It’s December 1903, in a windy beach town. Two brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, are trying to do the seemingly impossible: get their makeshift flying machine off the ground and into the air. After multiple attempts, it works — they’re flying! The success is thrilling. They send a telegraph to their family announcing their accomplishment and asking them to notify the press. At the end of the telegraph they add a personal note telling their family that they’ll be home for Christmas.
When the family gets the telegraph they can’t wait to share the exciting news, so they send the boys’ sister to the local newspaper office. The newspaper editor reads the note and says, “Oh, how nice. The boys will be home for Christmas!” He runs the story under the headline, “The Wright Boys are Coming Home.”
The brothers had just achieved something that was going to literally change the world, but the part of the telegraph that caught the reporter’s attention is the fact that the boys would be home for Christmas.
It just goes to show that when you have Christmas on your mind, nothing else seems to matter. Even big news takes second place to the holidays!
The holidays dominate our thoughts, not only because they bring us joy, but also because they bring us stress. In fact, an overwhelming 88 percent of people say the holiday season is the most stressful time of the year. That means most of us are experiencing holiday stress.
If we had to summarize where all of that stress comes from, we could boil it down to this: it’s a season of too much and not enough. Too much of some things, like stress, loneliness and family drama. And not enough of other things, including time and money.
Fortunately, with small adjustments, it’s possible to balance out the areas of too much and not enough and enjoy the season.
As we consider holiday health, it’s helpful to take a big-picture approach. If you want to tackle holiday stress and boost your health, you have to think about your whole person — your body, mind and spirit.
Keep in mind that the eight principles of CREATION Life that help us improve our health can also help us improve our holidays. Especially during stressful times, it’s important to remember the power of each of these principles (Choice, Rest, Environment, Activity, Trust in God, Interpersonal Relationships, Outlook and Nutrition).
With that whole-person approach in mind, it’s possible to tame the tension and rediscover the joy of the holidays.
So, let’s take a closer look at this season of too much and not enough. We’ll start by looking at three things we never seem to have enough of during the holidays.
1. There’s not enough time
People often report feeling rushed and over-booked during the holidays.
Last year, in a suburb outside of St. Louis, someone felt so rushed and desperate during the holidays that the police had to get involved. Here’s what happened, according to the police report: A Honey Baked Ham store was closed for Thanksgiving, but the door had accidentally been left unlocked. A potential customer stopped by, hoping to buy desserts to serve at their holiday dinner. They frantically entered the unattended store, and they grabbed pies from the shelves. This was considered trespassing, and it also would have been robbery — except the pie bandit left a note that said, “No one was here, and we were in desperate need of pies.” Beside the note, they left money — enough to cover the price of the pies, plus tax. So, the shop owner was sympathetic and decided not to press charges.
You’ve probably never been desperate enough to trespass to get a pie for your holiday dinner, but you’ve likely felt that desperate feeling that overcomes you when you have more things to do than you can manage.
For most people, life feels busy already. Then the holidays roll around and bring extra demands for your time. If you try to do it all, you can easily become overwhelmed.
To help you prioritize your time and attention this holiday season, ask yourself this question whenever you are faced with a task, event, or activity: “Is this the best use of my time?”
It sounds simple, but this question will help you look at each situation and determine how important — or unimportant — it is. Remember: every time you say “yes” to something, you have to say “no” to something else. If you say “yes” to everything that comes your way during the holidays, you’ll likely be forced to say “no” to spending time with your family, taking care of your health or maintaining your peace of mind.
For example, if you’re spending hours shopping for Christmas decorations or baking everything for the family dinner from scratch, ask yourself, “Is this the best use of my time? Is there an easier way? Is there someone who can help?”
There are practical ways to lower the stress related to not having enough time:
First, it’s okay to kindly say no. It’s also okay to delegate. You don’t have to do everything all by yourself. There are people in your life who would be happy to help and would enjoy feeling connected and needed.
Another way to reduce holiday stress is to “stretch the season.” You don’t have to cram every activity and every loved one into the days surrounding Christmas. January is often a disappointingly quiet month with little to look forward to. Why not “stretch out the season” and schedule a party for mid-January when things have slowed down? What might have been a rushed, stressful office Christmas party or holiday get-together with friends can become a more relaxed New Year’s gathering.
2. There’s not enough money
In addition to feeling like there is not enough time, many people feel there’s not enough money during the holidays. In fact, more than half of Americans say the holidays are a financial burden.
Imagine what you could do with $1 trillion. To put that amount into perspective, one trillion is one million multiplied by one million. With that kind of money, it seems like you could change the world. Or you could buy lots and lots of scented candles, neckties and sweaters! That’s actually what Americans did last Christmas — they spent $1 trillion on the holidays, with most of that going toward presents.
Unfortunately, many of those gifts weren’t even appreciated. 6 out of 10 people reported that they received at least one unwanted gift. So, when someone opens a present and says, “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” perhaps you really shouldn’t have!
Spending money has become a normal part of the holiday tradition, but it’s also a major part of holiday stress, especially if it has been a year of financial strain already. Gifts, travel, food, decorations — it all adds up quickly. This year, why not minimize stress and financial strain by taking a new approach to holiday spending?
Before the holiday rush begins, ask yourself this simple question: “How much money can I afford to spend this holiday season?”
In other words, how much can you spend without having to put expenses on a credit card, take out a loan or use money that is designated for something else? When you put holiday purchases on a credit card or borrow money, you’re simply creating a bigger problem: with all the interest and fees, you’ll end up paying much more in the long run.
Once you consider how much you can realistically spend, decide the most high-impact way to spend it. You might be surprised how far even $100 can go when you focus on creating experiences instead of buying things.
For example, instead of buying piles of toys that children will probably abandon quickly, create a “Family Adventure Christmas” and focus your spending on activities, such as ice skating, baking cookies or going to see Christmas lights.
The most practical way to manage financial stress is to rethink your gift list. When it comes to the adults in your life, many of them will gladly agree to forgo exchanging presents because it takes pressure off of them — and their wallet too.
You can also look for clever gift alternatives, such as playfully exchanging regifted items or sentimental gifts. Or you can give things that money can’t buy, like a family heirloom, a love note or a phone call where you offer a long-overdue apology.
Besides gifts, travel expenses are another area of holiday spending that quickly adds up. If it’s not realistic to travel this year, spend time with long-distance relatives over Facetime or Zoom. You can host a family talent show on Zoom, or try a virtual game night, or a story time using Facetime. When you get creative, a virtual get-together can be incredible, memorable and fun.
Don’t be afraid to try a pared down holiday. You might be delighted with your simpler, less expensive holiday.
3. There’s not enough meaning
Another holiday stressor is when there is not enough meaning, or a sense of purpose, during the season.
Several years ago, a Utah-based mom posted on social media a photo of her then one-year-old son sitting on Santa’s lap. In the photo, taken at a local mall, Santa was smiling ear-to-ear — but the small boy looked frightened and was using sign language to signal “help!”
The hilarious photo went viral, mostly because it made us laugh. But also because it made us relate. When the holidays are frantic and we’re surrounded by Santa and elves and stacks of presents, who of us hasn’t wanted to cry out for help?
All of the showiness of the holidays can leave us wondering, “What’s the point of all of this?”
One of the best ways to lower holiday stress is to remind yourself of the spiritual significance of the season. When you look past the consumerism and remember the heart of the holidays, it gives a new quality to everything. Focusing on friends and family also adds a depth and meaningfulness to the season. But it’s easy to lose sight of this when you’re caught up in the hustle and bustle.
To help you keep a clear focus, ask yourself this question: “How can I make this holiday season more meaningful?”
Using this question as a filter can help you prioritize your time and attention.
There are plenty of simple, practical ways you can rediscover a sense of meaning in the holidays. For example, volunteering in the community and attending religious services are common during this time of year because they bring our spirit back to what matters. You might also find meaning in scheduling quiet time for prayer, or gathering the family to read the Christmas story from the Bible. Or perhaps you’ll find meaning in inviting a lonely neighbor over for a holiday feast.
When you focus on finding purpose in the holidays, the tasks of the season feel more like a joy than a chore. And that definitely helps lower your stress level!
It’s not just areas of shortage or “not enough” that cause holiday stress. The areas of excess or “too much” can be just as stressful. Let’s take a look at three of those stressors.
1. Too much family drama
If you have a family event scheduled for the holidays, you definitely don’t want too much family drama. And, truthfully, any amount of negative drama is too much drama.
You likely have an image in your mind of what a perfect family holiday would look like. There would be laughter and hugs, smiling photos and gasps of delight as people open their presents.
While that might be what you hope for, that might not be what you get. Even well-mannered families can fall into negative patterns when there is too much togetherness. Perhaps you have an uncle who won’t stop arguing about politics, or a mother-in-law who criticizes your parenting style. Add in years of family rivalries and resentments, and things can get a little unsteady.
Instead of getting caught up in family drama, ask yourself this question: “How can I elevate the situation?”
For example, if things are tense, how can you help soften the moment? If things are awkward, how can you make people feel more comfortable?
You can also elevate the family holidays in a number of simple, practical ways, including the way you communicate. Start by listening more than you speak. People long to be heard and understood, so ask questions instead of giving advice or debating. And when you do talk, skip the topics that are going to make you feel further apart, such as opposite opinions on politics or finances. Instead, focus on things that will make you feel closer, such as funny childhood memories.
Another way to relieve family-related stress is to plan ahead. If you will be hosting out-of-town relatives, ask them ahead of time if they have any scheduling requests or dietary restrictions. Then there won’t be any frustrating surprises. To further prepare for their overnight stay, try this practical trick: before they get there, sleep in your guest room for a night, and use the bathroom they will be using. By staying in the room, you’ll notice things you wouldn’t have known otherwise, such as if the room gets too hot or you need to add a trashcan or lamp to the room. Planning ahead for their comfort will help everyone — including you — feel more comfortable when they are there.
2. Too much expectation
Another aspect of the holidays that can cause stress is unrealistic expectations — simply too much expectation.
In recent years, a special Christmastime event has been held in a warehouse in Melbourne, Australia. The focus of the event was an assortment of handmade gingerbread houses. Each house was created with great care and detail, with a variety of colorful candies and icing. Crowds of people came to see the gingerbread houses — but after they admired them, the event took a twist. The people then smashed and destroyed the houses.
The event was called the Gingerbread Demolition, and attendees paid for the opportunity to destroy the gingerbread houses with an array of tools from baseball bats and sledgehammers to frying pans. Fortunately, all the destruction does have a happy ending: the event was a fundraiser and all the proceeds went to charity.
It doesn’t seem right to put so much effort into something and then see it come to a messy end. But it was for a good cause! That is the approach we have to take with the holidays: It’s for a good cause — to build relationships and to make memories. If things get a little messy or undone or end up not-so-perfect, it’s fine — it’s for a good cause!
Whether you’re trying to get the perfect family photo for your Christmas card or create the perfect holiday feast, you can’t take it all too seriously. Aiming to make things perfect is a burden, not a goal.
Instead of trying to make things perfect, try to make them happy.
When things aren’t going as you had hoped or expected, ask yourself this question: “What can I do to make this a happy memory?”
You might be surprised how many mistakes can be turned into happy memories when you have a light-hearted spirit. For example, if the Christmas cookies are falling apart or burned on the edges, instead of getting upset, crumble the cookies over ice cream, call it a Christmas Cookie Sundae, and you have yourself a happy memory — and possibly a new family tradition!
If you want to keep your stress level down, go into the holidays with your hopes high and your expectations low. In other words, don’t set goals and expectations so unrealistically high that you end up stressed and disappointed. When you have reasonable expectations, you’ll be able to focus on the people not the production.
After all, the goal during the holidays is to love people, not to impress them. Instead of aiming for perfect, aim for happy.
3. Too much loneliness and sadness
There’s one final holiday experience that is a quiet, but common stressor: too much loneliness and sadness. We often think of this as the happiest time of year, but for many people it is quite the opposite. Feelings of grief, depression and isolation can all intensify around the holidays.
According to a national survey, 60 percent of Americans report feeling lonely throughout the year. Add the social expectations and pressures of the holidays, and people can feel even more alone. For those who have lost a loved one, there’s often another layer of sadness when the holidays bring a wave of grief.
To combat holiday loneliness and sadness, ask yourself this question: “What can I do to connect with others this season?”
Whether you’re the one experiencing loneliness and sadness, or you know someone else who is, connecting with others is good for everyone involved.
When you look for opportunities to connect, be creative: maybe you have a coworker who could use a babysitter, or an old friend who would enjoy a phone call. Depending on your interests and life experiences, you might also find connection in a choir, a club or a grief recovery group. It might feel a little intimidating to build new friendships and connections, but the reward is worth it.
“If you go looking for a friend, you’re going to find they’re very scarce. If you go out to be a friend, you’ll find them everywhere.” – Zig Ziglar
Of course, it’s important to balance socializing and solitude. That means you make an effort to get out and get involved, but you also make the most of the times you are alone. For instance, instead of microwaving a frozen meal, make a special dish. Spend time on habits that nurture your spirit, such as prayer, and habits that contribute to mental and physical health, such as exercise. And give yourself something to look forward to, such as getting a massage or reading a new book. In this season of too much and not enough, you can stay healthy and happy. Be sure to pay attention to any signs of stress, such as constant worry, feeling overwhelmed or becoming agitated. That’s your body’s way of telling you it’s time to rethink the holidays. By asking yourself the right questions and taking practical steps, you’ll be able to slow down and experience the comfort and joy of the holiday season.