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.