Don't Just Survive the Holidays, Enjoy Them

Healthy vs. unhealthy holiday traditions

Posted Dec 02, 2016

Big Stock Images
Source: Big Stock Images

It's that time of year again. The displays of small potted Christmas Trees and poinsettia greet you at the front of the supermarket. There are candy canes and ornaments overflowing in the aisles of the pharmacy. Blue and white candles for the Hanukkah menorah and little gold bags of chocolate coins for dreidel games sit on display. I think you can divide most Americans into one of two camps. No, not Republican or Democrat.

There are the "I love this time of year!" people, and the "Oh, no, not this again!" people.

Christmas and Hanukkah are as much or maybe even more about tradition than they are about religion. In your family maybe it's the tradition to open gifts on Christmas Eve or one gift on each night of Hanukkah. Maybe you love Christmas music, but don't let yourself listen to it until after Thanksgiving. Maybe you decorate your house in blue and white twinkly lights.

I'm sure not all your traditions bring up happy memories and comforting feelings, though. This time of year also brings traditions we wish weren't traditions at all. Fights with your significant other over how to deal with passive-aggressive in-laws, anxiety about how many calories are in that glass of eggnog you're drinking, stress about what to get for whom and how much money it's going to cost you.

So how do you hold onto the good things you like about this time of year, and get rid of all the things you hate?

In my work as a marriage and family therapist, I see many people who ask me that question. Like everything in life, there's no such thing as all good or all bad. While I can't offer a magic solution to get rid of in-laws or make all sugary treats delicious and calorie-free, what I can offer are some ideas for how to get more of the good, and less of the bad.

1. Make a list of the things that you usually do this time of year that you enjoy.

Do you like to drive around looking at people's decorations all lit up while drinking hot chocolate and listening to Nat King Cole? Do you like to watch an all-night marathon of Christmas movies? Go out for Chinese food on the day millions of American Jews call "that day at the end of December where there's no traffic, and you don't have to wait for a table."

2. Make a list of the things that usually happen this time of year that you can't stand.

Are there relatives you dread seeing because they ask you personal questions you don't want to answer, or because they want to talk politics and that's the last thing in the world you want to do. Are there foods you can't eat and every year you have to re-explain to people, even though you're sure they haven't forgotten, that you don't eat ham, or wheat, or sugar? Does every holiday celebration end with you ready to scream in frustration and run away?

The goal this December is to do as many of the things on list #1 as you can and to limit the negative impact of what's on list #2.

If Christmas music is on list #1, gorge yourself on Bing Crosby. If you like seeing houses wrapped in lights, try to drive through well-decorated neighborhoods on your way home from work. If your family goes to see a movie every year on December 25th, get the group together to watch trailers of what's in theaters so you can communally decide what to see.

Now, the hard part: list #2. While you probably can't cut out from the festivities relatives who upset you or shield yourself entirely from uncomfortable or frustrating situations, you can limit their ability to ruin the things on list #1. The trick is to set boundaries.

For example, if you can handle a few hours with your family, but more than six at a time and you feel like you're losing your mind, plan in advance what time you'll arrive and leave. Before the day you're supposed to see them, call and say, "I'm looking forward to opening presents and eating your delicious ham. Just to give you a head's up, I'll have to leave by nine because I have [fill in made up excuse here]. Should I bring a bottle of wine or a pie?" You squeeze the excuse for why you can't spend ten hours with your nosy aunt peppering you with intrusive questions between a compliment and an offer of food or alcohol.

With a few firm boundaries to get you through the traditions you can't stand, and weeks to fill with traditions you can't get enough of, you'll have a happier Hanukkah or merrier Christmas (or both!) than you have had in years.

To read more about how boundaries can help you increase your happiness, please visit my website at my website or sign up for my newsletter.