I have often had visions of the perfectly crafted holiday. Pinterest worthy.
The reality is that holidays are inherently complicated and for me, my family’s holidays rarely match up with the fantasy. However, when I look closely at the moments them-selves, when I am able to get lost in the moment of enjoying the wildly messy and fully kid-driven gingerbread house, or the hike that ended up more of a trek in search of a bathroom, or the Christmas tree with the ornaments only on the bottom third, I remember what this time of year is all about…. connection.
Parents, grandparents, step parents, partners, in-laws, brothers, sisters,cousins…family. Yes, the holidays highlight the complicated relation-ships that come with family life. The connections we want, but often struggle to actually make.
It is easy to get lost in trying to meet what we perceive are the expectations of family, friends, crafty mother blogs, or that friend who ALWAYS-seems to be so put together (how do they DO that??). We tend to put a great deal of pressure on ourselves, particularly at this time of year, to create “perfect memories” for our children and to live up to what-ever we have decided is the “best” way to celebrate that particular holiday. The reality is that children remember the joyful and focused time we spend with them. The traditions that they drive, and of which they are a central part, are the ones they will want to carry on. The stress filled trip to the zoo or to see the tree downtown will be less enjoyable, and offer less opportunities to connect, than an evening spent sitting by the fire putting a puzzle together, stringing popcorn to put on the tree, or reading a holiday themed book, one chapter a night. The cold, dark, winter nights encourage cozy time spent connecting with each other. So, take advantage of that time, simplify your holiday plans. Here are a few ideas to help you get started.
MAKE A LIST OF YOUR PRIORITIES THIS TIME OF YEAR
• Which parties are the most important? Choose only as many as you feel joyful about attending. Graciously decline the other invitations.
• Gift list: which gifts are necessary and which are optional? Make a plan that fits your budget and stick to it. Propose a change in gift giving with your extended family.
• What is the minimum amount of decorating that will make your holiday feel special, but not over-whelming?
• How much travel is enjoyable? Consider limiting travel this time of year and making the trek to grandparents at another time of year when cost is lower and timing is less stressful.
• Holiday cards… do you enjoy doing them? If not, stop doing them. Or do them at a different time of the year. Happy New Year or Happy Valentine’s Day cards are a lovely surprise to family and friends! Plus, then your card doesn’t get lost in the piles and you can put more personality into them if you choose.
• Make the list of holiday “obligations” and weed through it. It can be hard at first, then it feels so good!
MAKE AND STICK TO YOUR OWN TRADITIONS
• Family traditions offer both emotional and logistical benefits. The memories associated with “we always did ______” create lasting memories and help the holiday feel special, different than other times of the year. We learn to associate that particular food or game or puzzle or hike that “always” happens at that time of year. The anticipation helps to develop that sense of excitement and comfort that comes with routine/traditional experiences. It also makes planning easier, be-cause you are not reinventing the wheel each year!
• Finding ways to incorporate traditions from both sides of your family, as well as creating your own unique traditions, takes time and communication. Talk with your partner, ask questions, “What is most important to you this time of year?” or “What makes it feel like Thanksgiving/Christmas/Hanukkah/Solstice for you?” Then, discuss what you want your family holiday to look like. What do you want your children to remember? You get to create something unique that brings the important parts of both of you into this new family you have created. Take time to do this purposefully, honestly, and with open communication. This is a time for connection! Building something together brings you closer together. You are a team, separate from your larger extended family. Own that. Savor that.
• Break the cycle of the “stressed out parent” as a holiday tradition. Show your children the best version of you at this time of year. Allow them to remember “mom/dad was always extra fun and adventurous that time of year” is much better than “mom/dad was always so grumpy and frustrated that time of year.” You are setting the foundation for a lifetime of holidays… set it up so your children want to come home for the holidays when they are adults!
CELEBRATE AND EMBRACE IMPERFECTION
• Imperfection is what life is all about. It is what makes memories and builds relationships. We all remember more about the Thanksgiving than that the turkey took FOREVER to cook and the stuffing pan broke and we all crossed our fingers that we weren’t ingesting glass (true anecdote from my life, it turned out fine) than we do about the ones where everything went as planned.
• So, let the kids help set the table, imperfectly. Let them decorate the tree, imperfectly. Let them wrap the gift, imperfectly. Let the stress of wanting the perfect decorations or gifts or food or outfit go… enjoy the moment you are in with the people you love. Focus on the connection.
• See the imperfection as a reflection of life. Beautifully imperfect!
MANAGE EXTENDED FAMILY COMMUNICATION
• Yikes. This can be the toughest part of the holidays. The most effective way to decrease the stress of inter-actions with family members is having confidence in your own decisions about how you want your family to celebrate the holidays. So, take time to define what your values are (ideally, along with your partner… yes, more purposeful and open, honest communication!) and then communicate them to your family. They may or may not be able to hear you, but, you can only do your part.
• So, this looks like a letter or email to grandparents stating your requests for gifts for your children. This, ideally, is done early. 6-8 weeks before the big holidays where gifts are given. You can send an email with links to gifts you think are appropriate. Asking for a maximum number of gifts, or whatever other parameters you want to articulate. This could be a time to ask for a membership to a local museum, zoo, or funding for music lessons, dance classes, etc. Additionally, this is a great place to offer a link to your child’s college fund… asking that holidays be a time when they add to the gift that keeps on giving… opportunities for higher education. Generally, if the tone is upbeat and shows gratitude for their anticipated generosity, most grandparents are grateful for guidance on what their grand children will appreciate.
• There will be times that your family members simply don’t hear what you have to say and they do something completely opposite of what you ask. This can be infuriating! Alas, it happens. And, your response can be to “notice” that it was done differently, or to simply “let it go” and try again next year. Change takes time. And sometimes, family members simply don’t change. So, we can accept that and stay as true to our own values as possible within the situation. Deep breaths and a sense of humor can help, and the knowledge that it is less about us, than it is about them. They have been doing it this way for a long time. They may not see a need to change. Or, they feel judged by you which leads them to feel defensive. This is the nature of family dynamics. Change takes time and communication is often complicated. Have patience. And be true to yourself by offering respectful communication about your values and beliefs. Hopefully, in time, they will hear you and shift their actions.
• Recognize that you may disagree with certain family members, but it is not your job to change them. It is your job to change your response to them. YOU decide how to regulate your emotions. YOU decide how to handle your stress. Happiness, centerdness, calm, joy, tolerance… they are all a choice. You are modeling for your children how to handle difficult situations. Be the best version of you.
• Avoiding remarkably difficult situations is an option. You can decline to participate in family events. You can be open about why or come up with a reasonable excuse. Either way is acceptable. You decide.
LET GO OF ALL GUILT
• Recognize that there are truly no HAVE to’s. Even though it feels like it. Be true to yourself. Be kind to yourself. Don’t take on the guilt that others offer. Decide how you want to experience the holidays and then do that. Joyfully. Happily. The people around you will see that and that is a remarkable holiday gift to everyone.