A Survival Guide for Anyone Feeling Holiday Stress, Which is Everyone

holiday stress holiday stress

Who was the genius that looked at the calendar and thought “Let’s make the final six weeks of the year as stressful as humanly possible?” And we’ve just come to accept that it’s OK to usher in each new year like feeble baby giraffes recovering from full fledged nervous breakdowns.

But do not despair, for lo, I bring you great tidings of possible joy! If the reason for our annual holiday burnout is unrealistic expectations, then the solution must be… wait for it… realistic expectations. Here are five ways to get you into the holiday headspace you deserve:

1) Make a list, check it twice, then burn it (AKA “Don’t do stuff you hate.”)

The holidays are, in theory, the most wonderful time of the year, so if you’re having a bad time, what can you change up? Here’s one step in the right direction that is so simple it should seem obvious, but isn’t: Write down everything you think you “need” to do this holiday season, then circle all the stuff you genuinely hate, and don’t do it. Seriously.

You might find this hard to do because you’re worried that you’ll be letting other people down. But are you, really? People expect you to do things because you do them. If you stop, they’ll expect something else. [And if stopping will actually cause a person in your life to feel let down… well, that’s a whole ‘nother thing and something you really need to sit and have a good think about.] Bottom line: This is as much your holiday as it is anybody else’s, and it shouldn’t take you being miserable to make someone else happy.

There is no limit to the things you can (and should!) excise from your personal holiday lift, but start by picking the one thing you hate the most, take the year off from it, and allow yourself to be amazed at how everyone manages to survive without it. For me, that was holiday baking. I’ve been a professional chef and food writer for over half my life, and in my younger days, I loved making festive treats for all the lucky people in my life. Then I had kids and really didn’t have the bandwidth. Still, even during years when I had no time and was stressed beyond belief, I committed to holiday baking because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. But then one year I couldn’t do any holiday baking because of a nasty flu that had its way with every single member of my household, and you know what happened? Nothing. Some people voiced their disappointment, but the fact they were more upset with the absence of cookies than they were about the fact I’d spent two weeks locked in a house with puking toddlers showed me they weren’t deserving of my baking in the first place. Now, if I do choose to do any holiday baking, it’s only because I want to, and the only people who benefit are ones that aren’t entitled jerks.

Once you scratch one thing from your holiday must-dos, you realize that you’ve freed up a ton of time to do things that actually make you happy, and it takes just a single taste of freedom to make you realize that there’s more to the holidays than overscheduling and anxiety attacks. Come next year, you’ll be able to drop another thing that no longer serves you, and another, and another. You only get so many holidays to celebrate in this life, and not a single one should be wasted.

2) If you hate the heat, stay out of the kitchen. 

If you genuinely love cooking, then cook away! Do you enjoy your recreational yuletide baking? Then make as much time for it as possible. (And maybe ask yourself why, if it makes you happy, you don’t do it all year round?) But if being in the kitchen stresses you out, or you’re bad at it, or you hate doing dishes, then leave the cooking to the professionals. There’s no shortage of restaurants, bakeries, and other small food businesses that desperately need your support, this year more than ever. Outsourcing the cooking is an investment in yourself and your community, so really, you should feel pretty good about this shortcut.

And instead of shipping homemade holiday cookies across the country, why not skip both the baking and the post office, and send out gift certificates to your loved ones’ favorite coffee shop, or a nearby bakery so they can pick out their favorite treat? We all know that there are way too many cookies around during the holidays, to the point where we can become cookie-fatigued. Come January, though, when the whole world goes diet-crazy, everyone you know will be in serious cookie withdrawal and will be so grateful that you helped them plan ahead for such an emergency.

As for holiday dinner, it’s hard to have fun with the people you love when you’re tethered to a stove, and everyone will (hopefully) treasure time spent with you more than they care about what they’re having for dinner. When guests ask if they can bring anything, take them up on the offer! Or consider a potluck situation, where everyone brings a dish special to their family, which will bring everyone closer together.

3) Make your life better by bartering.

Everyone has a special talent they love doing/ making, and to survive the holidays, it’s not too shabby of an idea to volunteer your talents to friends and family who may need some extra help, in exchange for their special talents. I have a friend who actually enjoys cleaning, so I let her organize my kitchen while I wrap all her Christmas presents. (I am very good at gift wrapping.) We both get something we need, we both get to do something we enjoy, and we get to spend time together to boot.

4) Utilize weekdays.

Yep, when you can, do things in the middle of the week while everyone else is busy. Whether it’s shopping, holiday-ish activities, whatever, take advantage of your company’s PTO policy, and just do it. Go to the ice skating rink straight after school; hit up movie and theater matinees when the kids have half days. On the weekend, let the masses fight each other for shreds of holiday spirit, while you sit comfortably on the couch sipping eggnog and watching cartoons.

5) Make up your own traditions.

Before holiday traditions were traditions, they were just things that some people did. Who were these people? If you have no answer, should you be allowing these mysterious strangers from days of yore to dictate your present actions?

In my four-person family, none of us are all too fond of Thanksgiving dinner, and with our work schedules, it’s impossible for us to travel for the holiday. Instead of staying at home roasting a turkey none of us are particularly excited about, we take a family trip to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. (we live in nearby Baltimore), followed by dinner at one of our favorite Indian restaurants. Just because it’s not the same thing everyone else is doing doesn’t mean it’s not a tradition. Best part, it feels even more special than the holiday we’re “supposed” to have, because it 100% belongs to us, and nobody else.

Another major hurdle to having an “authentic” holiday experience is the sheer cost of all these events, activities, gifts, decorations, dinners… no one should have to go into debt to have the sort of holidays they deserve! Instead of taking the whole family to see The Nutcracker if tickets cost an arm and a leg, why not stage a (hilarious) version of your own with some friends? Scratch anything from your list that involves traffic or long lines, and think about other things you can do instead. Let every member of your family offer up ideas, and design new traditions based on the things you truly love, together.

The holidays aren’t about old timey ghosts, or multibillion dollar corporations, or any other entity that feels it has the right to tell you how it all should go. The holidays—and the very concept of tradition itself— is about you. The people you love, the joy in your life, the beauty you see in the world — that is what matters, and what you’re supposed to build your traditions around. The best kind of holiday magic isn’t bought or sold. It’s the kind you make yourself.

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Allison Robicelli is a James Beard-nominated writer, bestselling author and D-list celebrity chef who's been published in Food & Wine, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and Bon Appetit, among other places. Tweet her at @robicellis, then buy all her books. She's got two kids to feed.