Too much shopping and entertaining, and a never-ending to-do list, can turn December into super-stress season. But these simple strategies will keep your holidays merry and special.

By Gay Norton Edelman

I work so hard to make the holidays perfect, but I never feel like I'm doing enough, and then my tension spreads through the house. What are some ways I can keep that from happening?


There's just no way out. Like it or not, in most families Mom is the one who sets the tone. And the best way to avoid the stress contagion is by heading it off in the first place. "Holidays are for rest and recuperation, not for running around madly, packing in too many activities, and spending too much money," says Tom Hodgkinson, author of The Idle Parent: Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids (Jeremy Tarcher/Penguin). "Every few days, or at least once a week, take a couple of hours to do something you really enjoy." Escape to your room with a favorite novel, take a long walk, have coffee with a friend. You're not being selfish—you're investing in household peace.

Also be up front about how overwhelmed you are, says Annie Burnside, author of Soul to Soul Parenting (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing), who suggests you have everyone write down the two traditions he or she likes best. From there make a family to-do list, including assigned tasks for each person. "Post it in a central location," says Burnside, "and stick to it." Kids tend to be more cooperative—and cheerful—when they're part of the decision-making process. (And ordering in a pizza during chore time couldn't hurt, either.)

What's a good way to teach my kids there's more to the holidays than getting stuff?


Just like the times when you establish a curfew or give permission to borrow the car, you're the one who sets the parameters. Gifts are a privilege, not a right. So don't let peer pressure from other parents (or your own kids playing the guilt card) tell you different.

Of course you don't want to start an epidemic of disappointment, but not having every wish fulfilled isn't fatal. In fact, getting push-back on the gotta-have-its does children long-term good. "Research has found that attaching happiness to material goods can actually lead to feelings of insecurity," says Craig Kielburger, coauthor of The World Needs Your Kid (Greystone), who suggests volunteering together as a great way to give perspective.

If you have to curtail spending, adds Shelley Carson, PhD, author of Your Creative Brain (Jossey-Bass), explain that while there will be fewer items under the tree, you'll be having just as much fun and together time. Then make good on the promise, even if it's simply scheduling a movie followed by cookies and cocoa, or attending a free event (Google your town's name and "free Christmas events," or check your newspaper).

The holidays haven't been the same since my father passed away, right before Christmas. I need to honor his memory, yet keep things fun for the kids. Any suggestions?


This time of year can intensify the sense of what's missing, says Janet Taylor, MD, a psychiatrist and member of the Family Circle Health Advisory Board, especially if the holiday and the anniversary of an important loss coincide. "Grief can come in waves that are unexpected and draining," she explains. "Instead of blocking feelings, take a deep breath and allow yourself to experience the sadness. It will pass."

As a practical matter you might want to display photos of the person you miss, tell stories about him, light a candle, or make a donation in his name to charity. "Also ask your children how they'd like to remember," says Dr. Taylor. "Even though your rituals may be bittersweet, in the end they'll create important memories." And believe it or not, opening yourselves up to these poignant moments will also help deepen everyone's experience of what is joyful.

Can you believe it? My kids' birthdays are December 29 and 31. What should I do to make sure their days are special?


Some mothers in your situation prepare a nice dinner of favorite foods and a few gifts on the birthday, and plan something more labor-intensive—a party, sleepover, or outing with friends—six months later on the child's half birthday. First ask your kids what works for them and what doesn't. Maybe they don't mind birthday presents wrapped in Santa paper but would feel slighted receiving one big item for both days, even if you spend twice as much money.

Most important, on the actual day, put holiday hoopla aside when you're with your child, says Richard Bromfield, PhD, author of How to Unspoil Your Child Fast (Sourcebooks). "You want to be relaxed and fully attentive," he says. "You can be harried later."

My siblings, in-laws, and elderly parents always expect me to host our Christmas gathering. So if I want my kids to see family, I have to clean, cook, send invites, etc. Every year I think, Why me?


You're designated hostess because you've been doing such a terrific job, and the relatives have gotten used to letting you run the show, says Carson. The answer? Simplify. "Alert them ahead of time that you're scaling back to have more time for appreciating the festivities," she says. Rather than trying to please everyone, focus on what you personally would miss.

Then delegate: Ask each guest to bring a dish to share. If there's someone you're especially close with, see if he or she will come a day early to help clean. Have the kids e-mail, text, or phone the invites. Refuse to feel guilty about your decision to reduce your busyness, advises Carson.

Most of all, stop from time to time to savor the sights and sounds of the season. "We often knock ourselves out to make everything wonderful and end up robbing ourselves of enjoyment," she says. "But the celebration doesn't have to be perfect to be special." In other words, whatever you do will be beautiful.

Avoid Holiday Burnout

Give yourself the gift of managing the extra workload with more grace than grouchiness.

1. In addition to your to-do list, write a not-to-do list, suggests Ann Daly, PhD, author of Clarity: How to Accomplish What Matters Most (Wollemi Pine Press). Note those tasks that don't mean a lot—say, the neighbors' open house. (No need to explain. If pressed, tell them, "We've got something else on the calendar.") Also include basics: Don't overspend, overschedule, or do things solely out of obligation.

2. Watch for warning signs that you're in overdrive, says Carson. "If your heart rate increases, or you feel irritable or impatient, have trouble sleeping, or are indulging in stress eating," she says, "you've got to find ways to slow down." Meaning, delete things on your to-do list that aren't essential to what you truly value.

3. Stop every so often—try on the hour or each time you're alone—to go within and connect with your spirit, whether by meditation, prayer, or thinking about what's good in your life.

4. Be aware of anxious thoughts ("This is too much! I'll never get it all done!") and replace them with positive ones ("I can do this. I'm good at this."). Stress comes from the negative messages your mind churns out. You don't have to let yourself go there.

5. Make rest, good nutrition, and exercise priorities. Think of your energy level as a bank account you don't want to overdraw.

Feel-Good Holiday Traditions

"When dinner's done, it's 'dirty Santa' at our house. Everyone brings a wrapped grab-bag gift. We put them in a pile and take turns either choosing one, or taking away what someone else has already opened. Before long, we're all laughing hysterically. At the end, we swap for what we want, and everybody's happy."


"The last few days before Christmas I visit the stores, but not to shop. Instead, I go because I love the hustle and bustle and the music and energy. I sip a coffee, stroll at my pace, and savor the holiday spirit."


"Each night of Hanukkah we have a different theme. After we say the blessings and light the candles we might play board games, read new books out loud or, if it's the weekend, watch several DVDs. And one night instead of exchanging gifts we all go shopping for a charity like Toys for Tots or the local food bank."


"After the partying is done, I write myself an e-mail about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the season. Then, for next year, I have a heads up on which of my experiments could be repeated and which I should skip."


"Two days before the winter solstice—which will be on December 21 this year—we light a candle in honor of all who sacrificed in the past to make our lives better. The next night we light a second one for those who are currently giving their all. On the solstice day itself we light a third and pray that we may have the opportunity to be of service to others in the year to come."


Welcome Christmas

We asked Motherboard moms what would happen if the Grinch stole their holiday. And they refused to be intimidated.

"We'd go volunteer somewhere."

—Amy C.

"I would be fine, but I don't think anything would make my daughter feel better. She's at a very selfish teenage stage."

—Brooke W.

"Like the Whos down in Whoville, we'd sing praises because it would still be Christmas in our hearts. It'd be tough, but it might also be a great learning experience."

—Kelli W.

"I'd invite the Grinch to spend the day with us. Everybody needs love and a family."

—Lenoare M.

Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.