Defeat Seasonal Stress by Setting Realistic Expectations

Catherine Holecko is the Guide to Family Fitness at About.com and suggests Harry Connick Jr. for all your holiday karaoke needs and workout playlists.

I absolutely love the winter holidays and everything that goes along with them, but as my kids grow and life gets busier and more complicated, I’ve noticed my stress level rising each November. Since we have no family nearby, we travel for Thanksgiving every year, and Christmas every other year—which, I swear, has to be the top holiday stressor ever. So this year, I’m formalizing a plan to make the season merrier. It starts with thinking clearly about what matters to me and my husband and kids.

1. We need a tree. I need a live (well, cut) Christmas tree even if we are not going to be home for Christmas. Yes, it’s a pain to wrestle into the stand, to clean up after, to keep watered, and to dispose of. But nothing can take the place of the sight and scent of a real tree. My daughter has already asked me if we’ll have a tree this year even though we won’t be home on Christmas Day, so I know it’s something she cares a lot about too. Plus, choosing and decorating the tree is an important family activity, something we all insist on doing together, while singing carols like some kind of television commercial or cheesy sitcom.

2. We don’t need cookies. Our diets don’t need them, we don’t need to clear two days on our calendar to bake them, and our neighbors don’t need to eat them either. Yes, I feel a little guilty when we receive a plate of treats and we don’t reciprocate. But we express our thanks warmly and strive to be good neighbors all year round instead.

3. We need gifts—but only up to a point. A few years ago we finally started drawing names for gift exchanges among my parents, siblings, and so on—11 adults. It makes such a huge difference to chop 10 names off your list! Plus, it’s so much more enjoyable choosing something for one person thoughtfully, vs. buying something just to check off a name. And since we often see each other for Thanksgiving, I make an effort to have the gift ready then. If we’re seeing the other side of the family for turkey day, I try to shop and wrap during the visit and stash the gifts before we go. Anything that I’d otherwise ship, I buy online and have sent directly. The shipping and wrapping fees may rack up, but it’s a worthwhile trade for my time.

4. We don’t need cards—to go out by Christmas Eve. I still love to send and receive cards, but sometimes I just have to send them after December 25. I always get one that has a “happy holidays/season’s greetings” type message, because I send cards to people that don’t celebrate Christmas—but also because the cards tend to arrive more for New Year’s than Christmas anyway.

5. We need exercise. Nothing, I mean nothing, gets in the way of my yoga classes, especially during this time of year and no matter what else is on the calendar or how long my to-do list is. The same goes for my kids, who luckily love winter sports. If they’re not at the ice rink, they’re probably outside playing in the snow.

6. We don’t need parties. We moved to our current home and town 7 years ago. For that first Christmas, we hosted a party for our neighbors and other new friends, to get to know them better and thank them for the warm welcome they had extended. I was 6 months pregnant and spent the better part of a week on my feet, baking, until I thought my back would give out. Then on the day of the party the dog ate more than half a tray of my precious cookies and bars. We haven’t had a holiday party since! OK, so it’s not really the dog’s fault. It’s just facing reality.

I have some more suggestions for holiday fitness (and the fitting-in-of) and I’d love to hear yours too. Here’s to a happy, healthy, holiday season for all of us!

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