Celebrating the holidays should be satisfying, not stressful

As parents we long to create magical holiday memories for our children. However, while their heads are filled with “visions of sugarplums,” we often feel overwhelmed by all we think we have to do and spend to make them happy. So how do we make this holiday season memorable and meaningful while minimizing the hassles and stress?

When planning your holiday celebrations, ask yourselves, “What do we want the holidays to mean to our children? What kind of memories do we want them to have? What feelings do we want them to associate with the holidays? Are we effectively communicating the meaning this holiday holds for us through our celebration?” Spend time revisiting your own childhoods and your favorite holiday memories. What kinds of things did your families do to make these memories possible?

My suspicion is that when you recall your favorite memories they have little or nothing to do with how many gifts there were or how much your parents spent on them. You may or may not even remember specific gifts. Most people’s memories have more to do with the atmosphere of the holidays that existed in their homes — the aromas, the music, the voices, the feelings. Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli remind us in their book, “Unplug the Christmas Machine,” that no matter what cultural or religious holiday you are celebrating, “What children want and need is more time with their parents, an evenly paced holiday season, traditions they can count on, and realistic expectations about gifts … Most people spend more time and emotional energy on gift-giving than anything else, and yet gift-giving is consistently rated as the least-valued aspect of the celebration.”

Here are a few suggestions for creating the meaningful holiday memories you desire:

View the holidays through the eyes of your child. Children experience the holidays differently at different ages. For example, the infant who rests calmly in Santa’s arms may become the toddler who shrieks in terror at this bearded stranger. The very young child for whom you carefully shopped may be more interested in the package’s wrapping than its contents. Pay attention to and respect your child’s reactions and avoid taking her preferences personally. By demonstrating respect toward your child, she will learn to respect you and others. Your responsiveness to her needs and feelings will leave a more lasting impression than any picture with Santa.

Make time together as a family a priority. Let decorating the house, making and wrapping gifts, and preparing meals be family activities. Delegate tasks according to age and ability. Everyone can do something. Having a special job to do makes everyone feel that they are making an important contribution to the family’s celebration.

Put together a collection of holiday books and read to each other! Listen to holiday music! Get out the art supplies and create! Take a walk in the neighborhood and enjoy the sights and sounds of the season. Limit television viewing to holiday specials that the family can watch together. Take advantage of this opportunity to discuss the portrayal of the holiday and whether or not it is in agreement with your values. Spend time exploring with your children the meaning of the holiday you are celebrating and its religious or cultural significance.

Simplify your social calendar. Attend only those functions that you believe to be absolutely necessary. Space events and maintain a flexible, realistic schedule as much as possible. When children will be accompanying you to events that may last past their bedtime, take along pajamas to change them into if there is a chance they will fall asleep. If you are attending an event that involves a meal with lots of unique or unusual dishes, take along food that you know your child will eat or feed her ahead of time. Take along a few quiet toys, books, or art supplies in case the entertainment is geared mostly toward adults. Your children will remember your efforts to make these experiences enjoyable for them, too.

Schedule some quiet time for your family. Listen to soothing music and use soft voices. Some families choose to institute a “whisper hour” during which everyone is asked to speak only in whispers. Individual family members are encouraged to spend this time in whatever way they find most relaxing — reading, drawing, doing puzzles, resting, or writing letters.

Limit your children’s wish list. Help your children learn to make choices by limiting their list to three items. They are more likely to identify what they really want this way. Encourage them to make choices that are within the family budget. Let making the list be part of the fun by having them write it themselves, draw pictures of the desired items, or cut them from catalogues and paste them on a piece of paper (you will want to save these).

Try to give your children at least one thing from their list. Remember that more is not always better. Knowing that someone cared enough to get what she really wanted tends to leave the recipient feeling very special.

Avoid taking your children shopping. Arrange to let them stay with trusted relatives or friends. Set up a babysitting co-op for the holidays with these individuals or couples so that everyone gets a chance to get some uninterrupted shopping done. When taking your children along is unavoidable, plan several, short trips during the time of day when they are at their best — after meals or naps. Involve them in the shopping when possible. Let them hold or read the list and help look for the items.

Involve your children in the joy of giving. Ask them who they want to include on the family’s gift list and for gift suggestions. Encourage them to make as many gifts as possible. This is best accomplished by starting early. Close friends and relatives will treasure simply framed original works of art, homemade calendars using your child’s artwork or photos, or treats your children helped bake and decorate. Never underestimate the value of a handmade gift, for these come from the heart.

Include children in a holiday tradition of giving to those less fortunate. Help them collect for food, clothing, coat, book, or toy drives in your area. Let them put some money in the Salvation Army bucket and explain what that money is used for. Prepare a meal for a lonely individual or needy family in your neighborhood. Teach your children the lesson that Scrooge’s friend, Jacob Marley, discovered too late — that humankind is our business.

Whatever the holiday you are celebrating, keep the focus where it belongs. The common thread woven through all of these holidays and traditions seems to me to be reaffirming our commitments, strengthening our families, and dedicating ourselves to making this world we have been given a better place.

Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman is a resident of Lexington, Kentucky. She has degrees in Child Development, Family Studies, and Marriage and Family Therapy. She spent 15 years in various agencies and clinics as a family therapist and parent educator. She has written extensively on the topic of parenting. After six years as Arts Facilitator for the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, she chose to return to her favorite place of employment — home. Her son, Douglas, 24, is now based in New York City when he is not on the road performing. He is an actor, singer, musician, dancer, writer, and visual artist. Joseph, 14, is a freshman theatre major at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts who also sings, dances, plays piano, and creates visual art.