ever lengthy and the days seem impossibly shorter and inconveniently colder. You may cherish and enjoy many traditions, but some can seem like tedious chores or entail unwelcome expense. Traveling to be with family, baking reams of goodies, festive decorating, holiday parties, and gift giving can all bring joy -- or incite heartburn and even rioting. And given that “crazy busy” is how many of us describe our lives these days, how are you supposed to fit in this seasonal hyperactivity and stay jolly to boot? Remaining cheerful can be a stretch especially if your mood is affected by the fleeting daylight and incessantly gray winter skies. It’s also common for people to struggle with feeling overwhelmed, disappointed, forgotten, lonely, and bereft this time of year. When your prevailing mood contrasts starkly with the boundless joy promoted by society, religion, culture, and advertising, your misalignment can exacerbate your stress.

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Along with deep breathing, consider de-stressing your holidays with three key strategies: Simplicity, Flexibility, and Intention.

Simplify. First, make a list, writing down all the possible commitments, chores, errands, responsibilities, and traditions you can think of or anticipate, along with their corresponding tasks, dates, and deadlines. Second, prioritize. Begin by crossing out all the items you dread, resent, or find tedious or unnecessary. Consider those eliminated! Then circle the ones you truly enjoy or look forward to. Put those in ink on your calendar. Of the remaining events and tasks, asterisk the ones that are perhaps important to you or others close to you, or that might be fun if you have the time and energy. Pencil those into your calendar, but only if they don’t interfere with something that’s already in ink.

Be flexible. Consider that nothing is written in stone. For instance, if it works for your family to shift some dates around, do it! it’s a well-known secret that the best days to fly are Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, so some people plan their celebrations one day before or after. This flexibility also works well for folks who want to set aside a day for celebrating with each side of the family. You can also get flexible by creating new traditions. One of my sisters discovered that if she and her husband made a tradition of holing up in their own home for these winter holidays, not only did they guarantee quality time with each other and their girls, they cut out all the hassle and expense of travel and large, extended family feasts. At first they had to tolerate the disappointment of various relatives, but now everyone knows what to expect and no one takes it personally any more. I suspect they are the envy of some. Focus on what you find most fulfilling and convenient, and make it happen.

Clarify your intentions. Put away the measuring stick, hold realistic expectations, and identify what you really want to accomplish. What do you truly value? What other ways might you bring light and cheer into your life, family, and home? For instance, if hauling a formerly live tree into your house is not your idea of a good time, make a one-time investment in a small artificial tree that you can pull out every year, or decorate your rooms simply with strings of lights, small greenery, or candles. You might even give up the seasonal decorating, and instead sort through your excess stuff and donate it to charity.  It’s just a different way to make your home feel more light and cheery, and the effect will last far into the New Year. Another example: if baking and cooking vast quantities from scratch makes you want to run screaming, many grocery stores offer catering for families at reasonable prices. Or you can start a new tradition, such as going to a favorite local restaurant, or enlisting the help of a friend who loves to cook and the two of you can knock out enough for both families and have a blast. As for religious observances and spiritual rituals, invest your time and energy in the ones that truly hold meaning for you.


Gift giving? What a great opportunity to practice simplicity, flexibility, and intention! I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want more stuff, nor do I want to add to anyone else’s pile. As for the kids, I find it helpful to recall the tale of the child who treasures his one precious toy car until his well-meaning auntie buys him a whole set. Thereafter, all the cars, even his favorite, sit idle on the window sill, the abundance overwhelming the boy and even rendering his one toy car obsolete and no longer precious. So when your children express their fantastical hearts’ desires and proffer lengthy wish lists, ask them about their priorities and consider what they really want and need, balanced with what they can acquire for themselves with their own efforts and money.  Especially if your children are young, it’s easy to start the tradition of one flagship gift, perhaps accompanied by a couple of trinkets, a book, and brand new socks. To older children, consider giving money so they can spend or save as they wish.  You might also consider giving to charity in their names. Some organizations are making this a concrete activity, such that with your donation, you can buy “a goat” or “a beehive” or “part of an ocean or rainforest” or sponsor a wild animal or support the public television your children love. In doing so, your children will learn about the warm feelings of generosity and empathy that come from offering assistance to needy families, the environment, or society. For friends and relatives, consider calling a truce where you agree to eschew gift giving, perhaps again donating to charity.

For many years now, my parents and the available kids and grandkids have practiced “Secret Nondenominational Santa.” Each of us, including a former spouse and Pepito the Chihuahua, picks a name out of a hat, discovering to whom we must give a gift. All information and proceedings are kept top secret. Thrift store shopping is encouraged and dramatic efforts are made to disguise the giver. Picture a mound of packages wrapped in nondescript paper and plastic bags, the recipient indicated by letters cut from magazine covers (lest someone recognize any handwriting), all deposited surreptitiously in the designated spot. At the appointed time, with bated breath, we all watch as each receiver opens his or her treasure and then guesses who his or her Secret Santa is, and hilarity ensues. Yes, this is a far cry from the traditions of yesteryear, much less any religious observation, but we have simplified, we are flexible, and we’ve uncovered our true intentions: to enjoy ourselves and each other.

Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and author of 6 books, including one about perinatal hospice titled A Gift of Time.

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