"Are you looking forward to Christmas?"
My friend's question was innocent enough, but I could feel my shoulders tense. The memories of the stress and chaos from the previous year were still fresh enough that I was resisting the arrival of "the most wonderful time of the year." This isn't right, I thought. This isn't how Christmas is supposed to be.
Deep inside, we all want the holidays to be spectacular. As parents, we dream of what Christmas will be like for our kids. From our own childhoods to the inspiration of social media and advertising, there is no lack of sources telling us how to make Christmas meaningful for our children. We begin believing our Christmas needs one more gift, one more party, one more meaningful moment with grandparents in order to be done right.
In recent years, my efforts to make Christmas special for my family had resulted in me over-spending, overscheduling and overpromising. As I talked with other parents, I discovered that many of us were facing the same challenge: Christmastime commitments had gotten to be too much, leaving us ragged and empty when the season was done — nothing like the lofty expectations we had for the holiday.
When expectations are overinflated, stress and disappointment are the inevitable outcome. None of this makes for meaningful memories. Thankfully, there is something we can do about all that stress.
As I talk with families about how they manage their Christmas chaos, three main stressors reverberate through their comments: money, schedules and extended family. These three tensions are often entangled with unrealistic expectations — both ours and others'.
We can always find something bigger and better to dream about. But fixating on the what-ifs prevents us from enjoying the gifts God has already given us. How do we intentionally avoid fixating on the endless possibilities of the season and instead learn to love the unique, even quirky Christmas that is right in front of us?
We acknowledge our dreams, but plan for reality. We aim for a Christmas that we can actually accomplish.
Control the money
No surprise that money is a stress during the holidays. There are just so many extra things to spend money on. No matter your family's financial situation, a few smart decisions can help reduce money stress this time of year:
Make a family budget.
This seems so obvious, but few of us actually set a limit for holiday spending. No wonder the pursuit of unrealistic expectations sends the budget spiraling out of control. Decide with your spouse what you'll be comfortable spending. Then work backward, assigning specific amounts to every area. Gifts, travel costs and big meal budgets — try to put a dollar amount on every category, even if you allow a little wiggle room. In January, you'll thank yourselves for this limit.
Our actual Christmas spending should reflect our family's budget. There will be families who can spend more and those who must spend less. Avoid the temptation to compare what others are spending. Whether that means a social media hiatus, not talking with your neighbors about shopping or making a list of all the material things you are grateful for this year, you want to focus on what you do have, not on what you don't.
As parents, we are often tempted to give our kids whatever is on their wish list. Set limits on the number of gifts and spending per child. The younger your kids, the easier this will be. If older kids are going to feel a change from years past, take the opportunity to have conversations about realistic spending, needs vs. wants, and God's provision for your family. Throughout your talks, help your kids remember that the season is about God's great gift to us, how the baby Jesus launched God's plan to save the world. No gift we offer can compare to that.
De-stress the schedule
School parties, work parties, church concerts and pageants — will the crazy schedule ever end? From extended family gatherings to the yearly "Nutcracker" performance, there are countless opportunities and invitations to do "one more thing" during the holiday season. These extras add to the already busy family schedules, swiftly bringing about exhaustion and resentment. Here are a few ideas to add sanity to your schedule:
Ask your family, What do we want to remember a year from now, 10 years from now, about this Christmas? Based on their answers, pick three activities and put them on the calendar as soon as possible. Scheduling other opportunities around these big events ensures the most important things happen.
Recognize your family's limits.
From nap times to eating schedules, every family has different rhythms that help everyone operate at their best. Keep these as consistent as possible during the holiday rush, even if it means declining a few invitations and opportunities. You need time to relax and recharge. Prioritize this margin in your schedule. This helps your kids (and you) be at their best for the special events you do choose. If everyone's overtired, meltdowns are guaranteed.
As kids grow, traditions often need to be tweaked to keep them doable and fun. Just because you've done something one Christmas doesn't automatically make it necessary every year. Even traditions you've done for a number of years can be skipped. If it's the difference between maintaining a tradition or your sanity, your sanity should win.
Manage family expectations
Bringing together two sets of family Christmas traditions and expectations can be tricky. Existing tension in relationships is often heightened during the holidays. The emotional stress we carry in this area can be debilitating. How can we manage everyone's hopes for the holidays while living within our own limitations?
Unity starts at home.
Communication of a family game plan is critical. You and your spouse want to support each other, honor each other's extended families and create some boundaries you both can live with. If you are the one who orchestrates Christmas in your family, make sure you are offering space for your spouse's opinion about what you say yes and no to. And if you tend to be on the passive side, now is the time to communicate what is most important.
It's OK to take a pass.
Trying to make everyone happy is both stressful and impossible. After evaluating what will work best for your family from both a scheduling and financial standpoint, you may have to say no to certain gifts, trips and get-togethers with extended family.
Kindness is always good.
Declining to participate in a larger family event may not be received well by relatives. As you make decisions about the holidays, you can't be responsible for everyone's feelings. However, your communication with your relatives can be filled with self-control, kindness and patience. These traits are welcome elements to any discussion. Yes, you have good reasons for setting boundaries, but make sure you do so in a way that reflects your values.
It is hard to worship God when we're scrambling. It is almost impossible to capture the wonder of the Christ child if we're overextended. The Christmas season is set apart in our calendars. Let's use it for its intended purpose — to sit in the miracle that God so loved the world that He came as a humble baby to save us. Humanity's entire story was altered on that first Christmas. Taking a few practical steps to reduce stress and resentment gives us capacity to focus on why we celebrate and Who we worship.Alexandra Kuykendall spends her Christmas with her husband and four daughters in their hometown, Denver. She is the author of four books, including Loving My Actual Christmas: An experiment in relishing the season.