It's official—the holiday season is officially upon us (is it me or did it actually start this year before Halloween?).
Unfortunately, for many people, instead of it being the happiest time of year when we can relax and focus on the things that are truly important, the holidays are instead about deadlines, lists and logistics. So whenever I am asked for holiday tips, instead of forwarding along yet another recipe for sugar cookies, my advice is this:
Reduce stress, simplify and find joy.
Here are a few things that have worked for me:
- Smart Shopping: Holiday shopping has somehow become a fact of life in our country. It seems tinsel, garland and lights are hung earlier and earlier each season and we are meant to feel the pressure of the December holidays before we are even done taking down the skeletons off our doors from Halloween. So, given this reality, can we at least find a way to make shopping easier and actually enjoyable? I find that if I can organize my strategy before I go to the stores, I get more done and I feel calmer in the process. I make lists and also try to shop online as much as possible. What I cannot do online, I do without my kids in tow. Being a kid is stressful enough without all of the choices they are not prepared to make and temptations they are not old enough to resist, so I insist on sparing my kids the anxiety of holiday shopping. To make it fun for them, I do a babysitting co-op with my two sisters. We take turns watching each other's kids while one of us gets to go shopping, take care of errands or get ready for guests. The kids love seeing their cousins, and the babysitting sisters make the most of the occasion by planning a family excursion—ice skating, visiting a museum or looking at holiday lights. The result? I can get much more done in a much shorter time and I get my errands completed knowing that my kids are off having fun (and being wild) with their cousins.
- Personal Gifts: I try to make very personal gifts for my family. This year, for my 94-year-old grandmother I am making a home video of my children and buying a portable DVD player for her to watch it on. For my parents, I am making an electronic photo album. As a family, we always spend some time talking to each other about who deserves special attention and care during the holiday season. I try to remind my children of those who spend the holidays alone or those who are unwell and we bake them healthful treats. While I'm cooking, my kids love to sit at the kitchen table to make everyone fancy cards with lots and lots of glitter (which remains embedded in our carpet until spring). This season, I am smitten with ginger so I am baking Ginger Cookies (with Pumpkin) . I am going to bake these late at night after my children have gone to bed, which seems to be my only free time, especially this time of year. I use tins to store the goodies, because people can always reuse them and it is not as wasteful as paper products. I have found that people truly love a homemade baked gift—and when it is baked with love, has added hidden vegetables, and is low fat, they are especially grateful.
- Inspired Gifts: For many people on my list, I pull my hair out trying to find something thoughtful and original—and necessary. Seriously, does the world need another sweater in a box? What I've started doing instead is giving them a gift that I know will not only do something good, it will make me feel good, too: I give the gift of charity. You can give these items as a gift in someone else's name. Believe me, I understand that it takes a certain amount of nerve to give a gift that not only shows up in an envelope, but that is also really a gift for someone else! But the truth is, many generous people would love to do something charitable but don't know how to give. A gift in charity helps get them there—and will often spur them to make the next donation on their own. So give that little push and make a gift in charity with confidence and pride!
- Family Travel: Staying at home during the holidays is always nice, but getting away as a family—or visiting far-off relatives—can also make for a memorable experience. Whether we are driving or flying, the trick with long trips is to make the hours seem to pass faster than they really do. For kids, that means getting involved in the activity for which they have the longest attention span. A DVD is a great option, but I always try to save it for when we have exhausted all other activities. And even then, I go into it with a plan—they get to watch one or two, and that is it. My kids also love arts and craft projects, so I bring tons of supplies on trips. We also subscribe to lots of kids' magazines and I save them up until we leave and wrap them and present them on the way to the airport with a big bow. And books on tape are always a hit. Getting the kids to agree on which book to listen to can be a challenge, but when everyone enjoys the story-telling together, it is such fun.
Of course, there's no way to take all stress out of the holidays. This time of year is all about people getting together, and that always creates strain, even among loved ones. In the buildup of the holidays and all the anxiety around them, however, I try to remind myself of how fortunate I am. Far too many people have more elemental worries—food, shelter and medicine.
Put in that context, wrapping paper and bows become luxury items. I remember that my family is the only thing that really matters, and my stress and worries seem to all melt away.