You drive down Harrison Avenue in a panic striving to get to yet another holiday party. Your relatives are due tomorrow, so you are contemplating the cleaning you must do tonight right after the party.
You take a deep breathe and sigh. You long for the Norman Rockwell Christmas you see in paintings and on Christmas cards. As the longing thought of Jan. 2 interrupts your reverie, you realize that somewhere along the way, you have lost the wonder of the holidays. If your holidays are not full of sleigh bells, good cheer, warm gingerbread and peace on Earth, it may be time to turn off the Hallmark channel and wake up to reality.
But don't despair: It's not too late to put a little sanity back into the season. Here are some tips to help you cope with - or even avoid - holiday stress.
Tips for coping
n Stay out of holiday debt. Know your spending limit. If your local mall starts putting up holiday decorations before you're done paying last year's bills, it's time to rethink your gift-giving habits. Expensive gifts won't guarantee a happy holiday. The recipient just might feel guilty instead of elated, especially if the gift isn't really wanted. Even children will be grateful for moderately priced gifts that are chosen with care, especially if you explain that you don't have unlimited funds. If your extended family is filling your shopping list to the brim, consider starting a name exchange. There's a good chance everyone else on the list will appreciate a break, too.
n Make a shopping list - and check it twice. Staying organized will help you avoid any oversights or last-minute panic. As a bonus, you'll be less likely to make any impulse purchases that you can't really afford.
n Avoid a relative meltdown. If everybody in your family gets along, consider yourself lucky. The holidays give you a great opportunity to spend time together. But if your family is full of conflict and friction, the holidays can become a battlefield. You can clear the atmosphere by involving everyone in the planning and decision-making. When a couple of relatives insist on snipping at one another, take it as your cue to go for a walk or tidy up a distant room. If the worst fights tend to happen at the dining room table, consider having your holiday meal at a nice restaurant where everyone is more likely to be on their best behavior.
n Keep moving. Exercise is always a great stress reliever. Instead of watching that Christmas special for the hundredth time, take a brisk walk around the neighborhood with a cousin or slip away with your aunt to the gym for a much-needed break. Even if you get your workout on a treadmill, try to spend some time outdoors. A little winter sunlight can dramatically brighten your mood, especially if you suffer from seasonal affective disorder, depression that sets in as the days get shorter.
n Eat well and be merry. That fourth or fifth sugar cookie won't lift your spirits. As hard as it may seem, you can hold onto your healthful eating habits throughout the holiday season. Have a few healthful snacks throughout the day, especially before the "big meal." If you catch yourself eating to relieve anxiety or loneliness, take a step back from the kitchen and think about the source of your feelings. Confronting your emotions in a healthful way can keep you from overeating.
n Don't get too ambitious. Planning on an elaborate craft project with the kids? Keep in mind that a gingerbread mansion would be just as much fun in January. Are you in charge of making a seven-course holiday meal? Ask for lots of help, and don't hesitate to cut it down to four courses. If you're wrapping presents, ask your kids to help out.
Simplify the season
n Take a moment to appreciate the simple things. Getting into the holiday spirit can be as easy as putting on nostalgic holiday tunes or making your favorite wintertime drink.
n Stay flexible. Too many people approach the holidays with a fixed vision of how everything should go. This year, try to keep an open mind. Ask other people what they really want to do and try to accommodate them. You might find that you actually enjoy staying home and playing board games instead of driving around town and looking at the lights.
n If you're traveling, give yourself plenty of time to get there. This is especially important if you're traveling with small children. Remember to bring all the toys and supplies you need to keep them occupied if you hit a jam. Whether you're on the road or in the airport, realize that everyone else is in the same predicament. Slow down, take a deep breath and try to be courteous to the driver or fellow travelers around you.
n Rein in your expectations. No holiday ever goes perfectly. Spills, squabbles and unwanted gifts are just a part of the season. Don't hold yourself or anyone else up to an unrealistic standard. Just take it all in, relax, have fun and remember that the holiday season only comes around once a year.
The cliche that Jesus is the "Reason for the Season" is not just cliche, but truth. Christmas would not be had it not been for Christ. Having a birthday party for Jesus is a tradition in our home. I'll never forget the year that our small son kept going to the window and watching for Je-Je in lieu of the birthday party. We explained that you couldn't see Jesus, but he was there. He still insisted on sitting beside him and helping him blow out the candles. And that, my friend, is one of my favorite holiday memories: a simple party, the innocence of a child and the presence of Christ.
Kimberly Short Wolfe, MA, is a homeschool mom and the grief counselor and chaplain for Mountain Hospice. To contact her, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or call 304-823-3922, ext. 136.