When I was in the fourth grade, our school Christmas concert featured a select choir with the best singers performing “The Christmas Song.” I confidently signed up to audition, all the while picturing myself on the stage in a sparkly Christmas dress, the spotlight beaming on me as I sang my heart out to a crowd of beloved grandparents and teachers. The audition came, and I nailed it. And then the list of performers was released. Imagine my shock as I reread the names, only to realize I had not been chosen.
The holiday season is often about unfulfilled expectations, isn’t it?
In our holiday fantasies, the extended family all gets along and our children are completely satisfied with every gift. The weather isn’t too cold or windy, and the hot chocolate is always served at the just-right temperature. Our teens help prepare elaborate meals without being asked, and they pick out thoughtful gifts without being coerced. The photos are perfect, the memories pristine.
In reality, our expectations are often unrealized and we get our own imperfect version of The Christmas Story, with uncomfortable bunny pajamas, broken glasses, and a turkey served to the dog. Our teens complain about gifts, argue incessantly, and walk away from the table without bothering to carry a plate.
So what do we do?
3 Tips to Reduce Holiday Stress
1. Simplify from the start
For various reasons, we often stay home for Thanksgiving, and we love it. I cook a traditional meal, but we stay home in comfy clothes, watching football in between naps and another slice of pie. We don’t have to wake early to travel, and there’s zero pressure.
Similarly, we are usually home for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The menu varies, but the essentials are the same: coziness, relaxation, and time together.
Saying no to lots of extra obligations removes the planning and pressure that can make the holidays feel so intense. Of course we celebrate with friends and extended family at a different time, but simplifying those main days releases expectations for perfection and instead allows us to focus on family connections inside our four walls.
That might not be a viable solution for everyone, but there are other ways to simplify your holiday. Can you prepare any menu items ahead of time? Is there a work party you can say no to and free up some of your schedule? Can you celebrate with the extended family on a weekend in January? Can you bake four varieties of cookies instead of eight? Deliver treats to neighbors after New Year’s to spread out the joy? Give simpler gifts to teachers and delivery people?
There are always choices we can make that will relieve some of the pressure of the holiday season. A Pinterest-worthy holiday isn’t any merrier than a Charlie Brown tree with homemade ornaments.
2. Set the stage
It can be helpful to pinpoint the areas of disappointment that could result in heartache for you or your kids. After one Christmas of planning a magical holiday for everyone only to realize no one had remembered a gift for me, I made sure to provide not-so-gentle reminders the next year. I haven’t been forgotten since!
If you know your teen might not be getting the new Playstation 5 he’s been dreaming of because of expense or supply chain problems, start discussing it now, rather than face the palpable sadness on Christmas morning.
And if you think the letdown of the days after the holidays will be too much for you or the rest of your family to bear, make arrangements now. Some families follow up their Thanksgiving celebration with Black Friday traditions. Not mine, because I’m not crazy—but you do you! One of my good friends plans a Lazy Day on December 26, with pajamas and puzzles and unlimited screens. Plan a movie outing or a daytrip for hiking or skiing. It can help to know you have something to look forward to after all of the hullabaloo of the big celebrations.
3. Savor the surprises
Here’s the truth: Something will go wrong during the holiday season. Like the year I didn’t make the select choir in elementary school. Or the first year I cooked a turkey and it took way longer than I expected, resulting in hangry children and a frazzled mom. There was the year our Christmas tree dried out and dropped all of the needles at least a week before the big day. And last year we celebrated holidays with extended family on Zoom—definitely not the way I want to connect.
Those are the moments when we need to look around and find gratitude: “I’m thankful for our warm house as it snows outside.” “I’m thankful we had extra dinner rolls to tide us over while we wait for this dumb turkey.” “I’m thankful for technology so we can at least see their faces and hear their voices.”
Instead of scrolling through Instagram and drooling over other people’s picture-perfect (and let’s be clear, FAKE) holidays, look around and be thankful for the holiday you do have — grumpy teens, a threadbare tree, a dried-out turkey.
It’s not perfect, but it’s enough.
Three years ago, I found myself eating lunch on Thanksgiving day while overlooking the Jemma Gorge in Ethiopia. It wasn’t the holiday I expected, but schedules and flight costs worked out so our return to my sons’ birthplace coincided with the holiday. Instead of turkey and potatoes, we dined on injera and shiro wat. Instead of falling leaves and dipping temperatures, we enjoyed constant sunshine and scenery more breathtaking than the Grand Canyon.
It was unexpected, and it was amazing.
The holidays won’t go as we expect. They never do. We can make plans B, C, and D, but there’s always a possibility we’ll find ourselves at R and S. This holiday season, don’t peek with envy from behind the curtain as others stand in the spotlight and sing off-key. Instead, embrace the messiness that is family, broken leg lamps and all.