Updated: Dec 10, 2019
Volume XVI, Number 4 Winter 2019
Who doesn’t dream of joyful and relaxed holidays? Most adults dismiss this as unrealistic. But with a little change in priorities, it doesn’t have to be an unattainable, ridiculous fantasy.
Many years ago I used to teach a class on how to reduce the stress of the entire holiday season. It always registered full. Now, after working with wealthy families for thirty years, I have the experience to apply stress-reducing principles to a much smaller group: families with financial resources and privilege.
I have found that some of my clients hate the holidays. Hate. Stressful relationships that can be avoided for most of the year; the pain of being alone and estranged from family; the pressure to provide a beautifully decorated environment and have it ready at the optimum time (or managing the people hired to do so); questions about who is going where and when; married-in spouses; blended families; challenged and destroyed traditions; poorly behaved children who make jarring remarks; and stress over gifts all contribute to the dis-ease.
How can you hope to improve the drama? Start small. Choose one thing that you have thought about changing before and determine the best way to go about it. All families are different so consider what strategy will work best in your family. Basic strategy choices are: 1. Consensus with agreement and buy-in; 2. Authoritarian with one person leading and implementing the change; or 3. Voting with majority rule. If you know the decision-making strategy that works best in your family, then you are already one step into this.
In deciding how to change, think about what your priorities are: stress relief, more free time, better communication, honoring God, honoring traditions, or travel/no travel. Whatever your list may be, pick one focus for success. You can address the priority that rises to the top in many ways, so your choice is important. Then think about what you are celebrating and its purpose in your life: Christmas, Chanukah, family, tradition, peace, love of nature, giving to those who have less. Understanding what is important to you will serve as your compass in making decisions that allow you to manage stress better and give your celebrations more meaning.
Some challenges are specific to wealthy families:
The married-in spouse may find that their own family traditions, as well as family visits, get short shrift. If the wealthy side of the family plans a holiday trip to a beautiful destination, this will very often take precedence. Wealth and power can demand your presence.
Gift giving. If yours is a family who exchanges wish lists for gifts, you may find it is common in the family with deep resources to provide lists full of expensive gifts. That might be fine within your immediate family but consider how it might feel to your new wife’s family with more modest means.
Rituals and traditions, especially religious ones, often clash between families. Sorting out how to handle this can be its own battleground. This happens in families at all socio-economic levels, but wealth and power can tip the scale.
Grandparents. There may be four sets of grandparents, or in blended families, even more. Resolving how to honor all grandparents can be challenging since some will pressure you for your time while others will step back and be accommodating. What is fair? What do you actually want to do?
When I taught about reducing the stress of the holiday season, and introducing fun and relaxation into it, I used a book called Unplug the Christmas Machine, as relevant today as it was then. In it, on one of the first pages, we encounter
The Christmas Pledge
Believing in the beauty and simplicity of Christmas I commit myself to the following:
To remember those people who truly need my gifts
To express my love for family and friends in more direct ways than presents
To rededicate myself to the spiritual growth of my family
To examine my holiday activities in light of the true spirit of Christmas
To initiate one act of peacemaking within my circle of family and friends
Let’s apply these pledge commitments to the challenges described above.
When the married-in spouse feels his/her side of the family is getting short shrift, take time, well before the holidays, to discuss what you would each like to have happen. Many families alternate years with each side, no matter what, and this can work well; some bring and share a tradition from their side to the other side (a special pie they make, a certain spiritual service to attend, a charitable activity like serving in a soup kitchen, a song they teach to the in-laws); some include everyone from both sides, which is a great solution when it is possible.
Gift giving. Ask everyone to make their lists broad and include ideas from zero dollars (yes, zero, like a poem or a painting) to expensive.
Rituals and traditions. Often it works best for a couple to make new traditions of your own. They may include elements familiar to you from your family, and new things all your own.
Grandparents. Be kind and spread yourselves around with respect. Do something special with/for each. Some may be okay with a date in December or New Year’s Day or even summer.
Simplify your celebration. It may be that simplest is best. Consider one of the following for your holiday festivities:
Turn off the TV
Turn off phones and leave in a basket by the door
Put a $10 limit on gifts exchanged
Instead of material gifts, draw one name and write a letter of appreciation
Walk together (exercise, fresh air, no competition)
Unless you make a change, stress will bust you again. Turn this around by making one small change, and enjoy. Wishing you all the best in your holidays.