With the holidays, many people fondly anticipate the family parties, meals and gift exchanges that are integral to the season. We look forward to seeing loved ones we may not have seen for many months and to watching the blessings unfold for the little ones in our midst.

Perhaps that’s why so many of us are surprised when petty (or major) family conflicts beleaguer our time together — even when it happens year after year.

Without question, the holidays are a busy time. Shopping, baking and decorating are time-consuming traditions, but we’ve come to expect those activities as part of the season, and so have those around us.

Because many of these expectations come from our families of origin, we’ll do ourselves and future generations a favor by reevaluating what’s most important.

It’s difficult, considering the messages we get from society. In many ways, the world around us attempts to dictate what’s important, especially regarding the material aspects of the holidays. We worry about what other people will think and sometimes get caught up in competing with others to be sure we or our children have the best of everything.

But some families have done a terrific job working against norms and traditions to reduce the pressure and increase the joy of the season. These families know that the keys to a happy holiday season together are found in communication, giving gifts of real value and redefining expectations.

Communication — Before the chaos takes hold, set aside time to talk as a family about expectations for the holidays. Discuss what you feel you can and cannot handle during the season and determine together which traditions hold the most meaning and which can be abandoned. Continue that communication throughout the season, and don’t hesitate to tell your family members if you feel especially stressed. That can help others be more patient and tolerant of the stress that may play out. Widen this communication to extended family members who will be part of your holiday plans. That will aid in both planning and managing expectations for larger family gatherings.
Giving gifts of real value — Reduce the amount of money you spend on gifts, replacing it with acts of kindness. The acts of kindness can be offered throughout the year in the form of time and talent. Instead of buying your sister and her husband a department store gift, for example, offer to watch their children one night so they can have some time alone together. These gifts not only have more meaning for you and the recipient, but they also save money and build closer family bonds that can reduce stress when you get together.
Redefined expectations — Examine the expectations you and your family have about the holidays and identify places where you can cut back. Just because your family has always had an elaborate holiday meal together doesn’t mean the tradition must continue now that the family has grown three- or four-fold. Consider a simple potluck or only desserts instead. The important thing in this scenario is spending time together.
In addition, remember to take care of yourself. Exercising, eating right and getting adequate sleep are always essential to managing stress. Sticking to a routine can also help, especially for young children.

Despite your best efforts, you’re still likely to be bombarded with idyllic holiday images. But as you reassess and act upon what’s most important to you and your family, you’ll find in the end you’ve created your own version of a storybook holiday.

As published in the November 2005 Edition of the Holmen Courier and Onalaska Community Life.