Surviving the Holiday Season


‘Tis the season to be jolly! Or is it?  Our society is steeped in expectations about the holidays, both religious and secular:

  • Being home for the holidays
  • Family togetherness and tradition
  • Religious celebrations; attending places of worship
  • Gift giving; spending beyond our limits
  • Decorating, crafting, baking, tree trimming
  • Upholding myths for children

While for some, these messages reverberate in a meaningful way and become cherished traditions, for many, they are felt as pressure and constitute a source of stress.  And, when our experiencing of such activities does not match our expectations about how these activities should be or feel, we may be disappointed and dejected. We may also feel as if we have failed in some way.

Family Relationships

At the centre of holiday expectations are our beliefs about family: family should be together and enjoying each others’ company.  This belief can act as a lightening rod for pre-existing family conflict and family members may leave holiday get-togethers feeling sad, stressed or dealing with uncomfortable unresolved family issues.

“Michael was drunk at Christmas dinner and started telling dad that he was a lame excuse for a father. I didn’t know what to do so I just sat there eating my pie and trying to pretend that everything was normal.”

Religious Traditions

While for some, holidays represent a sacred time for connecting with their chosen faith, others feel guilty for perceived lack of faith over the past year, or in other cases, resentment for the perceived imposition of religious values.  For still others, there may be differences of opinion in the family about how the holiday should be celebrated, particularly concerning the role of religion.


The encouragement to spend, spend, spend for the holidays is everywhere.  Online ads, holiday music is playing everywhere we shop, store decorations start even before Halloween. Sales lure us and malls open for extended hours of “midnight madness.” Boxing day hits us again with more incentives.

Children are exposed to these messages as well and may think, “The more I get, the more I’m loved.”  The race of technology and our disposable mindset urge us to continue to consume.  It can be difficult to buck this kind of pressure and many give in, racking up debt and starting the New Year with the burden of financial stress.

The Drive for Perfectionism

We may put pressure on ourselves to have a perfectly decorated home, bake for all our friends and relatives or create “good things” with the grace of Martha Stewart.  We may set up impossible goals, doomed to failure, or at least, suffering.

“I was up until 4 am assembling homemade cookie mixes for 40 friends and relatives.  Just when I thought it was all over, I still had to cut up my fabric toppers for the jars and tie each with ribbon. My back was aching and all I could think is ‘Why am I doing this?’”

Finding a Balance: 10 Tips

For some, it is these kinds of difficult experiences which bring us to the search for alternatives. For others, the quest for balance is more elusive; the conditions are not yet ripe for change. Yet, all can move towards a more balanced approach by starting with one small step. Trying to follow every suggestion can overwhelm and be unrealistic.  You know yourself and your situation best and will decide which ideas are the most relevant.

If Family is a Source of Stress…

  • Decide on the amount of time you want to spend together and keep wihin that boundary.  If you are hosting an event, specify the time frame. If you are a guest, exit gracefully when it is right for you.
  • A holiday gathering is not a good time to resolve old family conflicts. Keep conversation on the here and now.
  • Limit alcohol, which reduces inhibitions and increases the chance that unresolved family issues could surface and potentially erupt.
  • Opt out of family gatherings by booking a vacation over the holidays.
  • Give yourself permission to say no to family time; do something you want to do instead.

Religious Involvement

  • Decide whether you want to participate in faith-related activities. Define your involvement.  If you don’t want to participate actively, it may be possible to support a loved one’s involvement.
  • Let go of guilt.  Instead, connect with other things which give you meaning and peace.  This could include a snowy walk, an intimate discussion, a period of meditation.

Revising Holiday Activities

  • Instead of hosting a holiday meal for 15, suggest a potluck instead.  Ask others to come by to do the decorating—make a fun time of it.
  • Many children love crafts; it’s the time spent together that’s important, not the craftsmanship.

Limit Spending and Spend Differently

  • Before the holidays start, decide on how much you can afford per person and stay on budget.
  • Restructure gift giving: draw names and purchase one nice gift.
  • Avoid the chaos of the malls by shopping early in the day, choosing a trusted online retailer or frequenting local merchants. Multi-pack gift cards are available at many grocery stores. Consider alternative gifts such as a donation in the person’s name to a worthy charity.