Satisfying, Not Stressful, Holidays


As parents we long to create magical holiday memories for our children.  While their heads are filled with “visions of sugarplums,” we’re overwhelmed by what we’re convinced has to be done and spent to make those memories possible.  Perhaps there is another way to make this holiday season memorable and meaningful while minimizing the hassles.

When planning our holiday celebrations, we might ask ourselves, “What do we want the holidays to mean to our children?  What kind of memories do we want them to have? What feelings do we want them to associate with the holidays? Are we effectively communicating the meaning this holiday holds for us through our celebration?”  Revisiting our own favorite childhood holiday memories can be a place to start. What kinds of things did our families do to make those memories possible?

Oftentimes, when we recall favorite memories, they have little or nothing to do with how many gifts there were or how much was spent on them.  Specific gifts may not even be remembered. Typically, our memories have more to do with the atmosphere of the holidays that existed in our homes – the aromas, the music, the voices, the feelings.  Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli remind us in their book, Unplug the Christmas Machine, that no matter what cultural or religious holiday you are celebrating, “What children want and need is more time with their parents, an evenly-paced holiday season, traditions they can count on, and realistic expectations about gifts…Most people spend more time and emotional energy on gift-giving than anything else, and yet gift-giving is consistently rated as the least valued aspect of the celebration.”

Here are a few tried and true strategies for creating the meaningful holiday memories we desire:

View the holidays through a child’s eyes.  Children experience the holidays differently at different ages.  For example, the infant who rests calmly in Santa’s arms may become the toddler who shrieks in terror at this bearded stranger.  The very young child for whom we carefully shopped may be more interested in the package’s wrapping than its contents. Pay attention to and respect each child’s reactions and avoid taking their preferences personally.  By demonstrating respect for their feelings, they learn to respect us and others. Our responsiveness to their needs and feelings leave a more lasting impression than any picture with Santa.

Make family time a priority.  Let decorating the house, making and wrapping gifts, and preparing meals be family activities.  Delegate tasks according to age and ability. Everyone can do something. Having a special job to do makes everyone feel they are making a valuable contribution to the family’s celebration.

Pull out your collection of holiday books or check some out from the library and read to each other!  Listen to holiday music! Get out the art supplies and create! Take a walk in the neighborhood and enjoy the sights and sounds of the season.  Limit television viewing to holiday specials that the family can watch together. These are opportunities to discuss the portrayal of the holiday and whether or not it is in agreement with our values.  Spend time exploring the meaning of the holiday being celebrated and its religious and cultural significance.

Simplify the social calendar.  Attend only those functions believed to be absolutely necessary.  Maintain a flexible, realistic schedule as much as possible. When children are attending events that may last past their bedtime, take along their pajamas.  If an event involves a meal with lots of unique or unusual dishes, taking along foods we know our children will eat can prevent an unpleasant scene. Feeding them ahead of time is another option.  Take along a few quiet toys, books, or art supplies in case the entertainment is geared toward adults. Our children will remember our efforts to make these experiences pleasant for them.

Schedule quiet time.  Listen to soothing music and use soft voices.  Institute a “whisper hour” when everyone is asked to speak only in whispers.  Family members may spend this time in whatever way they find most relaxing – reading, drawing, doing puzzles, resting, or writing letters.

Limit wish lists.  By limiting our children’s wish list, we help them learn to make choices and identify what they really want.  Encourage them to make choices that are within the family budget. Making the list is part of the fun when they write it themselves, draw pictures of the desired items, or cut them from catalogues and glue them on a piece of paper.  (These become treasured keepsakes.) Remember more is not necessarily better. Knowing someone cared enough to get what they really wanted helps make the recipient feel special.

Avoid taking children shopping.  Arrange to let them stay with trusted relatives or friends.  Set up a babysitting co-op for the holidays so that everyone gets a chance to get some uninterrupted shopping done.  When taking our children along is unavoidable, planning several, short trips when they are at their best – after meals or naps – can prevent meltdowns.  Involve them in the shopping when possible. Let them hold the list and help look for items. Make the most of whatever time is spent with them. It all becomes part of their memories.    

Involve children in the joy of giving.  Ask them for gift suggestions.  Encourage them to make gifts whenever possible.  It helps to start early. Close friends and relatives will treasure simply framed original works of art, homemade calendars using children’s artwork or photos, or treats children helped bake and decorate.  Never underestimate the value of a handmade gift, for they come from the heart.

Include children in a holiday tradition of giving to those less fortunate.  Involve them in collecting for food, clothing, coat, book, or toy drives.  Let them put money in the Salvation Army bucket and explain how the money is used.  Prepare a meal for a lonely individual or needy family in the neighborhood. We can teach our children the lesson that Scrooge’s friend, Jacob Marley, learned too late – ‘humankind is our business.’

Stress is a major obstacle to satisfying holidays.  We reduce stress by keeping the focus where it belongs.  By focusing on our families, beliefs, and traditions, we create the magical holiday memories we desire for our children.   


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