For happy holidays, cast aside your idea of what's "perfect."
A lot of people think of the holidays as a time when perfect families sit around the table and enjoy being together. Candles are burning. Maybe some Clydesdales are clopping by outside. Nobody's resentful, and everybody's grateful.

There's one place this happy scenario actually exists: a picture on a greeting card. In the real world, with our fast-paced lives, the holidays usually mean stress. We're scrambling to make shopping lists, fretting about our budget, driving long distances so we can endure together time with toasted Uncle Bob and distant cousins whose names we can barely remember.

My dad used to say, in his more cynical moments, that this time of year is when we feel compelled to be with family we don't really know for too long a time in too small a space—and spend money on things nobody needs. Maybe he was a bit of a Scrooge—or maybe he was onto something.

During the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's, we pile expectations on ourselves and everyone around us. A lot of folks put on rose-colored glasses and recall their childhood "good ol' days," even if those ol' days weren't so good. They blot out the past because they want to go to a place that feels like home. Then when reality sets in, they're disappointed and wonder why they don't feel filled up with the holiday spirit.

What if things could be different this year? I've got a challenge for you: Give yourself permission to get rid of the "have-tos" and "should-dos." Here are a few of the assumptions you can turn upside down.

I see this side of the family only once a year, so I have to squeeze in all the togetherness I can.

Just because you're connected to people on a genetic basis doesn't mean you can relate to them on a personal basis. What if your definition of family this year includes only your nuclear family—the people you value above all others? I'm not saying you should blow off the grandparents, but maybe you can have a FaceTime visit now and plan a trip for the summer, when you'll be able to enjoy more relaxed one-on-one time.

I have to buy everybody the perfect present.

Create a new tradition: Draw names, so everyone gets just one gift. Or turn gift giving into a kids-only event. Even better, organize a family donation to your favorite charity.

I have to make my famous roast and 15 side dishes.

I've got news for you: People may love your food, but no one is giving you extra points for sweating over a hot stove. Unless you enjoy being in the kitchen, 48 hours of cooking and 15 minutes of eating seems like a bad ratio to me. There's no shame in buying pie at the store so you can relax.

You can't have a holiday with meaning until you decide what means the most to you, so ask yourself where your true priorities lie. If you value time with your kids who will be home from college, why invite all the neighbors over? If you want to enjoy your day off, don't sign up for a shift as cook and maid; make a reservation at an affordable restaurant instead. Or maybe you want to focus on gratitude; if so, you might step out of the commercial frenzy by feeding homeless families at a community center.

It doesn't matter if you've celebrated the same way forever. This year you can create the experience you want. You just have to quit letting guilt control you and throw traditions that aren't working for you out the door. Happy holidays!

Dr. Phillip C. McGraw's daily talk show is in its 12th season. He has written seven best-selling books; his latest is Life Code: The New Rules for Winning in the Real World (Bird Street).

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