The holidays are upon us. Do you love these times? Do you dread them? If you answered yes to both questions then you are like many of the parents and people I’ve worked with over the years. Some have given up on the idea of improving their experience, and most will admit they desperately long to reduce their holiday stress while increasing their enjoyment. But where to begin?
I like to start by taking my daughters back from the obligatory consumer-driven stressors and focusing on elements of the holiday that have real meaning. There’s an unmistakable, almost magnetic pull toward celebration, connection and hope that corresponds with holidays at every season throughout the year. I believe it is in our bones from way back, essential to our individual and collective humanity to gather, feast, fast, give thanks, laugh, pray, sing and show special kindnesses to each other. For all of us — but for kids in particular — these times can bolster a sense of belonging in our families and communities, to the larger rhythms of the seasons and life itself.
When you embark on this quest for greater joy and less stress with more consciously chosen experiences for your family this season these three practices will help you to clarify what’s important to you, let go of what’s not and help the kids and grown-ups make it through without meltdowns.
1. Make A List
Imagine what you’d love to experience this season. Think of the five senses: What would you and your family like to see, smell, taste, feel and hear this season? Everyone gets to contribute to the list.
Here’s how we do it at our house. We gather on our couch with a pen and paper in hand, turn off distractions like electronic devices, phones and TV and share what traditions we can’t live without, what new things we want to try, what people or places we want to visit, the foods we want to eat, things we want to make or music we want to hear. Then we find ways to make at least one thing from each family member’s suggestions happen. You could do this every season and on any budget.
Need a boost to start your list? Some family favorites are making orange and clove pomanders, stringing popcorn and cranberries, relaxing by a fire, reading aloud or telling favorite holiday stories from holidays past, seeing a holiday play or concert, singing carols with friends for elders and folks in the hospital, drinking hot cocoa and lighting candles, making gingerbread houses or people, going for winter walks, and learning about the history of our traditions as well as how other cultures celebrate.
Remember that how things are done is often as important as what you do. When stress creeps in, be flexible and remind yourself of your intention to enjoy more.
2. Help Set Realistic Expectations Around Gifts
Kids need our time and warmth more than presents, but they love the presents too. Remember the long lists of things you wanted from the various catalogs that magically arrived in the mail? As Jo Robinson and Jean Staeheli point out in their book Unplug the Christmas Machine, kids don’t mind not getting everything on their list, but they do appreciate having realistic expectations established. For instance, if your child is sure Santa will bring them a pony but you have it on good authority that a pony will not be delivered Christmas morning, find a way to break it to them in advance. Or if you know they will be getting fewer presents than in years past, you may want to prepare them. You can do this while honoring their need for wish-making, mystery and wonder.
3. Create an Evenly Paced Schedule
Be mindful of overwhelm and letdown and keep a semblance of normal routine where you can. Predictability is soothing. Part of the specialness of the holiday is that life is different, so things will not be the same. But having some structure or pre-talk about what’s coming next can help kids to manage the extra excitement and stress. In his book Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne explains how kids can get overwhelmed by sensory overload, too many new places or people or even too many choices. Giving them fewer choices is actually a balm to their little nervous systems.
Make time and space in your schedule for restorative peace where nothing much is going on. Boredom is rare at today’s hectic pace, but it is truly a gift for kids that incites creativity and also potential whining. If you can be more boring than the alternative of the child finding something else to do the whining will cease faster.
There are many holidays to celebrate and a million ways to celebrate them well and in alignment with what you value most. Children can easily understand that people are different and celebrate different holidays without it taking away from their own ways of celebrating. We can be kind and tolerant of others and still be strongly in alignment with what matters most to us. A simple way to address this to children is, “This is how we do it in our family, but other families do it differently.”
I wish you great joy in whatever festivities lay ahead for you, and I hope you are inspired to create your own good times. May you enjoy a pause in the bustle of daily life to gather with intention, gratitude and lots of love.