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Your Best Christmas Ever

Breaking free from six yuletide expectations

My children have attached their Christmas wish lists to the refrigerator. Actually, I have to lift the lists to find the refrigerator.

Most parents agree: When it comes to Christmas, our kids want too much. Their expectations are out of line.

Unfortunately, the same can often be said for you and me.

Okay, we're not whining for the latest Nintendo-64 cartridge, or pining for American Girl dolls that cost more than the dress I wore to my high school reunion. Our wish list has only one item. But it's a doozy. What do we want for the holidays?

Just The Perfect Christmas.

We want our homes to smell like fresh-baked goodies and our Christmas trees to look like something out of Southern Living. We want the members of our families to get along so well that, next to us, the Waltons look like candidates for "The Jerry Springer Show."

This year, we should give ourselves a break. Truth is, experiencing a picture-perfect Christmas is about as likely as opening a letter from Ed McMahon and discovering that this time he's not joking! So let's stop tormenting ourselves. Let's do some myth-busting, shall we? Several unrealistic expectations thrive during the holiday season, but we can instead learn to enjoy real life despite the imperfections, flaws and chaos that abound.

1. All Is Calm, All Is Bright

Christmas at my house is anything but calm. I'm baking cookies for my daughter's class party, hosting the neighborhood cookie exchange, shopping, assembling the artificial Christmas tree (and wondering why there are four branches left over), sewing Christmas pageant costumes and writing the family holiday newsletter. The word calm has been replaced with words like Rolaids, nervous tic and I need chocolate and I need it now!

Is there a better way? Are there things you and I can do to keep our commitments manageable during the holiday season?

One solution is to negotiate. When you get that call from the fifth-grade room mother, asking you to provide six dozen cookies for Friday's party, be bold. Negotiate! Say, "I won't have time to bake cookies before the party. Will store-bought cookies do?" If your offer doesn't fly, suggest an alternative: "I'll have to pass on the cookies. But if you need something like paper plates or sodas, I'll be happy to help."

If you can't find a win-win solution and you realize saying yes is something you're going to regret, then just say no. Some suggestions how: "My plate's full at the moment; I'm going to have to pass," or "It would be a mistake for me to take on that project right now because I don't have the time available to do the best job."

2. Joy to the World

If you're like me, you'd like to believe Christmas means joy, goodwill and warm fuzzies for all. But the reality is, Christmas can trigger stress, melancholy memories, loneliness and even depression. So protect yourself by taking care of yourself. Make time for enjoying a bubble bath, reading your Bible or taking a stroll around the block.

In addition, reach out to others. Perhaps you know a friend who is newly divorced, or an international student who won't be traveling home for Christmas, or a neighbor who hasn't spoken to her parents in years. Knowing that the holidays can rub salt in an old wound, look for opportunities to encourage others. Your spirits will be lifted in the process.

Finally, take two belly laughs and call me in the morning. Sometimes when a holiday takes a particularly chaotic turn, the best remedy is to throw up your hands and laugh about it. Did you burn the snowball cookies? Forget where you parked your car at the mall? Get your Christmas cards in the mail the day before Washington's birthday? Instead of buckling under the stress, chuckle instead. You'll be surprised how good it feels.

3. All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth

Children today will no longer settle for their own teeth for Christmas, nor will they be happy with oranges in their stockings or an American Flyer wagon as their coveted single gift. No, today's kids want to hand their parents the Sears catalog and say, "Pages 117 through 255, and no substitutions please."

If we're not careful, gift giving can become an extravaganza of excess and stress. So how can we streamline the process, downsize our acquisitions and discourage greed?

Beth Forester, mother of two, suggests giving gifts that are consumable or experiential in nature. Rather than clutter the house with more toys, give your teen a prepaid gas card, phone card or coupons to favorite eateries or movie theaters. Give your 10-year-old a certificate for those horse-back riding lessons she's been begging for. Wrap a box of "dress-up clothes" purchased from a thrift shop for your little ones. Tell them you will help them act out a fairy tale or Bible story; then videotape the grand performance.

Give gifts that encourage time spent together. Chris and Cami are the parents of four boys, ages 5 to 15. Several years ago they took a portion of what they normally spend on gifts and bought card games, board games, party games and puzzles. The family spent Christmas vacation amassing monopolies, scrabbling for words, and searching for clues regarding Miss Peacock and Colonel Mustard. It was one of the most enjoyable holidays they can remember.

4. O Bring Us a Figgy Pudding

Planning and executing festive family feasts is a hallmark of the season. But who says there's a right way and a wrong way to feed your family?

Make things easy this Christmas Eve by serving your family the kind of simple traveling meal Mary and Joseph might have eaten on the way into Bethlehem. What might that meal have included? Bread no doubt, perhaps some cheese or olives, a little bit of meat. Sound familiar? That's right. Pizza! Order in. Relax. You can serve a big meal tomorrow. Take the time you would have spent cooking and enjoy your family instead.

One of my friends substitutes traditional holiday dishes with similar recipes that are easier to prepare. She nixes fresh-fruit salads, for example, and instead serves a frozen fruit salad that can be made days in advance.

5. Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men

Kids are home from school, extended families crisscross the land to spend time together. While all this togetherness might foster images of "The Osmond Family Christmas," sometimes real life feels more like "Married ? With Children." So how can we keep family relationships healthy and strong during the holidays?

Tailor your expectations to accommodate personality quirks. When planning the family potluck dinner, mother-of-three Cherie Spurlock notes which family members never arrive anywhere on time and asks them to bring dessert instead of hors d'oeuvres.

Mom Jackie O'Brien suggests announcing your Christmas plans long before the holiday looms near and relatives have a chance to develop expectations you may not be able to meet. She says, "If you want to try something different?if you want to be excluded from the gift exchange or spend Christmas Day handing out meals at a homeless shelter?then make your plans known early to diminish disappointment or misunderstandings."

6. Here We Come a-Caroling

Going caroling is one tradition that can make the season. But just because a tradition has been handed down through the years?or because it looks like a good idea in the pages of a women's magazine?doesn't mean it's the right tradition for your family at this stage. Here are a few suggestions:

Stock up on traditions that relieve, rather than multiply, stress. Every year four friends and I participate in a cookie exchange. We each pick our favorite Christmas cookie recipe, double or triple the recipe, and bake six dozen cookies. We converge at my house on a Saturday afternoon to sample the fruits of our labors and swap the rest. When the day is done, I have a dozen each of five festive holiday cookies to serve my family and guests.

Observe at least one tradition that is yours and yours alone. Most traditions require a lot of planning, props and cooperation from family members. Author Chris Coppernoll says that every Christams Eve he observes a ritual that is replenishing because it is so simple. At midnight, after the family is asleep, he pours himself a glass of eggnog and heads for the den. By himself, he watches a Christmas video?A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life are favorites?prays and reflects on the year past and year to come. No planning, no stress.

Put relationships above traditions. We read in the Gospel of Mark that when Jesus' disciples were criticized because they ate a few grains of wheat as they walked through a field on the Sabbath, Jesus reminded the accusers that "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." Likewise, holiday traditions are there to serve your family, not the other way around. Don't compromise family harmony or peace of mind for the sake of any given tradition.

At times we may put more effort into making room in our refrigerators for Christmas dinner leftovers than we spend preparing room in our hearts for Christ. This year identify the object of your worship. Are you worshiping a Christmas fantasy, an unattainable ideal, the dream of a picture-perfect holiday?

Or are you embracing the unexpected, laughing at the mishaps, celebrating the chaos and cherishing time with loved ones and with Jesus Christ?

This Christmas, do you want perfection? Look at Jesus. Everything else is negotiable.

Karen Scalf Linamen is a speaker and author.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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