10 Ways to Make Your Imperfect Holiday a Happy One

by Kassandra Lamb

(Note: If you read my teaser last week and you were expecting more about psychopaths today, I’ve postponed that post to January. I decided it was getting too close to Christmas to be talking about such a grim subject, so instead here’s a post on how to keep the holidays from stressing you out!)

This time of year is supposed to be joyful–full of good food, time spent with family, tinsel and bright lights and lots of packages under the tree.

We tend to have high expectations for the season, and also to feel that we have to meet others’ expectations so that everyone has a fabulous holiday! The reality sometimes falls short, and all too often in our attempts to make the holidays perfect, we end up short–as in short-tempered, and major stressed out!

Maybe we need to loosen up on some of those expectations… and prioritize what’s most important for ourselves and our families. First, let’s break things down a bit. We have gifts, decorations, food and family (I refer to Christmas below, but the same ideas apply to other holidays of the season.)

(This is actually a shopping mall in Canada; photo by Benson Kua, from Wikimedia Commons)

A shopping mall in Toronto, Canada (photo by Benson Kua, CC-BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

GIFTS: Some people (like me) love to shop; other’s loathe the process. If you fall into the latter category the first thing you can do is…

1. CULL THE GIFT LIST. Do you have people on your list for whom you have no idea what they want or like? Then you probably don’t know or like them well enough to be spending money on them. Are there relatives on the list with whom you exchange token gifts, neither party really caring whether the other likes what they get?

See if you can get them off the list without offending them. Suggest that you not exchange gifts, just enjoy each others’ company. (They may very well agree with great relief.) Or buy them something inexpensive and consumable, and repeat next year. You don’t have to be creative when nobody cares. (My mother-in-law got scented hand lotion from me every year. She was fine with that.) Suggest your extended family draw names and each person gets, and gives, just one gift.

2.  SHOP EARLY. Whether you love or hate shopping, this is good advice. Yes, there are great bargains closer to Christmas but there’s also a lot more pressure. And these days, retailers often have sales going off and on throughout the fall.

Christmas shopping tends to bring out the procrastinator in many of us. It feels like such an overwhelming task. But the longer we put it off, the worse it will be. On the flip side, the sooner you start, the less pressured and the more fun it can be.

My brother and I begin in October with an all-day shopping trip. I love to shop; he’s not that keen on it. But we make it a fun outing. And because it’s only October, we know we have lots of time to find those items that don’t jump into our cart that day.

Get started early and get done early. You will be the envy of all your friends, and so, so much more relaxed as the holidays draw nearer.

3.  DO YOU HATE TO WRAP? Or do you love it? If you love it (as I do) starting early on your shopping means you have plenty of time to enjoy the wrapping process. I make it part of my evening routine as I watch TV. Wrapping three or four packages a night, I’ve got it done in no time. And it gets me in the holiday spirit!

tow of red gift bags

Photo by Melinda & Cristiano, CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr/Wikimedia

But if you hate it, I have two words for you…

Gift Bags!!! For a buck or two apiece, your wrapping is done!


4.   DECORATE FOR YOU AND YOUR FAMILY, NOT THE WORLD. Unless you totally get off on decorating (I know a couple people who do), keep it simple. Ask yourself what is most important for you and yours?

For years I struggled with those #%@&* outside lights, stringing them over trees and bushes and freezing my tuckus off in the process. Today, the inside of my house is a Christmas wonderland, because I enjoy putting up those decorations. But outside, there’s a wreath on the front door and a pre-lit table tree in the dining room window. That’s all my neighbors are getting from me.

And you know what? None of them have complained.

5.  MAKE IT A FAMILY AFFAIR. When I was a kid, my father was in charge of decorating the tree. He was meticulous. All the ornaments had to be balanced, the tree totally symmetrical. (He was an engineer.) He would carefully put one strand of tinsel on each branch.

449px-Christmas_Tree_(1) pub domain wiki

A slightly off-kilter tree, but still gorgeous! (public domain–Wikimedia)

He made my mother nuts!! And my brother and I fled to our rooms until the tree was done.

The blinkin’ tree doesn’t have to be perfect. Get the whole gang involved and it will be done in no time. And if you must have symmetry, you can move a few ornaments after everyone else is in bed.

FOOD:  If you love to cook, go for it. If it’s not so much your thing (like me), look for ways to keep it simple.

6. PREPARE AHEAD OF TIME. I learned this from my grandma. Every year, she came over to our house on Christmas Eve. She made the dressing that night, and prepped the turkey. The next morning, Mr. Turkey just needed to be transferred from the fridge to the oven.

7.  IS THAT BIG MEAL REALLY WHAT YOU WANT? Again, ask yourself what really matters. You just had a big turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. Is it crucial that you have another one a month later?

A few years ago, my family was facing some stressors around the holidays that made us want to simplify things as much as possible. We decided we would have a cold buffet for Christmas dinner, for just that year. I baked two turkey rolls the day before and my daughter-in-law and I made or bought various salads. I was sure it would be a letdown not to have the traditional big Christmas dinner.

Guess what? We didn’t miss the traditional dinner one bit! The meal was just as tasty, and so much less stressful. Instead of spending inordinate amounts of time in the kitchen prepping and then cleaning up from a big meal, we spent that time balancing plates on our laps and laughing and talking as we enjoyed each other’s company. We’ve been doing Christmas dinner that way ever since!

FAMILY: This is, after all, the heart of Christmas, being with family. But how do we define our families?

8.  SPEND CHRISTMAS DAY WITH THE PEOPLE WHO MATTER THE MOST. One of the mistakes I sometimes see people making on Christmas is that they spread themselves too thin. Christmases were special for me as a kid because they were relaxed. We opened our stockings, then had a leisurely breakfast. We opened our presents, then had a leisurely dinner.

Christmas with the extended family.

Christmas with the extended family, on 12/26. We’re having a ball, can’t ya tell? 😉

We went to visit the extended family the day after Christmas, or the following weekend. We saw everybody eventually, but NOT on Christmas Day!

The first year I was married, my husband and I tried to keep everybody happy. We got up extra early to exchange our own presents, then went to my parents’ house for brunch. Then we jumped in the car and drove for two hours to have Christmas dinner with his family.

Never again!

9.  WHAT IS YOUR FAMILY OF CHOICE? If you don’t like your biological family, do NOT spend the most precious day of the year with them. Politely tell them that you want to spend Christmas with just your spouse and your children. If you’re not married, it’s okay to make your close friends your family of choice. If it feels too hurtful to say no to your biological family on December 25th, then designate another day–perhaps Christmas Eve or the day after Christmas–as your “family of choice” Christmas.

Last but definitely not least…

10.  BE JOYFUL. The bottom line here is that this is a joyful holiday! So do your best to set it up so it is fun and relaxing for you and those who are most important to you!

Any other ideas for simplifying Christmas preparations and minimizing holiday stress?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    December 9, 2014 at 7:52 am

    These are fab tips, Kassandra! Keeping it simple and preparing early are so important. I still make a nice dinner (rib roast) on Christmas, but it’s ready-made sides to go with it! And all thoughout the day we use pretty Christmas paper plates and napkins for breakfast/lunch/snacks, so the dinner dishes are the only cleanup.

    Merry Christmas!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      December 9, 2014 at 11:19 am

      Oh yes, I forgot to mention the paper plates! The less mess the better. Thanks for adding that tip, Kathy, and a very Merry Christmas to you and yours!!

  • Reply
    December 9, 2014 at 11:16 am

    Great article Kass. But OMG, I am definitely #5!!

    Hubby and son quit helping ummm…. years ago! I think maybe Don quit the year we got married and Sean was probably 2. But I gave him his own little tree that he could change daily which he sometimes did.

    My thoughts: Those lights must be arranged so you don’t see those wires and have to be evenly spaced. Cannot have a bare unlit area. Yes, tinsel should be carefully applied 1 stand at a time. Don’t ever throw a handful of it. That would be almost sacrilegious. And for the love of God, don’t ever put two ornaments the same color too close to each other! LOL

    I am not this OCD about the rest of my house. Good thing, eh?

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      December 9, 2014 at 11:25 am

      LOL Yes, definitely a good thing, Cindy! You and my dad would have gotten along splendidly.

      Hubs and son helped with the tree when he was little (the son was little, not the hubster). We went to a local tree farm and cut our own. I put the lights on and then everybody added ornaments until they were all gone (and then I rearranged them after my son was in bed).

      And I use those tinsel garlands now. Regular tinsel is banned from my household. 😀

  • Reply
    Debra Kristi
    December 9, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    All great advice. Some I keep meaning to follow each year and fall short. I do love the wrapped gifts, though. My family stopped having the big Christmas meal before I was even married. It was something I forced upon my husband’s family. It’s great. Now we have more time to focus on each other and the excitement of the kids. Some year I’ll have my shopping done early, too.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      December 9, 2014 at 12:26 pm

      I was amazed at how little I missed the big dinner, Debra! The buffet makes the day so much more relaxed, and people can eat whenever they are hungry, and go back for seconds later.

      Yeah, getting into the habit of starting your shopping early is tough. It took me years of promising myself that I would. When I finally did, I found that I was then excited about getting it done. And before I knew it, I was done!!

  • Reply
    Dwayne Keller
    December 9, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    All good ideas. We do some things a little more in advance. We fix a big turkey a week or two before Thanksgiving and freeze it in two packs. We pull one out Thanksgiving morning and put it in a slow cooker to keep it warm and moist. The desserts are made in advance too. That just leaves Mashed Potatoes, gravy, and vegetables to be made that morning. The stuffing can be done in advance too. Saves a lot of time and hassle and stress. The other half will be pulled out for Christmas. As for the Christmas tree, we bought a pre-lit on a few years ago. Saves on half the decorating with the lights already on it.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      December 9, 2014 at 7:35 pm

      What a great idea, Dwayne, to cook the turkey ahead of time and freeze it in two portions. And I have to confess that I have gone the artificial pre-lit tree in recent years. Only this year all the time saved from putting lights on it was lost again when one section of lights went dark. I had to track along the string until I found the loose bulb.

      • Reply
        Dwayne Keller
        December 9, 2014 at 9:44 pm

        I think this tree has the type that if one burns out the rest stay lit.

        • Reply
          Kassandra Lamb
          December 9, 2014 at 9:59 pm

          I thought mine did too. Maybe it was because it was loose. May be a fire safety thing.

  • Reply
    Vinnie Hansen
    December 9, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    One more thing we have in common, Kass–I love to wrap, too. 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      December 9, 2014 at 9:59 pm


  • Reply
    Jennette Marie Powell
    December 10, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    Great topic! And great list. I wrote on this same subject on my blog LOL!

    I hate crowds and traffic, so I do as much shopping as possible online. No malls for me! Cards are my other big stressor. I finally quit worrying about making them special by making my own, and just order them from Shutterfly. I also use mail merge labels, even though that’s considered gauche. No one’s ever complained, and if they do, that’s one less card I need to send next year. The key to my list (and yours, I see) is to keep activities that are meaningful to you and your loved ones, and toss those that aren’t.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      December 10, 2014 at 5:34 pm

      So cool, Jennette, that you blogged on the same theme.

      I think it is incredibly important that we give ourselves permission to pick and choose what we do and not get stressed out about it.

      Yes, online shopping is definitely helpful. I do about half in the stores and half online. And I completely forgot to talk about cards, probably because we stopped sending them several years ago. They landed on the “not so important to us” list one year when things were particularly hectic, and we’ve never gotten back into to doing them.

  • Reply
    Dwayne Keller
    December 10, 2014 at 7:22 pm

    Oh, I forgot about the cards. I do them over the Thanksgiving weekend, but with a twist. I write them all backwards!!! I’ll post a sample on Facebook. I’ve been doing it that way since 1985.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      December 10, 2014 at 7:46 pm

      Wow! That looks cool, Dwayne. Definitely makes them unique!!

  • Reply
    August McLaughlin
    December 11, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    Such practical tips here! I love your point about being joyful. It’s all too easy to let stress defeat the whole purpose of the holidays, which I feel is just that.

    My family holds a name drawing for the adults, which saves time and funds. And every year, I use points saved up from using my Amazon card to buy my nieces’ and nephew’s gifts. Amazon Prime, baby! Free shipping! LOL Very helpful and quick, which is great considering I’m not the best planner-aheader…

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      December 11, 2014 at 2:32 pm

      Amen, August! Joy is the point.

      It’s a good thing my husband has Amazon Prime with 2-day free shipping or there wouldn’t be much under the tree for me. He too is not much of a planner-aheader. 🙂

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