The holidays are upon us, and you know what that means: five overpriced toys, four feuding cousins, three ungrateful kids, two stressed-out parents and a partridge in a pear tree. It doesn’t take much for our holidays to go sideways, but fortunately we don’t need a cheesy Hallmark holiday movie to get things back on track.
In fact, it’s actually the Grinch who offers the best guidance in finding more meaning during this busy season: “What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?”
Here are seven ways to make that happen.
1. Continue family traditions or start new ones
Every year growing up, my dad made calamari on Christmas Eve. No one knows why—it’s not exactly a staple we grew up with on Lake Erie. It stunk up the whole house, and it tasted like lightly fried rubber hose. But it was a tradition and, even today, when it’s mentioned among my seven siblings, it evokes a chuckle and warms the heart.
Whether your tradition is Grandma’s sticky rolls or Bubbe’s potato latkes, keep it going. You don’t have to do all of your family traditions. Just choose one or two favourites and make the most of them. Or create new ones that your kids can pass down to their families, which can be as simple as driving with popcorn and hot chocolate to look at holiday lights or snuggling up in pajamas to watch a favourite movie. A word of caution: Think carefully about creating a new tradition that might lose its novelty and cause you dread until you find a way to delicately kill said new tradition. I’m looking at you, Elf on the Shelf.
2. Lower your expectations
So much of holiday stress melts away when you drop the perfectionism. From choosing your holiday cards and setting the Christmas menu to finding the right gifts and even receiving the right gifts, having unrealistic expectations sets you up for disappointment. But when you adopt the mindset that “it’s gonna be just fine,” you can take a breath and enjoy whatever moments come your way. Even if you don’t nail the epic holiday tablescape in your Instagram post, it’s still gonna be just fine.
And so, while other families in your neighbourhood are crafting the perfect holiday home, complete with twinkling Christmas lights, beautiful ornate wreaths in every window and manicured ribbons and bows on their trees, you can hit them with something like this ridiculousness, which we gifted our neighbours this year:
3. Focus on presence over presents
Yes, it’s been said before, but this year, make it stick. If you’re tired of having another piece of plastic junk that will get played with only once and collect dust in the new year, opt for spending more time together instead. Dial down the presents and spend that money on small trips or experiences. Take the family to the circus, stay in a hotel for a few days, go to a sporting event or plan an entire day out together with exhibits, restaurants, stops for cookies and a movie. These are memories that your kids will cherish over this year’s fad toy.
4. Embrace other cultural experiences
Growing up, my holiday experience consisted solely of Christmas and Santa Claus and, because of this, I didn’t fully appreciate other customs until I was much older. Today, my family is fortunate to live around people from many different cultures and religions. While we may not all share the same belief system, we can still appreciate and value one another’s customs and traditions.
Use this time as an opportunity to learn more, whether that’s reading about the meaning of the candles on the Kwanzaa kinara or Hanukkah menorah, discovering the true story of Saint Nicholas or simply sharing a meal with neighbours who had a different upbringing than yours. Last year, we enjoyed a Hanukkah meal with one of my daughter’s Jewish friends from school, and it proved to be a great night of learning for all of us. Simply being open to learning makes for a richer holiday season.
5. Give with intention
The holidays provide ample opportunities to focus on giving over receiving, but that can become lip service if you buy random things for random people, like the Secret Santa exchange with a co-worker you’ve never met. Instead, bake cookies with the kids to drop off to neighbours. Take coffee to teachers, daycare workers and crossing guards. Even leaving little anonymous notes for one another is a special way to spread holiday cheer without spreading yourself thin.
6. Teach your kids to relax by modelling it yourself
Most people get some time off around the end of the year, so use it wisely. If your kids see you panicked and stressed out, racing around and yelling, they learn that this is what you do around the holidays. Instead, teach them how to simply relax and rest, without screens. Build a snowman. Take a long walk. Read by a fire. Enjoy a nap. Play a board game. Cook a meal together. Don’t let yourself get so caught up in making the holidays fun that they aren’t actually fun.
7. Recap the year
The saying “The days are long, but the years are short” has never felt truer than in today’s hectic pace of life. Families do so many things in 365 days, and it is powerful to reflect on all the experiences at the end of the year. Recounting the year’s most significant memories can lead to lots of laughs and maybe even a few poignant tears.
In my own family, we keep a journal and bullet-point each child’s favourite memories or lessons learned as we scroll back through our phone’s photo album or social media feed. But if journals and scrapbooks feel like another guilt-trippy sore spot for you, there’s nothing wrong with an evening of cookies and milk and reflection without worrying about documenting every milestone and memory. Enjoy the moment itself!
Josh Guerrieri lives the full life in Atlanta with his wife, Erin, and their five kids.