Managing Holiday Expectations

December 3, 2012

By Amy Hackworth. Bookshelf Christmas Tree by artist Michael Johansson.

It’s early December and I’m struck with a flurry of nerves about the next few weeks. Not an onslaught of panic, just a quiet, persistent worry: will we have the magical holiday season I dream of? Will our family activities be as packed with meaning and fun as I hope they’ll be? Will I really manage the sugar cookies, advent calendars, decorations, Christmas cards, gingerbread houses, secret Santas, church parties, school parties, and homemade gifts, while teaching our boys the true meaning of Christmas?  Will I — for once — go to bed at a decent hour on Christmas Eve?

I turned to the internet for some advice. I typed “managing holiday” and Google auto-suggested “stress.” How did it know? When I saw articles from health care sites like the Mayo Clinic on the list of results, I realized that feeling overwhelmed by the holidays might be as much a cultural phenomenon as celebrating them.

My favorite suggestion for managing holiday stress comes from the Cleveland Clinic, and it’s simple: write down your expectations for the holidays. Just take a few minutes to think about what you’re expecting from these next few weeks. Are your ideas realistic? Did you discover something that you know will stress you out? How can you negotiate that? Brilliant, right? Unrealistic expectations are an obvious foe to holiday cheer, and my own vague expectations have also done plenty of damage. When I’m not clear about what matters to me, I don’t know things aren’t measuring up — until they’re not. Too late.

My friend Elizabeth is a great example of creating a deliberate December for her family. When she chose to simplify the holidays a few years ago she gathered her children for a conversation about the Christmas activities that meant the most to them. Her kids cared about lighting fires in their fireplace, drinking hot cocoa together, reading Christmas stories and delivering secret “12 Days of Christmas” gifts to a family in the neighborhood. Elizabeth and her family have decided how they want to celebrate, and that’s exactly what they do.

What about you? Do you know what’s most important to you over the next few weeks? Do you know what you’ll do (and what you won’t do) to create a less-stress holiday?

P.S. — Two other ideas I’m working on this year: 1) I’m scheduling activities that are important to me but could easily be lost to busy-ness. Things like going to see Christmas lights, visiting a live nativity, and a family shopping trip for Toys for Tots are going on the calendar. 2) I’m using Tsh’s smart Christmas budget download to avoid surprise expenses that might harsh my Christmas mellow. 

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lucy Mitchell December 3, 2012 at 10:28 am

I know exactly what you mean. I’ve been looking forward to Christmas since mid October and now that December is here am already overwhelmed by how I’m going to manage it all. Thanks for the advice, I’ll make a list too!


2 Amy Hackworth December 3, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Thanks, Lucy. Glad to hear I’m not alone. :)


3 Gina December 3, 2012 at 11:01 am

My method- start early. I have most of my Christmas shopping done by September = bliss. Plus a few extra presents in case. My husband thought I was crazy until he did not have to do his last minute stressful shopping, now he is on board! But it can still get overwhelming, we definitely try to put our family time first.


4 Amy Hackworth December 3, 2012 at 11:57 am

Gina, you amaze me! So lovely that you have your shopping finished!


5 Lili December 3, 2012 at 11:45 am

Ok… this tree is magnific!


6 Angela December 3, 2012 at 12:20 pm

I feel like this post ought to have blinking lights and be published in extra-large fonts. So many of us long for Christmas, and I think equally many end up exhausted and overwhelmed, even before the Day!

My best suggestion (found somewhere on the internet, wish I could credit it but I can’t): We make a simple paper chain, each link numbered for a date in December (12/1, 12/2, etc). We come up with a list of what is most important for our family, and try to put one idea on each link – we do leave some links blank, and trust that inspiration (divine or otherwise) will hit. This costs nothing, but our paper chain ensures that we DO what we most WANT to do – and that we feel okay about everything else. If something didn’t make our “top 25,” then it’s not worth worrying about!


7 Amy Hackworth December 3, 2012 at 2:18 pm

I like it, Angela. It’s like a visual, tactile calendar. And I love that you say if didn’t make the top 25 then it’s not worth worrying about. Smart.


8 mom in mendon December 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Cool bookshelf idea.


9 Martha December 3, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Love the bookshelf tree. I like to set a deadline for things and if they aren’t done by that deadline I know I need to simplify or let it go. I have quickly learned how many little things really are not important. It’s not a perfect system (my friends haven’t gotten Christmas cards in years!) but it eliminates stress dramatically.


10 Amy Hackworth December 3, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Wow, this is great self-discipline, Martha. I’ll be thinking about this approach…


11 Sara @ What About Sara December 3, 2012 at 12:36 pm

What a simple, but brilliant idea! We have all of our shopping done – YAY! – and in an effort to simply gift-giving this year, my brother-in-law suggested putting all of our energy and finances into gifts for the three little kiddos in our family. So, instead of worrying about gifts for each other AND gifts for the kids, we’re focusing on what matters – the joy of little ones on Christmas. :)


12 Amy Hackworth December 3, 2012 at 2:21 pm

Congrats on having your shopping done! (I’m a little jealous.) And I love your family’s approach to focusing on the little ones. That is bound to pay you back in sweet smiles and delighted faces!


13 SunnyDay December 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm
14 Annik December 3, 2012 at 1:11 pm

This time of year=major anxiety for me. I feel like I’m not buying enough, not decorating enough, not baking enough, etc. Every year I vow to send out my Christmas cards early but I think the last time I actually managed to send some out was 2007.

Thanks for this article. Will now try to take a deep breath and not worry so much about achieving Christmas perfection.


15 Amy Hackworth December 3, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Yes, deep breaths are key! Trust that you do a great job at some things and let the rest go. Easier said than done, I know, but maybe that’s the gift you give yourself this year!


16 Sara December 3, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Such a true phenomenon!! I think this is another example where sometimes all the great social media we are exposed to is just too much! Everywhere you look there are more examples of every aspect of the holidays, done to the max, and it can really make you feel like you have to do it ALL…AND have it all done by Thanksgiving!!!! But, that’s impossible!! I do go a bit insane at Christmas time, but definitely trying to plan and schedule the activities that are most important to us has helped it feel more manageable. This is really good advice.

The other thing for me is also anticipating the stress ;). For example, I just know I will be totally freaking out the day before our holiday party. Of course, if I eliminated some other things (like co-hosting a baby shower the weekend before, waiting to take try to get our now yearly traditional candid holiday card photo while we are at the tree farm, etc.) it would be less stressful, but if I want to fit in all the things I really, really enjoy, I have to adjust my expectations for my anxiety ;)!

I’m working on trying to both focus and enjoy the moment of the activity, and to anticipate that I will get stressed out, accept that it’s ok, and not it let it ruin the fun. I know I have to do that AND still let some things go. (We won’t get our tree until next weekend, our cards go out pretty late, we don’t do gingerbread houses or elaborate homemade cookies, the gifts don’t get wrapped until Christmas Eve, etc.)


17 sarah jane December 3, 2012 at 5:21 pm

So well Written Amy! I love that you have already scheduled in those things that I often end up dropping due to the craziness of the year. Thanks!


18 Amy December 3, 2012 at 7:01 pm

OH my! How I needed to read that!!!! Thanks so much!!


19 Emily December 3, 2012 at 7:07 pm

As an adult child of divorced parents who live 8 hours from me and 45 minutes from one another, this is always tricky for me. Sometimes I feel I have to manage my own parents’ expectations of what I can and can’t accomplish during the holidays in an effort to preserve my own little family’s sanity. This year we are not traveling to visit my family. We are staying put in our own town and will do a local light tour, spend Christmas eve with our closest friends, and do whatever pleases us. I’m so relieved!


20 Jenny December 3, 2012 at 11:22 pm

I need to write down my expectations! I love that idea. I try to have all my shopping for our family done by Dec 1 and it helps a ton with errands and streas. I always have the kids write down a list of what they want to do at Christmastime but I need to write mine down-I’d feel tons better about life.


21 K Feeney December 6, 2012 at 9:44 pm

Get the book Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson, and then sit back with a great holiday book like Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, or Madeline L’Engle’s The 24 Days Before Christmas, two beautiful ways of remembering that experiences matter more than things!


22 Glory Girl December 7, 2012 at 6:07 am

oh my goodness, i LOVE this!


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