“Feeling the holiday pressure?” a greeting card asks, “Relax! It’ll be gone before you know it.”

Have you ever felt like a hamster caught on a spinning wheel when it comes to celebrating the holidays?  I sure have. When I asked some friends what they do to prevent stress around the holidays one told me, “The last three out of four years I ended up sick over Christmas. I honestly don’t know if there is a way to reduce holiday stress when your life is already full and busy and then you add in all the holiday stuff. When I think of December I think ugh!

Another said, “So much is expected of us, even when we have a full-time job. I would love to go see special Christmas musicals, drive to places that have pretty lights, but we rarely have time.”

Can you identify? What should be one of the most special times of the year is often packed with unrealistic demands that wreak havoc on relationships— between husbands and wives, parents and their grown children, singles and those they love. And what about the annual questions: Where will we spend the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays? Who will be coming over for dinner? How much should we spend on presents this year?

And when you throw in the in-laws and their expectations for the holidays, too often you have a recipe for s-t-r-e-s-s. What’s a person to do?

A colleague said, “After many years, I have just learned to roll with the punches and know that this, too, shall pass.”

When you flip the pages of the calendar to November and December, do you do it with that same “This, too, shall pass” feeling of resignation? Here are eight tips to protect you, your marriage relationship, and your family from holiday pressure:

Four do’s

1. Pray.

Pray without ceasing. –1 Thessalonians 5:17

Feeling holiday stress, many years ago Kit enlisted God’s help. She sensed Him saying, Trust me with your celebrations. Give me your hopes and dreams for this special time of year. I know your needs. Allow me to fill them. And every year since, Kit has begun the holiday season with a prayer that reminds her to entrust the season the Lord.

Another friend told me that she asks God for spiritual protection during the holidays. While she and her family center Thanksgiving and Christmas around their God-given blessings and the birth of Christ, many in her extended family do not. She realizes that family disagreements can easily crop up during the holidays. That’s why she prays for spiritual protection. She also prays that she will respond in a godly way when loved ones don’t understand her family’s Christian faith. She asks, Lord, guard my mouth constantly.

2. Plan.

Those who plan peace have joy. –Proverbs 12:20b

Jillian and her husband ease holiday stress by planning. They decide where they will spend the holidays as much in advance as possible. “By doing this,” she says, “loved ones can process and get used to our plan and that protects against hurt/disappointed feelings.”

As a working mom, Linda says that she doesn’t handle anything to do with Christmas until after Thanksgiving weekend.  She avoids feeling overwhelmed by scheduling one major task at a time. (For example: First week after Thanksgiving, write Christmas letter and address Christmas cards.)

Naoma says: “The more that can be done ahead of time in small bits over longer periods of time, the more manageable and enjoyable the season.”

3. Determine realistic expectations and communicate them clearly.

May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.  –Psalm 20:4 NIV

When Trena looked at her December to-do list, she felt a knot in her stomach. How could she get everything done? Then she heard a radio program about the holidays and realized that she was the cause of her own stress. “I lowered my expectations of myself and the festivities and focused more on the true meaning of Christmas than on the gifts that I gave.”

Jillian had to learn to face unrealistic holiday expectations from extended family. When communicating with loved ones about plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas, she says, “Be graceful. Be firm. Be clear.” Another friend, Kristin, had to work with her extended family to reduce their unrealistic expectation that they should all get together every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now they choose one or the other, allowing all of them time to enjoy the other holiday in their own homes.

4. Discuss holiday plans with your spouse

Without counsel plans fail.  –Proverbs 15:22a

Do you tend to overcommit yourself? I do.

Jillian says she only replies to invitations after consulting with her husband. For example, if her mother invites the family over for a holiday meal, Jillian tells her, “I have to discuss this with Kyle. I will let you know something soon.”

It’s so easy to overcommit when spouses don’t consult with one another about holiday requests. But we can pressure-proof the calendar by keeping priorities straight during the holidays.

Four don’ts

1. Don’t forget the reasons for the holiday season.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.  –Isaiah 9:6a

Have you noticed that Thanksgiving seems to be the forgotten holiday? Too often store shelves are filled with Christmas decorations in October—with little mention of Thanksgiving Day. That’s too bad, because Thanksgiving provides a great opportunity to focus on gratitude. To thank God, individually and as a family, for His blessings.

And how many of us seem to forget to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ because we are caught up in the trappings of the season? When Jenny’s children were younger, her family always had a birthday party for Jesus, inviting other children to come. One Christmas her son agreed to sing a song in front of a large group of women. “I knew he would be terrified,” Jenny says. So she talked with him about giving Jesus his song as a gift—“to remind the ladies that Christmas was Jesus’ birthday.”  He agreed and sang his heart out.

By focusing on the real reasons for the holidays, we can relax. Thanksgiving and Christmas are not about travel, or parties, or presents. Instead they offer opportunities to pull away from the hectic pace of life long enough to thank God for His blessings and for the gift of Jesus Christ.

2. Don’t try to please everyone.

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? –Galatians 1:10a

Making everyone happy during the holidays is an impossible dream.

A friend, who will be eight months pregnant this December, told me that she was feeling stress because loved ones want her husband and her to drive 10 hours to be with them on Christmas Day. Her husband told her, “Let’s just do what’s best for us.” They plan to stay home. Her response: “Kudos to him!”

Another friend said she had not found answers for how to slow down during the holidays “without disappointing others.” Could it be that we just can’t please everyone? The fact is they can’t always please us, either.

3. Don’t overbuy.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. … it is the gift of God.  –Ephesians 2:8

A recent Gallup Poll said American shoppers estimate they will spend an average of $712 each on Christmas gifts this year. Many of us can’t afford that much. Too often the joy of unwrapping presents in December is replaced with the stress of paying the bills in January.

Sheila avoids going into debt during the holidays by shopping for Christmas presents all year long. Cindy’s family members put the names of adults in a basket. Then, each adult draws only one name to buy for, setting a $25 limit. “It really helped financially,” she says.

Terri’s teenage children had higher and higher expectations for expensive Christmas gifts. So the family huddled together and decided to help each other make handmade gifts. The result: a “memorable and life-changing Christmas time.”

And Deb and Eric limit their gifts to three per child. “If three was enough for Jesus,” Deb says, “Why do we need more?” 

4. Don’t try to do everything.

Let us know among ourselves what is good.   –Job 34:4b

There’s something comforting about traditions, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas. But can family traditions become a source of stress? I have only to look in the mirror at myself to answer that question: Yes!

Let’s face it: People are different. Recognizing this, and relaxing with the differences, can ease holiday pressure—both inside and outside the home.

Sometimes visions of homemade Christmas decorations, gingerbread houses, helping the needy, cutting a fresh tree, etc., dance through my head—so our family can have the “perfect Christmas.” But there’s a problem: People in the same family often value traditions differently. What’s comforting for one may actually be stressful or totally meaningless for another.

Deb suggests talking with your spouse and each child about what makes the holiday special for them. Keep the most meaningful traditions, and discard the rest.

Naoma reminds herself over and over during the holidays: What is really important this holiday season for my loved ones? 

This year, let’s not spin our wheels when it comes to Thanksgiving and Christmas. With a little planning and preparation, love, peace, and joy won’t just be words on a holiday greeting card.

May we all relax when we flip the pages of the calendar to the new year, looking forward to what it will bring … especially during the next season of holidays!

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