The holidays–and all that they entail–are upon us again. With Thanksgiving now under our (bulging) belts, we have been thrust into “Christmastime” and all of its shopping, wrapping, baking, work parties, neighborhood parties, school programs, church activities, pictures with Santa, and—last but not least—time with family near and far.
Take a look back at this past Thanksgiving (which already seems like eons ago!?!)…Did it meet your expectations, or did it fall far short of your hopes for a memorable holiday? If your expectations of Thanksgiving were met, how can you ensure that you will feel the same about Christmas? And if your Thanksgiving was disappointing, how can you ensure that Christmas turns out differently? Wouldn’t it be nice to not only survive, but to thrive this holiday season?
The holidays are filled with so many possibilities for hope—and so many opportunities for disappointment. Our disappointments often stem from either planning too much or failing to plan at all. Those of us who plan too much get tugged in so many directions that we fail to take the time to prioritize what is important to us. We find ourselves just trying to get through December, later looking back and wondering why we missed the things that really mattered. It’s so easy to say “yes” and later find ourselves over committed. My children made this clear to me once when they were young—when they asked whether the cookies on the counter were for us or for another volunteer event, I knew I’d said “yes” too many times. In our desire to give our children storybook Christmases, we find ourselves rushing from one “meaningful,” “special,” or “never-to-be-forgotten” event after another. But what will our children really remember, the live nativity scene or their stressed-out, frustrated parents?
Our good intentions often stem from our own childhood memories of Christmas, whether those are good or bad. If our Christmases were positive and meaningful, we try to recreate those memories for our children. But the challenge is sorting through all the options for memorable experiences—between the Black Friday shopping, events at the Children’s Museum, cookie bakes, photos with Santa, church activities, and light shows, we could schedule a Christmas “memory” every day of December. And don’t forget about “Truth in the Tinsel” or “Elf on the Shelf.” Or the need for a Christmas tree in the family room and a small one on each child’s bedside table. And have you purchased tickets for both The Nutcracker and The Yuletide Celebration? In our efforts to create a Norman Rockwell-esque Christmas, we overlook the consequences of stress. Have you ever noticed how, after Christmas, many women we run into are exhausted, coughing, and sneezing? Our children feel and experience their parents’ stress. They act out more, whine more, argue more, and have more temper tantrums, while their stressed-out, exhausted parents ask wonder how their children could be anything but cooperative, grateful, and enthusiastic about all that they’ve done to create a magical Christmas!
Those of us who missed out on Christmas growing up often have an even stronger desire to give our children a storybook Christmas. Without realizing it, we place a lot on ourselves and our children to make up for what we missed in our own childhoods. Whether trying to recreate our own childhood Christmases for our children or trying to give our children the Christmas we never got to experience, we need to be intentional about our choices, deciding what is meaningful versus what is likely to be a distraction.
It is true that tradition plays a key role in what children remember about the holidays. They love to think about the things they did last Christmas in anticipation of this year’s holiday, regardless of how small those things might have been. For example, if you always drink hot chocolate and read a favorite book on Christmas Eve, it doesn’t really matter to your children whether the chocolate is gourmet or Swiss Miss from a pouch. The kids likely won’t notice that the Christmas tree is a little smaller this year or that there weren’t as many outdoor light displays. Have you ever had that experience of returning to things from your childhood and thinking, “Wow—I thought that was so much was bigger when I was a kid!”? When I was young, all of us cousins loved to play on a hill at my aunt and uncle’s house. As a child, I could swear that hill was as high as their home; yet, years later, I returned to find that giant hill to be nothing more than a small knoll. What we might consider minor in our adult eyes may be the one thing our children remember about Christmas. There is security and safety when children can predict their futures, both at Christmas and throughout the year. Find the one or two things you can consistently provide every year and those are what your children will remember.
Families can be both a blessing and a curse, especially around the holidays. Most families have that one family member who makes get-togethers a little more challenging. One family I know plans Thanksgiving dinner at 1:00 each year; however, one family is always at least a little late—sometimes hours late. While an easy solution would be to eat without the offending individuals, family “tradition” requires waiting on them instead. Some family challenges are more painful than they are annoying. For instance, family members who abuse alcohol during holiday functions often cause conflict, creating drama and holiday memories no one wants to put in their photo albums. Those individuals require serious consideration when it comes to including them in future get-togethers. Often, I hear families talk about the conflict that starts in the planning stages of a holiday get-together and ends during a fall-out that occurs at the actual event. In these situations, families should consider spending limited time with difficult family members, instead creating their own traditions. After all, if someone we weren’t related to were to behave in a similar fashion, we wouldn’t hesitate to distance ourselves from them!
With all the excitement of Christmas we often forget that—for some—the holidays are a difficult time. For those, the goal is more about simply getting through the holidays than about creating lasting memories. For families who have recently experienced divorce or loss, this may be a different Christmas than any they’ve had in the past. It’s tempting to try to do everything the same in these situations while hoping to get a brief break from the pain; yet, the pain and grief show up anyway. Instead of trying to do holidays as per tradition, talk about how this year will be difficult and to choose to do the holidays a little differently, knowing that you can return to some of your old traditions in the future. For families recently divorced, the battle between parents can escalate as each of them has to find new ways to celebrate with their children—and their children feel the stress. Although parents may be able to put aside their conflicts and be present together for family traditions such as opening gifts, children might find this uncomfortable and confusing. Trying to sell children on the “benefits” of celebrating two Christmases only forces them to put on their happy faces when, inside, they’re grieving the loss of their family. Talk to children about what old traditions are important to them and what new traditions they might like to start. Resist the urge to make it up to your children by putting more under the tree, for as much children love new “stuff,” they are more aware of our motives than we realize.
Santa is onto to something when he makes a list and checks it twice. Listing out our holiday plans helps us
to see how and where we are over committed, while checking those lists twice allows us to stay on task and to avoid adding unknowingly to the stress. Most importantly, we need to know what our expectations are for this time of year. Are your expectations about family and/or faith or are they about shopping lists and/or racing from one event to another? Make that list, check it twice, and make this holiday one you remember as meaningful and peaceful—thrive, instead of merely surviving, this holiday season.