Other than Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, no one begins holiday preparations by saying, “I think I will plan for disappointment, failure and anxiety this year.” We want to succeed in creating experiences of joy and celebration for the people we love. But our plans can backfire and leave us feeling inadequate if we become trapped in comparing ourselves and our gifts with others.
The feeling can be contagious. Even my husband, who loves to celebrate holidays, often caught it when he worked in retail management. Every day, he encountered people who were overextending themselves financially because they felt inadequate. He saw how they were caught up in comparing what they could afford with what they saw others doing; they were trying to be like others. This disheartened my husband, and he often came home in a “Bah Humbug” mood.
It hasn’t always been this way. When I was a child, my parents seemed to enjoy the holiday they created for our family. They didn’t seem as stressed as we do now. I think what helped was that my parents created boundaries on our expectations. They did this by choosing a few simple, economical traditions, and these became the foundation for each holiday. Our favorites were inviting our extended family to a Little Christmas Party where we dipped our first lefse into a huge pot of homemade stew with the newest adult or child going first as a welcome to the family. Another favorite was our own personal Christmas program at home with each of us offering some of the entertainment, and my father’s favorite requirement of hanging one icicle at a time on the tree. As we grew up, we looked forward to these Christmas traditions. Of course, there was always room to add something new, and some years we had to be quite flexible. The comparisons we made were simply to our own traditions: “It’s too bad we couldn’t help Dad hang the icicles on the tree this year because he was ill. Next year we have got to make that happen. “
Those traditions from my childhood became so important to me that I knew I wanted to continue them with my own children. So, when my husband and I married, we had several conversations about what we valued from our Christmas celebrations. Then we carefully chose which of our family traditions to incorporate in our own home. In the process, our children – and now our grandchildren – are learning more about both sides of their heritage.
When we honor what we truly value, there is less temptation to feel inadequate and then overextend or overspend. Instead, our holiday values are translated into traditions.
To help reduce the temptation to compare, and reduce your holiday stress, here are some practical suggestions to help you and your family focus on your values and traditions.
- Have a conversation with your loved ones about what they value most about the holidays. It is likely to be more about being together than about “things.” For some families, it’s the annual charades game or puzzle on Christmas afternoon, for others it may be having eggnog and cookies after Christmas Eve services.
- Set realistic expectations for yourselves – in terms of financial limits and time limits — for the holiday season. Many families set a limit for gift expenditures. Some choose “special persons” rather than purchase gifts for everyone.
- Make a list of the gifts you plan to give, and then stick to the list and your budget.
- Prioritize holiday activities by what you value, not by what you think you “should” do.
- Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Remember that saying “No” allows others participate, and keeps you from overextending yourself.
- Enjoy free holiday activities, such as looking at holiday lights and decorations, going window shopping, playing in the winter weather, and volunteering to help others.
- Take time for yourself.
- Take time to reconnect with a friend or relative.
- Live in the moment and enjoy!
Adapted from American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/holiday-season.aspx
Cecelia Dachtler, MA
Life Coach, LSW