The Happiest Time of the Year

family holiday dinner

The holiday season is commonly regarded as the happiest time of the year. And while I am suffering through day five of a dreadful head cold, I am undeniably joyful.  I’m streaming Christmas carols on Pandora as I address holiday cards.  I’m finishing my Christmas shopping, planning a New Year’s Eve dinner party menu and simultaneously lamenting the hours skipped at the gym while sneaking a second cookie.

When expectations are set that something is the happiest, this leads to pressure to live up to impossible standards.  Holiday happiness is slippery because perfection is unattainable.  We recall the Norman Rockwell painting of a family sitting around the Thanksgiving table as mom enters with a beautiful turkey. It’s a moment of pride and anticipation and gathering and satiated wistfulness.  My own memories of family holiday dinners are equally jolly, but there are other parts too like that someone (me) always has a runny nose, someone has questionable table manners,  someone gets tipsy, and someone can’t hear so we have to shout. Occasionally someone gets mad and sometimes someone cries. Sometimes the crier is crying because the holiday didn’t live up to expectations.  Go figure. So much pressure.

Here, my readers, are some practical tips to staying jolly this Christmas when imperfection rears its ugly head:

Don’t Be Surprised by the Obvious

If you can’t cook the other 364 days of the year, there is a good chance Christmas dinner won’t win any awards. If your sister is usually a butt-head, chances are she will still be a butt-head at your family gathering, maybe an even a bigger one than usual.

The first rule of happy holidays is to anticipate that  people and things will pattern after their normal tendencies. Try hard to no not be surprised when established patterns perpetuate. A thoughtful friend will still be thoughtful, a cheapskate relative will still be cheap, a selfish person probably won’t suddenly volunteer in the community and spend quality time with your kids.  Generally speaking, people don’t rise to the occasion just because you hope they will, or really wish they would.

On the up-side, when you right-size expectations you have a chance of being pleasantly surprised!  And, if everything goes like it usually does, you’ll be ready to handle it.

It’s Not One Day That Matters, Everyday Matters

So much emphasis is placed on one family gathering, be it Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, or Thanksgiving.  Other big days matter too like a kid’s holiday concert, an annual outing to the Nutcracker ballet maybe even the church pageant.  Surely they are all meaningful, but so are regular Tuesdays, or a rainy day movie marathon and spaghetti nights.

There is too much emphasis put on sharing one big holiday day together and not enough value placed on togetherness in everyday life.  I hear people who are so stressed about driving around town on Christmas Eve to go to her mom’s for appetizers and his dad’s for dinner and his boss’ for late night and then circle back to her mom’s to meet-up for midnight services.  Uncle!  It’s too much.  What if all those events were stretched out over December?  There would be less driving around, more quality time spent with each important group, everyone would be so much more relaxed.  Do you love someone less because you aren’t physically together on Christmas Eve?  No, obviously not, especially if you also do the rainy day movie marathon and spaghetti nights.  Because it’s the everyday that really matters.

Pace Yourself – It’s A Marathon Not A Sprint

For many, the “holiday season” begins around Thanksgiving and runs straight through to New Year’s Day.  Retailers would like us to start earlier yet with Halloween as the unofficial launch.  Whether your holiday season runs one month or two, it is still a long time.  One runs serious risk of early burn-out, or worse yet, catching a cold (ahem).

To protect yourself from total frazzle, be a good planner.  Set a budget, make a list, edit the list, and schedule time to get it all done.   Still, there are always those elusive to-do items that linger from week to week.   For those, give yourself permission to scratch them off the list as too ambitious.  Or, think of the simplest solution and do that, unapologetically.  Example, I once bought Taco Bell churros for a bake-sale because I simply couldn’t handle baking anything myself.  The churros were so insanely popular people asked me for the recipe.  Simple is always best.

It also really helps to have a personal playbook.  Everyone needs a signature dish that is easy to make, reliable and makes many people happy.  For some, this is lasagna, for others this is “plastic cutlery”. Know your strengths so when the next pot-luck is announced you have a go-to solution that doesn’t stress you out. The same is needed for gift giving.  Have a hostess gift, housewarming gift, teacher/office/neighbor gift and a short-list of seasonal favorites that work for many people.  For me, caramel apples, wine, iTunes gift cards, flavored olive oil and kitchen gadgets really cover a lot of ground!  Shirk the pressure to give the perfect gift to everyone and have some crowd pleasers at the ready.

Be Hospitable

Care.  One of my girlfriends keeps a basket of clean socks near her front door so that when guests come and take off their shoes, they can slip into cozy socks instead of going barefoot on her wood floors in the winter. That little, humble gesture is hospitable and I love it.  When you think about and care about other people, they notice.

Hospitality is about welcoming people in a warm, generous and inviting manner.  This is more than clean towels and fresh sheets on the guest bed; it is a way of life. When the doorbell rings this holiday season, don’t panic if everything isn’t perfect because everything will be so much better if you take a deep breath, smile and enjoy yourself.  Everyone takes a cue from a hostess who is having fun.  So, crank the Christmas carols over the speakers, frost a lopsided gingerbread house, pour some wine and serve up your signature dish.  Spreading good cheer has never been so much fun as it is at the happiest time of the year.

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