'Tis The Season To Ditch Tradition, And Finally Get Some Peace

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Thomas Barwick/Getty

Many of us were forced to get creative in our first pandemic Christmas. Our little family decided not to visit our bigger family, for the first time ever. Sure, we were feeling disappointed and discouraged, until we realized we had the opportunity to enjoy a very chill Christmas at home. That holiday ended up being relaxing for us all—especially me, because like many moms, I take on most of the stressful holiday “fun” responsibilities.

As this year’s holiday rapidly approaches, I wanted to once again make this season merry and bright, while also lightening my load. So I spoke with Dr. Jennifer Wolkin, a neuropsychologist; Jessica Turner, a bestselling author and mom of three; and Dr. Rachel Goldman, a psychologist, to get their take. What I learned is that when we are intentional, we can create the holly jolly Christmas for our family without all the extras that stress us out. Here’s how.

Choose mindfulness over busyness for a less stressful holiday.

Wolkin shared with me that we tend to “run around on autopilot” doing all the things this time of the year. The “antidote” to going into autopilot is intentionality, i.e. asking ourselves what the holiday means to us. We need to choose not to get “caught up in all the plans,” and instead, prioritize our mental health. I have found free meditation apps to be particularly helpful instead of trying to generate mindfulness on my own.

Make a plan as a family.

Turner told me that her family creates a Christmas bucket list each year, which is a list of their “must-dos.” She notes that the list consists of “simple traditions and practices that each of us love.” Some examples from her list include “making peppermint truffles, watching ‘Elf’, and going for a drive to look at Christmas lights.” Anything else they do is extra, something she calls “nice to do.” Prioritizing your “need-to-dos” instead of your “nice-to-dos” reduces holiday family stress.

Check in with yourself.

Dr. Goldman stressed that we should all “take a moment to pause and think about what you need.” Remember, our needs evolve, so by conducting a self check-in, we are making time to gain insight and figure out what we can change to make it better for our mental and physical health.

Know—and stick to—your boundaries.

Every person I know has that family member who makes inappropriate, offensive comments, which can fill you with dread when approaching a holiday get together. Wolkin says you should “make your boundaries known by clearly stating them.” If someone brings up a topic you don’t care to discuss, simply say, “I don’t like speaking about this topic of conversation.” If you share your boundaries and they aren’t respected, Wolkin stated it’s perfectly fine to leave.

Prioritize self-care.

Turner shares, “During busy seasons, women often choose to put themselves last, which actually can have a negative effect on everything.” What does self-care look like for you? Committing to self-care such as “making time to move your body, pray, read”—on a daily basis—helps you “healthily pour into all your other commitments.”

Make a plan.

In order to state our boundaries, we need to plan ahead, Goldman shared. What situations or comments trigger you and spoil your holiday fun? Sometimes comments about a person’s food choices, their bodies, or hot topics like the coronavirus can be bothersome, if not intrusive. Avoid being caught off guard and overwhelmed. Goldman advised coming up with your clapbacks or exit strategy before attending the event to decrease potential anxiety. (Remember, even Santa makes a list and checks it twice.)

Reject perfectionism.

Holiday movies often serve us the same narrative of the happiest families, falling snow, gourmet meals, perfect decorations, and piles of gifts. This isn’t the case for most of us. Wolkin says, “Instead of imposing upon yourself expectations to get the holidays to be a certain way, or to be ‘just right,’ try to challenge and let go of perfectionistic thinking.” When we focus on the ideal Christmas, we will always be caught in the trap of perfection, and end up having a less joyful, more stressful holiday.

Ask for help.

It’s important to know when we need help. Too often, we let pride get in the way, and we don’t seek assistance. Wolkin offered examples, such as asking others in our home to pitch in more, using delivery services, or, if you’re able, paying to have someone come in and help with a task. The more help you have, the more time you have “to do something only you can do.”

Say no.

By creating a so-called “bucket list,” you can also determine the holiday traditions that your family loathes. Be honest with yourself, and listen to your own family members. It’s OK if one of your boundaries this holiday season is to turn down some invitations, even if you’ve traditionally attended those events in the past. A simple, “We aren’t going to make it this year, but thank you for inviting us” is sufficient. Then use that time to do something your family actually enjoys—even if that’s as simple as PJs, coffee, and laying around watching a Christmas movie.

No matter what kind of holiday plans your family makes this year, be sure to aim for less stress — and more joy — for all.

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