Putting the “Happy” Back in Holidays

by Cathy Converse (Bailey)

I still remember the best Christmas of my life.  I was ten, just the right age to experience all the excitement, anticipation, and hope that holidays bring. This particular year I was really hoping for a bike, preferably a blue one. For months I left nothing to chance, making sure my parents received daily reminders that the only thing standing between me and a completely happy childhood was a blue Schwinn 3-speed bike. Now that I was in the double digits age-wise, it was time to leave my kid’s bike behind and head out into the world at the speed of my choice and with brakes in the grasp of my hands. By Christmas Eve I could barely stand the anticipation. My parents were not giving me any hints, and I knew that a gift as special as a bike was not a given. As I lay in bed squirming with anticipation, I wondered if I would ever be able to fall asleep.

Aside from the daily reminders about the bike, I had few responsibilities associated with holiday preparations. The planning, shopping, baking, and decorating were done primarily by the adults in my life, although I gladly assisted with decorating the tree and “testing” the freshly baked cookies to make sure they were fit for human consumption. Shopping trips with each parent to buy the other one’s gifts were pre-sourced and financed by them. I had plenty of time to relax and enjoy the break from school and daydream about my bike. I was happy; life was good.

Most of us can remember such a holiday, and as adults we strive to replicate this for ourselves and those we love.  As a result, many of us spend a great deal of time and effort making the holidays happy and carefree for others. Over the years we’ve built in expectations from family and friends, as well as our own. Prepare all the meals and baked goods that everybody expects. Add a couple more strands of lights outside so you’re not outdone by the neighbors. Secure the fruit cake that Aunt Debra loves, even though nobody else will touch it. Get the house decorated right after Thanksgiving. Shop until you drop so that everyone has the perfect gifts they want. Get everything done at work so you can take a few days off. And don’t forget to be cheerful and pretend you’re not exhausted by all this extra activity.

The truth is our lives are already overburdened with work and other responsibilities, and the holidays can become just one more project with a tight deadline and high expectations from ourselves and others. Instead of feeling peace, joy and excitement, we’re more likely to be overwhelmed with feelings of fatigue and frustration. When this happens, it’s time to take a step back and figure out how to put the “happy” back in our holidays. Here are six things you can do to make this holiday season more enjoyable and fulfilling.

  1. Do less. Contrary to the messages we receive in the media, the holidays are not about fulfilling everyone’s expectations, even your own. Do you usually bake eight kinds of cookies? Cut that back to the four that everyone seems to enjoy the most. Tired of spending your days fighting your way through crowded malls, lengthy shopping list in hand? Focus on getting just one or two things for those most dear to you, or consider making donations in their honor to a charity whose mission they support. (To find out how charities rate in terms of being good stewards of your donation, visit Charity Navigator.) I believe that if we would cut our holiday preparation efforts by 50% everyone, including children, would actually have a more enjoyable holiday season, because the stress would be cut in half as well.
  2. Enlist the help of others. Often the majority of holiday preparation efforts fall on one person. If you are that person, ask for help. Even small children can assist with simple decorating and holiday baking tasks. Just because you’re hosting the big holiday dinner doesn’t mean you have to do all the food preparation. Ask everyone to bring a dish. The people who love you really just want to spend time with you, and they can’t do that if you’re always in the kitchen or at the store. And if you are not the one doing the heavy lifting during the holidays, offer to pitch in. Instead of asking, “Can I help?” say “How can I help?” It could be the best gift you give this year!
  3. Embrace imperfection. Sure, we want everything to be perfect for the holidays. But striving for perfection adds unnecessary stress to a time when we’d be happier relaxing with loved ones. Is the freshly baked bread a little burnt around the edges? Serve it anyway. Only have time to put up a few decorations? Make them the visual focal point of your holiday gatherings. Run out of time to buy gifts for distant relatives? Call and wish them a happy holiday—it will make them happier than a gift anyway.
  4. Put people first. Rather than focusing on what you can do for the people in your life, think about what you can do with them. The best memories are of the times we spent with people, not things. Play a board game, create something together, or just relax and chat. Time together is the best gift of all.
  5. Leave work at work. If you’re lucky enough to have a few days off during the holidays, then truly disconnect and focus on other things. Resist the urge to check your email. Let that project wait until you return. Allow others to figure out how to problem-solve on their own. By doing so you’ll find that you will return with a renewed sense of energy and passion for your work, and your productivity will increase.
  6. Do something just for you. Set aside time to do something that makes you feel peaceful and happy. Whether it’s getting outside for some fresh air and exercise or curling up with a good book, don’t forget to take care of yourself. It will give you both physical and mental energy.

Back to my favorite Christmas: I did get that blue Schwinn 3-speed bike. I remember riding it around the living room—Minnesota winters meant it would be months before I could take it outside.  But when I looked back at my photo album from that day, it only appeared in one picture. All the other photos were of my family, looking happy as we savored our time together. I have no recollection of what we ate, how the house was decorated, or what other gifts I received. For me, that shiny new bike and time with my loved ones were all I needed to create a happy and memorable holiday.

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