5 ways to make the holidays better this year

Forget last year’s expensive stress-fest. Take back the most wonderful time of the year with these expert tips

“I hate Christmas,” says Carrie Simon,* an Oakville, Ont. stay-at-home mom. “The rest of the year, my life with two young children feels crazy enough, and then you add Christmas on top of that and there’s too much to do. By Boxing Day, I’m bitchy and glad it’s over.” If you’d rather face a root canal than December’s demands, let go of traditions that sucked the fun from holidays past and get the season you want with our tips.

Enjoy (rather than endure) the togetherness time
Last year: You spent more time commuting between relatives than celebrating with them.
This year: Manage expectations.
“We have two sets of parents wanting to see us between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day,” says Newmarket, Ont., marketing consultant Cathy Young.* “I feel like the bad guy to want Christmas morning at home with our nine-year-old daughter.” But trying to please everyone is the worst mistake, says Vancouver family therapist Benno Dreger. “You stretch yourself too thin and start to neglect not only yourself, but your own family. Then it’s a train wreck because you burn out, stress creeps in and you start snapping at people.”
If you’re planning a quiet Christmas at home, tell relatives now that you’d love to see them, then invite them for Boxing Day. Maybe you want the kids to enjoy Christmas morning in their PJs at home. “By breaking the news in advance, they have a chance to accept it,” he says. “If they’ve already bought groceries for Christmas dinner, it’s a huge disappointment.”

Celebrate without breaking the bank
Last year: You woke up with a credit hangover on New Year’s Day.
This year: Put more thought into gift giving.
Decide on a budget. Determine what you can afford, then put the cash into separate envelopes (so if you’re shopping for a dozen people, you’ll have 12 envelopes), says Gail Vaz-Oxlade, TV host of Til Debt Do Us Part and author of MoneySmart Kids. You won’t rack up debt and you’ll be less likely to overspend. “To splurge on one person, you have to steal from someone else’s envelope.”

Track purchases Jot down gift ideas and what you’ve purchased. This way, you won’t overbuy.
Gift your time Think of paid services and gift coupons for something you’re willing to do, such as free babysitting once a month for your sister.

Last year: Your list was longer than Santa’s beard.
This year: Trim your list before trimming the tree. “We buy presents for everybody and easily spend over $1,000,” says Simon. “By the time my husband’s relatives give me ideas, it’s close to Christmas and I’m spending full price. And it’s usually last-minute, with kids in tow.” Instead, talk to your family at Thanksgiving about doing a Secret Santa or Texas Swap with a dollar limit, say $25, so each adult only buys one gift for another adult within the extended family. Or agree not to exchange with friends and their kids. “Make a plan to go for dinner or get a pedicure in January instead,” says Edmonton professional organizer Kristie Demke, president of Professional Organizers in Canada.
Feel holly and jolly with healthier choices
Last year: Santa wasn’t the only one who started the New Year with a rounder belly.
This year: Balance indulgences with healthy eats.
Don’t show up hungry to holiday events: Eat a snack beforehand that contains fibre and protein, such as fruit and plain nuts, so you’re less tempted by high-calorie treats. And set some ground rules for the kids. “Explain that sweets are OK in moderation, but they will not feel good if they only eat cookies,” says Laurie Barker Jackman, a dietitian in Halifax. Talk about what a healthy plate should look like (half vegetables, a quarter protein, a quarter grains). “Let them know having seconds of favourites is OK,” says Barker Jackman. “We don’t need to be the food police at Christmas; we just need to teach our kids healthy foods will give them more energy and make them feel better.”

Last year: All that got a workout was your wallet — and Super Mario Brothers.
This year: Make physical activity a priority.
Schedule exercise to combat stress and make up for some of the extra indulgences. Plan activities, such as skating, sledding and walks around the neighbourhood to admire the decorations. And limit kids’ screen time. “They need downtime, but spending the whole vacation on PlayStation is unacceptable,” says Beverly Beuermann-King, a stress expert in Little Britain, Ont., with  Worksmartlivesmart.com . Ask for their input on a reasonable limit, such as two or three hours a day, for the vacation. “My sons use the travel time to Grandma’s as their ‘no-mind’ time to watch movies,” she says.

Last year: Late nights led to cranky kids — and crankier parents.
This year: Bank some rest.
“You can’t really deposit more into a sleep account or get back what you’ve taken out, but more sleep can help bolster your resources,” says Beuermann-King. “If you know late nights are coming up, put younger kids to bed earlier. Include older kids in decision making (“To stay up later on Saturday, you need some extra sleep. Do you want to go to bed earlier on Friday or catch a nap on Saturday afternoon?”). It will get them thinking about making healthy choices.”

Stop slaving to make things special for everyone else
Last year: You were guilted into attending too many holiday events.
This year: Be ruthless with the social calendar.
“I felt obligated to go to two cookie exchanges last year,” says Loreen Keating, Calgary stay-at-home mother of three. “I was up until one in the morning baking cookies, exhausted the next day and wondering why I bothered.” To avoid event overload, clarify your holiday vision, says Beuermann-King. Think what you want from the holidays; maybe you’re seeking a spiritual connection or quality family time. “If you know what you expect, it’s easier to say no.” When you get an invitation, ask yourself: “If this got cancelled, would I feel sad or relieved?” If it’s the latter, send your regrets and suggest getting together in the new year.

Last year: You set out to accomplish more than the elves in Santa’s village.
This year: Plan ahead to save time (and sanity).
Create a timeline. Mark on a calendar when you’ll shop, mail cards and party invitations, and clean the house. Do the tasks you like least earlier, says Demke. Save your favourites for later when you might be tired, but will still enjoy them. Get the kids to pitch in: Preschoolers can pick out wrapping paper, attach bows and provide an extra finger when you’re tying ribbons, says Demke. By grade two or three, kids can help put presents into gift bags, measure and stir for baking, and count cookies going into gift containers.
Learn from past mistakes. “I don’t bake during the year, then Christmas comes and I try to become Martha Stewart,” says Simon. “But I’m a terrible baker!” Before you plan, recap what worked last year. Was the brunch for 20 enchanting or an endurance test? “We place unrealistic expectations on ourselves and that increases stress,” says Beuermann-King. Don’t be ashamed to ditch what doesn’t work, even if it’s a long-standing tradition.

Be in the moment
Take time to notice what’s happening around you — the falling snowflakes, the twinkly lights — and encourage your kids to do the same, says Beuermann-King. “They learn from how we enjoy the holidays and if we rush them around and grumble, it’s hard for them not to see the holidays as a bother.”

*Names changed by request.

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