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Dealing With Holiday Stress

Unplugging the Christmas Machine

There are many dynamics that can make the holidays stressful: stress due to orchestrating a perfect family celebration, holiday bills, losses due to divorce or death in the family, crowded social calendars, etc. In the book "Unplugging the Christmas Machine" by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli, the "one common concern among most that is universal is the yearning for a simpler, less commercial, more soul-satisfying celebration. A universal wish to end the year with a festival of renewal that rekindles our spirit brings us closer to the people we care about, and brings light and laughter to the dark days of winter. We want to ward off the commercial excesses of the season and create an authentic, joyful celebration in tune with our unique needs and desires."

According to child experts, what children really want more than anything else during the holidays are:

  • a relaxed and loving time with family
  • realistic expectations about gifts
  • an evenly paced holiday season
  • reliable family traditions

Appealing to that child within us all, important questions to ask are: how do I want to spend my time during the holidays? What are the four most important things to me to achieve-or needs-that I want to be met during this time? What family or friends do I want to connect with? What are the simple gifts I want to give or request? What are the activities I WANT to engage in? Which activities can I choose to eliminate the hustle and bustle? What didn't work last holiday season that I can modify this year? Who is someone from the here and now or from times past that I want to connect with? What are traditions that I want to begin, modify or create with old friends, new friends, family, or alone? Think of ways to accomplish these goals and plan so that these things will happen.

Dealing with the letdown feeling that can come after the holidays and the tinsel is put away: think of some activities that you enjoy and invite someone to do it with you; i.e. jigsaw puzzle for family or friends; special dessert or treat eaten only during the taking down of the Christmas tree, movies with friends, etc.

Recommended reading:
Robinson, Jo and Staeheli, Jean Coppock. Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the Season. William Morrow: New York, 1991.

Going Home for the Holiday

The holidays can be both exciting and stressful. Celebrations, shopping, family gatherings, exchanging gifts, etc. are among the many activities of the season. For some, the holiday is a time of rejoicing.  others face it with dread due to less than ideal situations that they may be encountering.

Regardless of one's circumstances, there are situations which are within one's control and some which are not. Exercising control over areas in one's life in which there is an element of choosing possible is of primary importance in setting the stage for a pleasant holiday season.

For college students returning home, chances are you have changed some in ways that your parents may not be aware of. You may be accustomed to later curfews whereas they may still be thinking in terms of how things used to be. Expect that there MAY be differences to occur between you and your family. If at all possible, keep the doors of communication open. Recognize that talking, listening, stating preferences, negotiating and/or compromising may need to occur. You may be planning on being out with your friends every spare minute; their plans may be different. At the end of the semester, grades will be coming out. Have you shared your academic performance with your parents? If your grades are less than to be desired, best fill your parents in on the news before the last minute. It is better to let them in on how things are going with school whether the news is good or bad.


  • Let your family know about your plans and preferences for the holiday before you arrive home. Listen to their preferences and plans as well.
  • Make certain your plans include your family in some way. Think of some things you have in common with them or things you enjoy doing with them and request to do those things. Include your parents in the planning and scheduling of these activities.
  • Discuss with your parents regarding changes, i.e. curfew. Negotiation may need to occur.
  • Inform your parents in advance regarding your grades.

Whether you are eagerly awaiting the minute you return home or have reluctant feelings about going home for the holidays, make sure you set aside time for yourself doing something you enjoy and make some of your own special plans. See the page "Simple Gifts for the Soul" for ideas.

The Holidays When There Are No Close Family Ties

It has been said that "friends are our chosen family." When there are no close family ties, you can elect to be with friends of your own choosing. Cultivate these friendships, celebrate special occasions and give of yourself with these special friends. Make it a point to send cards and call these friends on a regular basis. Celebrate holidays, turkey dinner, etc together. Create your chosen family of friends. If there are no friends such as this in your life, vow that you will cultivate these types of friends and devise a plan on how you will do this. For the present, get involved with giving of yourself to others. See the section on Simple Gifts. Think of something you can do each day from the list during the holidays. Be creative and think of your own.

If you need help with this plan, come to the Counseling Center to meet with a counselor who can assist you. 

When There Has Been A Divorce

Although the ads portray the holidays with the perfect, happy family, there are many who do not have the traditional family. Remember, there is no perfect situation. Many families are headed by one parent or have involved a divorce. We may prefer to have a more traditional, two-parent situation at home; however, nontraditional families can have happy holidays as well as those with the more traditional arrangement. How? Open your mind up to the possibility (possibilities are unlimited) that things don't have to be a certain way in order for you to be happy. All of us have our preferences but some things are out of our control and it is nobody's fault—some situations are not ideal. Consider what IS within your control. Consider who IS in your life and focus on the good things you have together. Consider what you have in common and ask to spend time together doing those things.

Considering the people you will be with during the holidays, how would you like to spend time with them? What are some traditions you would like to have with the family or people you WILL be with? Perhaps you will be with different sets of relatives during the holidays. Establish traditions that you would enjoy with the various facets of your family. Think of the pluses for you regarding each situation and focus on them. "Don'ts" include:

  • don't expect everything to go without conflict,
  • don't expect loved ones to know how you have grown/changed (you'll have to inform them) since you last saw them,
  • don't expect parents to have changed (i.e. curfews, expectations, chores,----you may need to negotiate, discuss preferences and compromise).
  • Think in advance of some traditions you would like to start with various family members or with friends. Discuss your ideas with loved ones and schedule them in. Be creative. Possibilities: card playing, game playing, singing, playing musical instruments, reading aloud to each other, attending concerts, entertaining friends, telling anecdotes about the family, listening to the older family members tell about the "good ‘ole days", dancing, cooking together, going for walks, taking trips to the country, creating skits and plays, caroling, doing winter sports. What others can you think of? Remember, discuss ideas with other family members and make a plan. For other ideas, see page "Simple Gifts for the Soul".

Dealing With The Death Of A Loved One

Holidays are particularly difficult when you have lost a loved one. In her newsletter entitled "Renew", Judy Oaks Davidson suggests that family or friends who have lost a loved one talk about the things they will miss and devise a plan to accommodate those traditions that are now different. She offers the following guidelines:

  • openly discuss holiday traditions of the past
  • create a special tribute for the day such as lighting a candle, and/or gather some treasured remembrances
  • decide and plan where to spend the holidays
  • balance being alone with being with others
  • relive pleasant memories, and set aside "letting go" time
  • find a creative outlet — use creative feelings to write a story or poem in honor of your loved one, make gifts or special treats for others
  • attend to other loved ones in your life; listen to and celebrate them 
  • utilize available resources — don't grieve alone — utilize family, church, support group.

Renew is a bereavement newsletter with useful, supportive information for those struggling with grief issues. For more information call 859-756-3519 or

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