Managing the Stress and Feeling the Joy of the Holidays: 5 Things That Worked, and 1 That Didn’t


I used to hate Christmas—so much so that I often bypassed it altogether. When I worked as a staff nurse, I did switches with people so I could work both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and be off New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Christmas held no religious meaning for me, and as a single person with no kids and a very small gift budget, I didn’t have much use for the rest of it, either.

Now that I’m married with kids, it’s a whole new holiday, and I love making it fun and magical for them. But as we all know, it can be stressful. I’m not interested in “getting through” the holidays. I want to actually enjoy the season, so I look for ways to make it less stressful. Every year I learn a little more about what works for us, and what doesn’t.

So, here’s what worked this year:

1) Decorating early.

We put up our tree, etc., the first weekend in December. It felt great to have it done and be able to enjoy having it for almost the whole month.

2) Decorating half-assed, and letting it slide.

See that big bush on the left? The plan was to put lights on that one, too, like I’ve done for the last three years. I never got to it. Oh, well! There was a time when I would have felt pressured to get that done. Not this year. Life’s too short.



3) Dealing with commercialism: minimizing it where we can while accepting what IS.

I think we all wish Christmas weren’t so much about shopping. My husband and I get one token gift for each other, mostly for the kids’ benefit, so it’s not ALL about them on Christmas morning. There is no gift exchange between my siblings and I—we just give to each other’s kids. A few close friends and I set it up this way: we are free to buy a gift if we see something and feel inspired, or not. One person receiving a gift doesn’t obligate that person to reciprocate. Freedom to give without obligation.

The kids, of course, are another story. They want their loot, and I’ve decided that’s OK. I resist the temptation to be all intense about impressing upon them that it’s not about getting toys, it’s really about giving and being grateful for your blessings and loving your family and friends, and yada yada. Not that these aren’t important values to impart, and not that we don’t talk about all that. But harping on it ad nauseum can start to feel like guilt-tripping them for wanting stuff. I let them enjoy the excitement of wishing for lots of things and getting some of them.

4) Choosing activities carefully.

I love to be out and about, taking advantage of all the fun stuff happening in my community. My default tendency is to err on the side of doing something even if part of me knows it will tip the scale over to hectic, because whatever-it-is sounds so awesome that obviously we can’t miss it!

Well, yes, we can. I’m getting better at letting opportunities go so we don’t get too busy. Occasionally, I feel momentary pangs of FOMO (fear of missing out), but these days I’m better able to recognize that for what it is and let it go. Because what I really don’t want to miss out on is a slower pace and more downtime with my family.

This year, we chose caroling with a group from our neighborhood association, pizza night with some friends and family followed by driving around to see the houses with huge, crazy lights displays, and a small party with friends to celebrate Solstice. And the new Star Wars movie as a Christmas Eve surprise!

5) Giving myself an “out” with holiday cards (even though I didn’t take it, exactly).

I’ve done a holiday photo card every year since my first son was born, with one exception (my depression year). It’s time consuming, but I love sending them and I love having each card from past years as part of our holiday decorations.

Around the middle of December, I started feeling uptight and deficient about the fact that I hadn’t ordered them yet or even thought about what pictures I would use. Since I’m watching the “shoulds,” I allowed myself to examine whether this tradition brings more stress than joy, and gave myself permission to drop it if the verdict was the former.

I decided I would do it if I found the time easily, and if I didn’t, that would be OK, too. And I did end up doing them. Fewer than usual, late, and without stress or any feeling of obligation :).

And the one thing that didn’t work?

Starting the shopping well into December.

You know those people who say, “Oh, I just pick up gifts as I see them throughout the year.” I have never understood those people. I doubt I will ever be one of them, but maybe they are onto something after all.

Given my aversion to starting anything Christmas-related before Thanksgiving, typically I don’t even want to think about gifts until December, never mind shop. I’m a last-minute person with everything anyway—if there’s a deadline, it’s a safe bet I’m going to be up against it.

This year, I found that making all the gift decisions and doing the actual shopping in December doesn’t work for me anymore. It creates too much busyness just when the fun stuff is in full swing. And a key gift for one of the kids didn’t get shipped to me until the 22nd. Until it was in my hands, I had to sweat whether it would get here in time.

In future years, I want to be done by December 1st so December can be all about other things, like:

  • Making a photo album for the year (and maybe one from a previous year each time until I’m caught up).
  • Journaling and reflecting on the passing year and what I want to cultivate in the New Year.
  • Holiday gift making at a leisurely pace. I want to choose crafts for gift giving with the kids based on what is appealing and inspiring, rather than what seems doable for us to throw together quickly because I started on December 22 (salt dough ornaments, anyone?).
  • More community service. This is a year-round goal, and I want it to be a big part of our holidays, too. The week of Christmas, we ran to the store to get a few bags of groceries and dropped them off at the food bank. My boys were enthusiastic about it this year and seemed to really get what we were doing. I want to do more next year. Contributing to our community is reason enough, but I also want my kids to be more aware of people who are less fortunate through helping experiences rather than heavy-handed lectures about how privileged they are. Getting the shopping done early will hopefully mean finding more ways to serve throughout the month that feel truly useful to others and meaningful for the kids.
  • More holiday activities and social time? Maybe a bigger Solstice party or an overnight trip to New York City?
  • Or more slow family time? Maybe the only thing we’ll add is a little more time to hang out together, watching holiday movies or playing board games by the tree.

So, what I learned this year in a nutshell:

  • Do fun things, but only those outside activities that feel truly meaningful. When in doubt, skip it in favor of slow time together.
  • Watch the “shoulds”—anytime my mind says we “have to” do anything, question it. Says who?
  • It’s time to get over my rebellion about dealing with Christmas before Thanksgiving and get the shopping out of the way early next year. It’s going to be worth it.

HAPPY NEW YEAR, Everyone! 

© Camille Williams and Wake Up, Mama! 2015

3 thoughts on “Managing the Stress and Feeling the Joy of the Holidays: 5 Things That Worked, and 1 That Didn’t

  1. Melissa R says:

    All good reminders! I have worked on my do/not do list for many years and this year was practically perfect and stress free. Everything accomplished, lots of time for crafting, family, fun. It was a great balance! (AND all accomplished with a 4 day hospital stay and 6 day in law visit!). Looking back on all that, I am feeling even better about how it all went!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s awesome, Melissa! Hope all is well with whomever was in the hospital. Yet another reason to get the shopping done early–to make more space so that unexpected happenings like that don’t derail everything!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s