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'Tis the Season to be Jolly: Keeping the Stress Out of Christmas
Too much to do and not enough time? Here are ten ways to focus on the meaning of Christmas and de-stress this year.

It's ironic that the occasions when we should be happy—planning a wedding, moving to a new home, bringing the infant child home from the hospital for the first time, the first day of your new dream job—create the most stress. So it's not surprising that Christmas brings with it plenty of stress. It's a joyous occasion and we want it to come off perfectly!

We're planning a very important birthday, and want it to be a source of happiness to everyone who's invited.

Is this a disservice to our Saviour that we can get frayed? Not at all. We're planning a very important birthday, and want it to be a source of happiness to everyone who's invited. Here are ten suggested ways to minimize the stress.

  1. Accept the fact that you can't avoid all stress during the Christmas season. All reputable charts identifying stress-producing situations list Christmas as one of the 43 stress items. On the "Stressor Scale" it's on a par with vacations or minor violations of the law. Those same stress studies, however, indicate that stress can be good. It can work for you or again you, according to stress study pioneer, Hans Selye.
  2. Try time-honoured methods to settle your nerves. Deep breathing (a key element of the relaxation response) can get you back on track. A few minutes meditation over your favourite scripture—for example, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,"—or a time-out for prayer to bring you into God's healing presence. You can help loved ones handle their stress by making these suggestions. You might even tuck a copy of Brother Lawrence's Practicing the Presence of God in their stockings.
  3. Don't feel guilty about asking the family for help. After all, Christmas is a communal celebration. If you can't find that perfect present for hard-to-buy-for Aunt Aggie, delegate that task to your spouse or one of your kids. They may have more imagination than you at a time like this. Concerned about how you're going to be able to cope with all the courses of a Christmas dinner? Assign different courses to different members of the family. If your niece or nephew is famous for their mince pie, take up their offer to bring some along. If Cousin Joe is great at the piano, ask him to lead the carol singing while you're busy with other duties that day.
  4. Recognize you won't always choose the perfect present, nor have to spend a fortune. A modest cactus plant for someone's collection can be as thoughtful as an expensive watch. The sweater a mother has taken four months to knit for her college son says far more than a new digital camera. Or the photo album a father has put together for his daughter has more love in it than a piece of designer label clothing. It's the thought that counts.
  5. Experts tell us stress is relieved when we "get out of ourselves." This means forgetting about ourselves and thinking of others. One married couple gives up the first half of Christmas day every year to serve a full course holiday meal at an "Out of the Cold" program in an inner city church. Their older children now follow their example. Another man and his son make Christmas visits to the local nursing home, stopping to talk to each patient, while leaving a small Christmas token. We take time at Christmas to take certain individuals out for their own special Christmas lunch—a former housekeeper, now old and alone; a cousin whose faithfulness to his A.A. program means he cannot risk spending time with his old gang; a crochety neighbour considered by the other neighbours as a bit "weird" and with whom no one bothers.
  6. Don't expect the impossible of yourself. Be flexible. The only way you may be able to accommodate an unusually large crowd of relatives and friends might be to depart from tradition: insist on buffet style eating instead of crowding everyone around the dining room table. In particular, newlyweds have to watch the first Christmas. They'll sometimes try to please both sets of parents. They'll rush from house to house and end up getting indigestion from sitting at two huge meals. The result is no relaxation for anyone. Besides they can't do justice to two big meals in one day and may end up insulting their hosts by accepting only paltry amounts of the second meal. It might be time to suggest they alternate where they spend Christmas each year. Far better to spend a relaxed New Year's Day with one set of parents, than pleasing neither by rushing from house to house.
  7. Read up on the origin of Christmas customs. That way, you'll see yourself as part of a long tradition, not as the performer of perfunctory demanding tasks. Thus we restore the true sense of ritual in our lives. For example, did you know that in 19th century England Christmas pudding preparation was considered a ceremony? It was prepared five weeks in advance in a huge copper pot. Mixing in the eggs, spices, fruit and brandy involved the entire family. Each member got a stir and a wish. This took place on the last Sunday before Advent, appropriately called "Stir up Sunday," because one of the opening prayers at that service began with "Stir up, we beseech thee O Lord, the will of thy faithful people." Teaching these stories to our families reinforces their sense of belonging to a long tradition.
  8. Concentrate on Christ this Christmas. The season is a special source of grace and calm in our busy lives. Carefully examining our conscience and asking God's forgiveness for sinfulness allows us to recognize the beauty and worth of others as children of God. It helps to mend family fences that have been erected through misunderstandings or pride. We can become as humble as our Lord who chose to be born in a stable.
  9. Invite all Christmas guests to attend a special Christmas service with you. This might mean changing from midnight one to a daytime liturgy in order to meet everyone's time commitments, or even the other way around—from daytime to evening. Surely it's a small sacrifice in order to start the day in true togetherness. Christmas may be the only time some members ever attend church in the entire year, and who knows in what year God's grace will finally soften their hearts? Just watch your stress melt as our sweet Lord touches your heart.
  10. To avoid stress next year—clip out this article and read it next December!

Lorraine O'Donnell Williams, MSW, is retired from her Toronto private practice in psychotherapy and marriage counselling. She writes in her fields of expertise.

Originally published in the Catholic Register, December 8, 1996.




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