A Stress-Less Christmas

Learn how to trim the tree and your schedule this holiday season.
A Stress-Less Christmas
Image: STEVE COLLENDER / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Ah, winter. The leaves have changed and fallen, there’s a nice chill in the air, and the holiday season is upon us.

Did that last part stress you out a little? If so, you’re certainly not alone. The holiday season offers great joy with lots of opportunities to connect with friends, family, and neighbors. And we can’t forget the presents!

All that fun also requires work, planning, time, and effort. Presents don’t just materialize under the tree, despite what your children may believe. The house doesn’t decorate itself; Christmas cards don’t magically appear in friends’ mailboxes; and costumes, meals, and other treats must be handcrafted (or bought more likely). Even treasured family traditions require planning and preparation. And don’t get me started on the parties!

A Pressure Cooker Christmas

Cultural pressure hits women hard around the holidays. For proof, check out the covers of women’s magazines in November and December, or sit through one TV show’s worth of holiday-themed commercials. The message is loud and clear: It’s women who cook, decorate, and coordinate gifts. Happily, I might add, and without a hair out of place!

This holiday housework goes largely unnoticed and certainly doesn’t make it into Christmas books or Thanksgiving pageants. At Christmastime, women are actually encouraged to give credit for their hard work to a certain red-suited, cookie-loving man with a beard. If we all had an army of elves at work in our houses, we could afford to be jolly and carefree too! But reality looks quite different.

Research shows that although many men are willing and even eager to help with holiday preparation, women still do the bulk of the work. This finding is in keeping with the general division of labor in US households. Even among married couples with both spouses working full time, women still handle most of the household and childrearing chores.

Holiday housework is an extension of that reality. It is laid on top of ordinary housework and combined with the usual load of work, family, church, and community responsibilities. And it’s stressing us out, leading at least one woman and her sister to exchange “Merry Stressmas” phone calls every Christmas Eve.

Let Go of Should

If the holidays are stressing you out, it might be time to reconsider your approach. If you look closely, you’re likely to find that there’s unnecessary bulk on your to-do list. Is hot gluing that Thanksgiving wreath at midnight actually meaningful (or fun or relaxing)? For some women, it absolutely is. For me? No. Does the gingerbread house extravaganza really add value to your family’s experience of Christmas, or is it one of those things you do because you “should”? (Don’t ask the kids for an answer to that question. Kids always find special meaning in any activities involving icing and candy.)

Should is a dangerous word this time of year. You will say it often as you take in cultural messages and observe neighbors and friends. I should be doing that for my kids, we think as the radio commentator describes her handmade Advent calendar. We should go, we say as we open yet another party invitation. I should bake that pie Grandma loves, we muse wistfully while the TV mom happily presents that pie Grandma used to bake to glowing reviews.

This year, let go of should. You really do have that power. You have the freedom to decide which traditions and events to embrace and which ones to let go.

Have you ever walked into an especially cluttered room and felt as if the walls were closing in on you? Holidays can give you that same experience. The pressure of should makes us add more to our celebrations in an effort to make them better. But sometimes more is just distracting and overwhelming. When you clear out the clutter, you make room to breathe and to see and savor the good things that are left.

Focus on Core Traditions

Take time to recall the things you did last year for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. List every bit of baking, every hour of decorating and cleanup, every party attended or thrown, every school pageant—all of it. Write it down so you can see, all in one place, what you’ve been trying to accomplish year after year.

Schedule a holiday planning meeting with your family, and if your kids are old enough, be sure they’re in on it. Then let everyone know you want to make the holidays more meaningful and want to find ways everyone can be more involved. Look for the things that truly move your heart and the hearts of your family members.

Our family has a few core Christmas traditions. After we accomplish those traditions, anything remaining is optional. We decorate the house the weekend after Thanksgiving, enlisting any of the kids who are home to help out. We do it early so we can move into December with one less thing to worry about. We make a birthday cake for Jesus every Christmas and celebrate with candles and singing. It is our way of remembering that God came to earth as a human being, just like you and me. It started as a sweet, accessible tradition for the kids when they were tiny, and now they take charge of the cake themselves.

We give a few gifts on Christmas day followed by a family meal, but our kids know not to expect too much under the tree. While I enjoy giving meaningful things, an abundance of gifts stresses me out, especially if it seems they are taken for granted. Rather than giving lots of gifts at Christmas, we give each child a special trip or experience alone with a parent every year. They get involved in the planning and preparation, and it doesn’t clutter up the Christmas season.

Another priority for us is sending a Christmas card. It’s nothing too fancy, just a picture of the family and a little update on our lives. My husband and I both have family and friends scattered around the world, and this is one way we stay connected to them. We work on it together, and we get it done early.

That’s it. Those are our core Christmas traditions. Beyond that, we might choose to attend a holiday performance or a party or two, but only if we truly want to be there. We spend our time and energy enjoying our family and rejoicing in Christ’s birth and all it means.

Your core traditions will be different from mine, and that’s as it should be. Take the time to identify them and work toward clearing other things off your plate. It’s easier said than done, especially considering the cultural pressure and emotional capital that gets wrapped up in holiday traditions. But the effort is well worth it. You’ll find that with less on your plate you’re less stressed, less crunched, and much more joyous.

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

Diane Paddison

Diane Paddison is a business professional and founder of 4wordwomen.org, local groups of professional working women committed to faith, family, work, and each other.

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