It starts with Halloween. After that, the race is on for two solid months. Along with all our other chores and obligations there's decorating (inside, outside and sometimes for more than one household), shopping, wrapping, cooking, baking, traveling, hosting and general celebrating, sometimes well into early January.
Throw in sibling squabbles, unmet expectations, missing or seriously ill loved ones and a little too much alcohol and you have the makings of a stressful, exhausting, potentially depressing time of year. What can you do about it? We asked several experts for their advice. Here's what they had to say about how to handle some of the most common holiday stressors.
Shopping and gift-giving
Gift shopping can be stressful for all sorts of reasons. Among them is trying to find the perfect gift for everyone on your list. Elaine Rodino, a Pennsylvania psychologist, said you know it's a problem if you're taking too much time to choose each gift. "You feel like the gift, and often the wrapping, is a major reflection on you."
Leslie Connor, a psychologist in Delaware, agrees. "By trying to find the ultimate gift we put unnecessary pressure on ourselves, which can be overwhelming." That can lead to overspending, especially if your gift list is long. Instead, focus on simply getting something the recipient will enjoy and not what the gift says about you personally.
If you didn't begin your holiday shopping in July, it's time to get busy or you'll be stuck at the mall with all the other procrastinators. Be prepared to be patient. Take a cab or have a ride-sharing service drop you off to avoid the parking hassle altogether. Plan to arrive early, when stores and businesses first open, or shop during the dinner hour, when crowds often thin out. Better yet, shop online but allow plenty of time for possible shipping delays.
Too many tasks on the to-do list
Make a list of everything you would like to do, delegate what you can and take on only those things you can comfortably accomplish. Then cross off the rest. "Ask yourself: 'What do I find meaningful and what can I let go of?' " Connor said.
Here's another way to think of it: "Accept that you can't do all the work yourself," said New York psychologist Carol Goldberg. She advises you to ask for and accept all offers of help. "You don't have to show off your cooking and decorating skills. Give everyone a job." And be realistic about your budget, time and energy. Here are some areas where you might cut back:
Decorating Limit yourself to one area that's most important to you or your family, say the front yard or the living room, and skip the rest. Or, scale back. "Be satisfied to be the house that's next door to the one that makes the news every year," advises Rodino. "Don't even try to compete."
Gift-wrapping Use gift bags, tissue paper and premade bows. Take advantage of charitable gift-wrapping fundraisers.
Sending holiday cards Just stop. Send holiday greetings via email or social media, advises Dr. Nick Dewan, a BayCare psychiatrist and medical director of Behavioral Health Services. Whittle down your list to only those you know will truly miss them. And, if the deadline is a problem, it's okay to send New Year's cards, Dewan adds.
Baking Take shortcuts. Start with a mix or use refrigerator dough. Buy plain bakery cookies, cakes or confections and decorate them yourself. Make just one favorite recipe rather than 10.
Cooking Buy as much as you can afford from a deli, restaurant or caterer. Have guests bring dishes or help with the cooking. And, remember this sage advice from the queen of entertaining, the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten: "People don't have a better time because you made everything yourself."
Cleaning If possible, this is the time to hire a cleaning service or your neighbor's housekeeper. Not in your budget? Streamline cleaning to the most used areas: living room, bathroom, kitchen. When invited guests ask how they can help, ask a few to plan to stay late to assist with cleanup. Use real flatware, but disposable plates, cups and napkins.
Hosting dinners, parties If you're tired of hosting, come clean and ask someone else to do it. Or, you provide the location and ask others to bring the food, drinks and handle cleanup. Try inviting people over for dessert and coffee from 2 to 4 p.m. Make or buy one special dessert, and let guests who offer bring additional treats.
Be realistic about what you can accomplish and afford. Don't try to do everything yourself. Simplify the menu, drop dishes that are too much work, make it potluck and let everyone contribute. Dewan said we should all remember, "Most people care more about having fun and being together than having an elaborate celebration with a tired host."
"Don't compete with yourself," adds Rodino. "Don't feel that you have to outdo what you did last year. It just gets to be so much work that it's less and less fun."
Take stock of your family traditions and let go of the ones you no longer enjoy. Rodino said keeping holiday traditions alive and following them to a tee is a top reason for holiday stress. If attending midnight church services followed by a gift exchange is just too much for your family, find another service to attend and schedule gift-giving earlier in the day.
"All those traditions had a start somewhere, at sometime," Rodino said. "So why not start some new ones that fit your schedule and your lifestyle better?"
And, while you're managing expectations, don't expect problem family members and friends to suddenly change and be the perfect guests this year. Connor said you should instead resolve not to react to or get drawn into their bad behavior. Dewan suggests you even practice in advance "positive ways to respond when they get under your skin."
When your guests don't get along
Be sure each knows the other one will be there or has been invited. Ask them to put aside their differences for the few hours that the family will be together.
"One thing that tends to upset people is that they imagine everyone else is with a loving, perfect family and they compare their imperfect family to that one," Connor said. "The truth is that many people have family struggles. … Maybe you don't stay as long as you would like, or you engage only with family members who are easier to be with."
Stopping alcohol cold turkey can cause serious medical problems in alcoholics — do this only with medical help or supervision. Ask heavy drinkers to come over, say hello and leave before they start drinking. Don't serve alcohol while they are there.
Dewan said it is important to set boundaries with them in advance and let them know how you expect them to behave. "Don't bring up past bad behavior and hurts, but do stand firm on your boundaries for this year," he said.
For those who have quit drinking, it can be hard to be around alcohol, especially in the early stages of recovery. Have plenty of non-alcoholic beverages available. Limit the amount and kind of alcohol you serve: no hard liquor or fruity cocktails that make it too easy to overindulge. Have just a couple of bottles of wine on hand, not a couple of cases.
Don't ever push alcoholic drinks on guests and don't let drinkers drive. Cut off alcohol at least an hour before the party ends. Have phone numbers handy for taxicab and ride-share services. Or, if you'd rather not serve alcohol in support of someone who is newly sober or struggling with alcohol, let your guests know in advance and ask them not to BYOB.
Missing a loved one
It's okay to remember and talk about loved ones who have passed away or who can't be at the party because of illness or inability to travel. Honor that person with activities like inviting guests to help make a memory album, or visiting a grave site or volunteering at their favorite charity. "Find a way to express your grief or sadness, rather than holding it in," Connor said.
If a loved one is hospitalized or too ill to attend, Goldberg suggests passing around a card, having everyone sign it and adding a personal message. Or, make a video for those who would enjoy that more. It lets those who couldn't attend know they were missed and remembered.
Other things to consider
Remember that winter's shorter days with less natural light may trigger seasonal affective disorder, which can cause sadness or depression. Connor recommends watching for it in those around you and "don't underestimate the value of listening, so the other person feels they are understood and that someone is walking with them when they feel down." If it persists, encourage them to seek counseling or to call a free helpline or crisis hotline. (In the Tampa Bay area, call 211, anytime.)
Remember also that the holidays can be especially difficult for single people, whether widowed, never married or divorced. "It's a reminder that they are on their own," Connor said. "We can all do a better job of being inclusive and sensitive to single people" at this time of year.
If the holidays were tough for you as a child, those old memories may make them just as tough when you are an adult, said Rodino. "Talk with a psychologist who might be able to help you process what you are feeling, eventually making the holidays more enjoyable."
This can also be a tough time for people with food addictions and serious weight problems, Goldberg said. Don't push food on people. Let them serve themselves. Include some healthy options like fruit, vegetables, green salads and plain grilled fish or chicken.
Contact Irene Maher at firstname.lastname@example.org.