Do you remember Christmas as magical? Many people do. But that was not my experience of Christmas as a child. Indeed, even as an adult, it took many years to experience awe and beauty in Christmas. Now I love the magic of Christmas, but I’m sure you’ll agree, it can be hard to find and sustain the magic under all the stress. Growing up I spent the month of December waiting for my mom to blow up. She so wanted—really wanted—to create magical Christmases for us—and there certainly were moments of warmth and togetherness. But mostly, we never knew when the gulf between the scene she imagined in her head and the reality of creating (and getting my father on board for) that scene would have her resembling a Halloween witch rather than a Christmas angel.
Of course, kids can be stressed during the holidays as their routines get upset and they are vulnerable to being over stimulated, but my experience is that their stress depends largely on how stressed their parents are. In talking with parents, I have found there are two big areas that bring up a lot of adult tension during the season.
Tip #1: OVERSPENDING
In most partnerships there are two different approaches to spending money. They say that opposites attract, and while I don’t think that is always true, I do think there is something to the notion that part of our attraction to our partners is for something they have or can do easily that we wish we had or could do easily. My husband is a spender. I am a saver. A lifetime of saving has left me wondering if I’m missing something—a little fun maybe? a little spontaneity? a little luxury? Living with my husband has been a lesson in learning to spend more and enjoy it! I am more willing, for example, to invest in something pretty even if it will only get used at Christmas time. I delight more in buying special holiday foods. That being said, I do not think “But it’s Christmas!” is an invitation to spend without thinking.
With luck, you and your spouse are learning and growing from each other when it comes to spending. But if anything is going to bring up money conflicts, I have found the holiday season to be it. So, my recommendation is to have the conversations early and often. The saver in the family will want to argue down every little dime. See if you can adopt an attitude of not worrying about every 3rd or 4th thing and just buying it. The spender in the family will spend without thinking and will come home sheepishly with packages. See if you can actively resist buying the third or fourth thing. If you are a saver, it might help to remember Christmas does come but once a year. If you are a spender, it might reassure you to remember the Youtube video that came out that showed the kids willing to give up ALL their Christmas presents if it meant that their parents got something they wanted or needed. More is not more, and sometimes less is more. Meeting each other in the middle is what will allow both of you to move through the holiday season with a minimum of stress.
Tip #2: DEALING WITH EXTENDED FAMILY
The first stress extended family brings up is who is going to have Christmas where. Will you switch off between husband’s family and wife’s family every year? What about with divorced families? And what happens as the children grow and begin to have serious romantic relationships of their own? No matter how you draw the lines, it seems like someone is disappointed. Kids overhear our conversations about the logistics and feel disloyal if they want something else. I have no good solutions for these challenges other than to acknowledge that it is stressful and with a deep, deep breath try to let go of the emotion attached to it. The other step I take for my own self is to have a small ritual that counts as the core of Christmas to me. That way, no matter who comes to our house or whose house we celebrate at, my daughter and I have sung Silent Night by the lights of the Christmas tree. I feel like as long as we have that, we can flex with the rest.
Family is also often a double edge sword. On the one hand we long to be all together. On the other hand not everyone gets along equally. Here are some of the more mild complaints I’ve heard recently:
• I like my mother-in-law but she makes me feel like a complete dud in the kitchen, and when I bring something store-bought rather than risk my poor skills, she looks at me like I don’t care enough to make homemade.
•My father-in-law is a nice enough man. Until he’s had a little too much egg nog.
•Jack’s sister is great fun, but she has no control at all over her kids and it makes every meal a circus.
The fact that Christmas comes once a year makes the little time we have together feel more precious, so it has to be perfect. That makes us less tolerant than we might otherwise be.
And what is it about stepping back into our childhood homes that makes us feel—and act!—like children again? I am a mature, generally very secure woman. But when the whole family is together I fall into the pattern of waiting for people to tell me where to sit, how to help and generally what to do. No matter how pulled together I feel in front of the mirror in the morning, I wait for my sister’s glance that says I am a disappointment. Over the years, I have learned what triggers me and am able to sidestep the trigger with more grace. I recognize that most of what is going on is just in my head, and I just have to let it go.
Acknowledging to your kids what happens when adult children go home can help prepare them for your unexpected responses and moods.
Of course there other reasons we get stressed during the holidays. Quite simply—however lovely events might be—the late nights and break from routines will stress us. If you can deal with the two biggies—money and family—you will be in better shape to adjust to the late nights and extra socializing.