Monday, January 29, 2007

Happier holidays -- in 5 easy steps

Ditch those obligatory get-togethers for new traditions with folks who really matter.

Last year, my girlfriend Betsy and I decided to set the holiday craziness aside and spend an impromptu few hours celebrating Christmas Eve together. No big dinner, no fancy gifts, no huge crowd--just us, our kids, and our husbands, enjoying store-bought hors d'oeuvres, desserts, and eggnog, swapping traditions, and rediscovering why we adore one another. It was a celebration full of sweet memories we won't soon forget.

If only all holiday connections were as low-key and hassle-free. Unfortunately, with all the party-hopping and the pressure to cook, decorate, and find the perfect gift, celebrations can end up feeling more like The Nightmare Before Christmas than It's a Wonderful Life. In fact, the National Mental Health Institute says that worrying, partying, stressing, and clinging to unrealistic expectations--all in an overcommercialized atmosphere--can lead to a case of the holiday blues, a condition that can cause insomnia, headaches, fatigue, and even depression.

"People focus on the holidays by saying, 'Can I just get through it?' instead of recognizing this as a time to connect with family, reflect on the previous year, and look forward to the New Year," says life coach Valorie Burton, author of Listen to Your Life.

It doesn't have to be that way, though. Get more out of this holiday season by saying no to irrelevant obligations and finding more meaningful ways to connect with those most important to you. Here are a few tips to get you started.

1 Instead of assembling and wrapping gifts into the wee hours to keep the kids from hearing your tools and the distinct sound of tape ripping …

Take an afternoon off from work and invite a few buddies over for a gift-wrapping party, while the kids are at school. "Put on your holiday music, have cake and tea, talk and laugh--and connect," Burton suggests.

2 Instead of packing the whole family into the minivan and driving 6 hours across four states to see your parents (or worse, spending thousands of dollars in airfare) …

Send Mom and Dad tickets so they can visit you during the holidays. "It'll cost you a few hundred bucks. But it's an awfully wonderful trade, compared with what it would take for you to get there and the disruption it would cause," says Jeff Davidson, author of Breathing Space: Living and Working at a Comfortable Pace in a Sped-Up Society. "The gesture alone speaks volumes."

3 Instead of attending multiple Hanukkah or Kwanzaa parties to celebrate these weeklong holidays …

Host a small gathering of friends on one of the days, and enjoy the others with just your immediate family. You can even make your party more special by inviting people whose religions and traditions differ from your own. Cecelia Cancellaro and Eric Zinner, of Maplewood, New Jersey, let their 7- and 4-year-old daughters invite friends over to play dreidels, eat latkes, and participate in lighting the menorah as part of their annual Hanukkah party. It gives her daughters a sense of pride when they share their tradition with friends, Cancellaro says. "It helps all the children feel more connected to one anther."

4 Instead of schlepping the kids to the mall to wait (and wait) in an excruciatingly long line to get pricey-but-not-so-great holiday portraits …

Whip out your home video camera and have your children sing, dance, and share their New Year's resolutions. Then when the holidays arrive, pop some popcorn, pour the eggnog, dim the lights, and sit everyone down to enjoy your own musical. The kids will love seeing themselves, you'll capture priceless memories, and the entire family will enjoy your new holiday tradition. Plan to make it an annual event. And next year, this year's video will be even more fun.

5 Instead of going to the annual neighborhood-association holiday potluck …

Help your kids bake a batch of cookies, and then take the treats to your favorite neighbors' homes with handwritten holiday greetings. "These days, people don't connect much with their neighbors," Burton says. "This is a great way to get the kids involved and do something that you wouldn't normally do. It's an inexpensive and extremely thoughtful gesture."

Already dreading the holidays? Ease your stress with our Holiday Survival Guide at

By Denene Millner

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