Simplify the Holidays to Preserve Your Sanity

My parents do a beautiful job with decorating for Christmas – they always have. Every year they get a real live tree. They have a couple of hundred of beautiful ornaments, as well as garlands and other assorted decorations. The tree is always put up at least two weeks before Christmas. Granted, they’re retired, but it was always like this even when they both were working.

In contrast, my husband and I broke down a couple of years ago and got a fake tree (I love the smell of evergreens, but it’s not enough to counter the expense of a live tree and the cleanup). I feel virtuous if we get the tree up a week before Christmas, and it’s been done on Christmas Eve on more than one occasion. It took me a long time to let go of my parents’ standards and to stop feeling guilty if I didn’t live up to them.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Christmas. I have some great memories of Christmas, especially sensory memories. The smell of evergreen and mulled cider, the sound of Christmas music and the dazzling display on the tree. They were such an essential part of my childhood that I’m ensuring that my son has some of the same experiences. Last year we had his best friend over to decorate Christmas cookies.

But, oh my gosh. It can be stressful. Let’s face it, those childhood memories generally don’t involve spending every weekend in crowded shopping malls finding the perfect present, opening the credit card bill in January, cooking and cleaning for fifteen people and basically running around like a chicken with your head cut off. We’re always struggling to live up to an ideal that is literally impossible to match, unless we’re Martha Stewart. And really, at least half of the people who read her magazine are trying to emulate an ideal, but usually just don’t have the time, right?

And if you have clinical depression? When it comes to the holidays, if you have depression, be good to yourself and don’t try to live up to those standards. Whatever enjoyment you’re able to get out of the season will be utterly crushed if you stress yourself out. Keep the holiday season low key and try to simplify as much as you can. I went through twenty holiday seasons with either dysthymia or major depression, so I’m a pro. I have two main suggestions on how to accomplish this.

1. Don’t try to focus on everything; don’t try to do everything. You can’t. Decide what appeals to you most about the holidays. Is it cooking great holiday food? Beautiful choral music or kitschy Christmas songs? Giving presents? Decorating? Prioritize those things in order of importance to you and decide to focus on just the top one or two things. You can always focus on one or two different things next year.

2. Simplify gift-giving. Let’s face it. Giving gifts can be enjoyable if you’ve got enough mental and physical energy to shop extensively to find the right gift for everyone on your list. When you’re depressed, this is kind of unlikely, especially if you have a large family. You might want to consider the tried and true method of each person drawing a name and just gifting that person. Or everyone could agree just to give presents to the children. Unless your family is one of the few that hasn’t been affected by the recession, probably everyone will be relieved at the idea of cutting down on gift-giving.

Another idea is to give everyone the same thing – something everyone needs, not something weird. I had an uncle, bless his heart, who used to give everyone the same present at Christmas, but it was always something odd, like a padded toilet seat. A few years ago I gave everyone one of those flashlights that you charge up by shaking. Not exciting, mind you, but a particularly good idea here in earthquake country.

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