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Dread nots: surviving the holidays with spirit intact

Escape the holiday dreads: handling family and stress

It's mid-December, and our hands are full. We're balancing work and family, shopping, errands and dinners, with 24 hours' worth of commitments every day. It's no wonder that so many of us come down with an acute case of the "Holiday Dreads" at this time of year. All we can think of is: "How am I ever going to get through the holidays?" That sentiment can dampen the holiday spirits of even the best of us. At worst, it brings out our inner Grinch.

I have a holiday mantra to repeat 10 times whenever the Holiday Dreads attack: "Enjoy the people." We can't do that unless we find ways to enjoy ourselves. To be able to enjoy the people, you need to simplify wherever you can and do things in a way that will give you some breathing room. Forget the ads showing life as it is in an advertiser's imagination. Ask yourself: "How can I maximize what I enjoy and minimize the drudgery?" The more you can give yourself a break, the more energy you'll have to give others your love and attention, and to experience the genuine holiday spirit.
For many of us, the Dreads are fueled by family expectations and conflicts. How can you be with Grandma Edith and Grandma Frances at the same time? What do you do with siblings who aren't speaking to each other? The idea is enjoying the people, right? Right.

But putting a priority on relationships doesn't mean you can make everyone happy all the time. In fact, some people aren't happy no matter what you do. It helps to realize that. You can drive yourself crazy, or you can recognize a no-win situation. To paraphrase the serenity prayer, change what you can change and accept what you can't. So decide with your spouse or significant other or your kids how you want to deal with these tricky family situations, and don't let anyone make you feel guilty about your decision. All you can do is what you can do. No miracles.

Another holiday dread is spending time with relatives you see once or twice a year and with whom you seldom agree about anything. When the family's all gathered together and the conversation starts to get heated, don't feel that you have to win a debate. Here's a conversational ploy that works with the most irascible relative. Just think of the martial arts. A small person can throw a big one by using his or her energy and going with the flow. Listen and be very understanding: "I really see what you mean." No one can disagree if you're not arguing, and the less self-defensive you are, the easier it is to listen. They might return the favor; even if they don't, there's less negative energy flying around.

If your Holiday Dreads strike because you don't have family to enjoy the holidays with, or they're far away, include friends. Make your own "family" and traditions. If your friends are tied up on the big days, get together at other times around the holidays. Create events that are easy on your time and budget, events that allow you to be surrounded by those you are fond of and who nourish your spirit. Plan something you will enjoy if you have to spend a special day alone and have things you can look forward to.

Tips for banishing your inner Grinch:
• Be realistic about time and how much can be done in a day.
• Find ways to entertain that don't involve an entire sit-down meal where you are the cook, wait staff, busboy and dishwasher. One of the best holiday parties we ever had was a late evening party of desserts, coffee and champagne. You can invite people to bring a dessert if you want. Light some candles and enjoy your friends.
• Honor rituals you enjoy, and consider changing those you don't.
• Be choosy about how you spend your time. Don't feel obliged to please everyone.
• Spouses and partners can be helpful if you ask for help clearly and realistically. Be specific about how they can help.
• See the holidays as an opportunity to practice patience under pressure. Do mini-relaxation exercises in traffic jams or the airport waiting line. It's not a life and death situation.
• Maintain the routines that keep everyone steady. Kids get wilder when bedtime changes every day, and we all need the basics: sleep and food, pretty much on schedule.

Happy Holidays!