The holidays are a festive time of year. Roaring fires and flickering candles, scents of pine needles and mulled wine, and sounds of softly playing music accent family gatherings.
The holidays, however, are also a harbinger of stress. Many of us stretch ourselves to the limit trying to achieve a Martha Stewart-level of perfection on a budget or hosting a houseful of relatives while working late hours. Buying and wrapping gifts, decorating, cooking, hosting—the responsibilities pile up.
To relieve some of the burden, try not to compare your holiday to the ones you’ve seen in the movies or on well-crafted Facebook posts or obsession-fueled Pinterest boards. Head into the season expecting “flawed and fabulous” and you will enjoy it all the more. Despite your best efforts to create holiday magic, something decidedly not-so-magical will happen. You’ll forget the tinsel. Your parents will be stranded in Chicago. The dog will get to dessert before the guests. You can almost bet on it.
Here are nine ways to keep your chin up and stress down this holiday season.
1. Start the season charged
Holidays are inherently stressful because you add multiple tasks to your already busy schedule. Increase your self-care activities leading up to the holidays. Do the things that recharge you the most, whether it’s lunch with a friend, a walk in the woods, relaxing with a good book or writing in a journal. Spend some time replenishing your mind and body: To feel your best when the holidays arrive, make sure you sleep seven hours nightly, exercise regularly and eat nutritiously. If you already have a healthy routine, don’t start skipping it for the holiday season.
2. Give up perfection
Embrace imperfection. We often get disappointed when our (often idealistic) expectations clash with reality. Tell yourself that something will go wrong and it’s okay. Now if the turkey is a bit dry or if your uncle talks politics at the dinner table, you can just roll with it instead of letting it ruin your holiday.
3. Decorate early
Get a jump start on your planning and reduce stress on the actual holiday by getting your home ready ahead of time. Turn decorating your home into a tradition that involves your whole family (i.e., put the kids to work). Start preparing for Thanksgiving in mid-November. For Christmas or Hanukkah, start making your house festive around December 1. You’ll be so glad you’ve checked something off your list; plus, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying holiday spirit in the house all month long!
4. Make holiday punch bowls—one for the kids and one for the adults
With a quick Google or Pinterest search of “holiday punch recipe,” you can find delicious, festive-themed drink recipes—one for the adults and one for the little ones. Now you won’t have to cater to every person’s individual tastes, and it can add to the ambiance of your gathering. Consider using a small table for pitchers of ice water and glasses, too, so your guests can help themselves while you greet family at the door.
The more you set up beforehand, the more you can be in the present moment and enjoy your party once it begins.
5. Get out of the kitchen
Timing an elaborate dinner with multiple courses is ambitious, and it can keep you in the kitchen when everyone else is enjoying each other and the party. Make it your goal to be out of the kitchen when your guests arrive. One option is to cook nearly everything ahead of time. Another is to go potluck or semi-potluck: Consider making the main dish and having everyone bring an appetizer, side dish or dessert to share. Now your party is a collective effort instead of all on you. Exhale, that’s a lot of responsibility off your shoulders.
6. Don’t clean up right away
Even if you like a tidy table or a clean kitchen, stacking dishes and loading the dishwasher can be a message to your friends and family that the party is over. Value your together time over your urge to clean up. Enjoy the conversation and take pleasure in the wonderful meal you just had before you put your kitchen and dining room back in order. Or, consider being upfront with family and guests and tell them you thought you’d serve dessert an hour after dinner. That way everyone knows they are welcome to stay.
7. Accept people as they are
If someone in your family is always having drama, don’t be surprised when drama shows up this year, too. If you have a relative who says outrageous things, expect it again this year. Keep this Maya Angelou quote in mind: “Once people show you who they are, believe them, the first time.” We don’t get to choose our relatives, so if you accept your relatives for who they are, you can take away their power to ruin a moment. Accept and let go.
8. Keep the conversation going
Sometimes conversations flow effortlessly and shared stories bring your family closer. Other times you might have awkward silences and people only discussing the food. Increase your chances of creating a memorable holiday by thinking of some meaningful conversations you’d like to start. Maybe it’s a family reunion you’d like to plan, or a favorite holiday memory you want to reminisce about. Take the lead by starting a rewarding conversation. You can decide to go around the table and have everyone share one great thing that they are grateful for, or to name something special that has happened in the past year. If kids are involved, table games can be fun as well.
9. Swap worry for gratitude
Worry is almost always a wasted emotion. It makes you feel bad and doesn’t accomplish anything productive. If you catch yourself worrying about the holidays, swap your worry out for some gratitude by consciously listing your blessings. If you are busy being thankful for the people and good things in your life, there won’t be room for worry and stress about the details of party planning and gift giving.
Sandra Bienkowski is a regular contributor to Live Happy and the founder and CEO of TheMediaConcierge.net.