So you’re planning your Christmas schedule? Perhaps it looks something like this:

On Christmas Eve day you will attend three different parties, and drive to visit your parents for dinner and gifts. If you can, you’ll try to make it to the midnight service at your church.

The next morning you’ll be up early to open some gifts, and then you will drive two hours to visit your spouse’s family. After another big meal and a round of gift-giving, you’ll be home by 10 p.m. to collapse into bed.

Does that sound familiar to anybody? You might have additional obligations as well—brothers and sisters and grandparents to visit, or perhaps a set of step-parents. Everybody seems to want a piece of you, and as much as you enjoy the holidays you can’t help but also feel a sense of disappointment and anxiety. Every year in my counseling I know that, just after the New Year begins, clients will say they are glad the holidays are over so they can start living life again.

I have a few suggestions for avoiding holiday burnout:

First, confront your unrealistic expectations.

Over and over I hear people talk about their high, high expectation that something will happen during the holidays to impact them for good. During the doldrums of earlier months, we take certain dates on the calendar and assign special meaning to them. Then if they don’t seem quite as warm and magical as we expected, we feel disappointed and perhaps even angry.

These expectations often come from idealized memories of holidays in your past. Christmas may have been a magical time for you as a child, but what you didn’t know at the time was how hard your parents worked to make it that way for you. Now, with children of your own, you need to realize that Christmas will feel very different.In addition, you can’t expect your inlaws to celebrate Christmas as your own family did. My most stressful Christmas was probably the first year I didn’t go home to be with my parents. Barbara and I spent the holidays with her family, and I felt so uncomfortable because they just did everything so wrong. Of course, it wasn’t wrong, just different. Their traditions of what they did on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, and what they ate at different meals, were different from those followed by the Rosberg family as I grew up. It took me a few years, actually, to adjust.

Second, focus on the memories you want to create for your own family.

How can you make Christmas special? What traditions do you want to maintain. What activities could be eliminated in order to lower your stress level? Most important, what can you do to honor Christ?To make the holidays manageable and meaningful, you may need to make some difficult choices. Perhaps it’s not reasonable to visit all your relatives every year. Perhaps you’ll want to simplify your gift-giving even though your family may not fully understand.

Finally, be proactive in communicating your decisions to your relatives.

Let’s say you live a couple hundred miles away from your parents, and you realize it’s too stressful on your young children to visit them every year. You and your spouse decide you would like celebrate Christmas at your own home this coming year, even if it means not seeing the rest of the family.

Rather than waiting until November to call your parents, do it earlier in the year. Explain your situation, and ask them to come visit you. Or set up another time to see them.

At this point they may express anger, or they may make you feel guilty: “But you’ll be the only one missing.”

I’ve found the best way to respond is to confront their emotions honestly. “It sounds like your disappointed,” or “I can understand why you might be angry.” At that point your parents will either deny it, which change the course of conversation, or they will say, “You’re right.” Talking honestly about the emotions allows you to discuss the situation without trying to manipulate each other.

Reducing stress at Christmas is not a simple task, because it often requires modifying traditions you’ve followed for decades. But it is worth the effort, as you will feel spiritually prepared to exalt Christ and give Him His rightful place during the holidays.

Copyright © 2005 by Gary Rosberg. All rights reserved. Used with permission.