As if we aren’t all busy enough, December rolls around and we try to add more activities to our already full calendar. Shopping for presents. Mailing cards. Baking cookies. Attending parties. Hanging decorations. Trimming the tree. Visiting Santa. Taking pictures. Getting together with family. Writing this article for my boss (just kidding!) And all of the little tasks that are included in each of these big ones. We sing about peace and joy, but allow the business of the holiday to rob both from our lives. And that baby in the manger? We forget about him entirely while trying to make Christmas happen.

We often put unrealistic expectations on ourselves to make the holidays “perfect,” as if that were even possible. We romanticize memories from our childhood and try to make treats just like Grandma used to make. We forget that Grandma didn’t work a 40 hour week and still have to run the kids to basketball and tumbling after they were picked up from day care. Or we try to make up for not having those memories of our own childhood by making things “perfect” for our kids. Trying too hard will only rob your children of memories in a different way: instead of remembering the lack, they will remember the tension of trying too hard. So what to do? Presented below are some ideas of how to let go of holiday expectations and stress to really begin to enjoy your Christmas.

1. Remember what the holiday is really all about. Ever watch the news on Christmas Eve and hear the “man on the street” interviewing passers-by about what the holiday means to them? The typical answer is that it is about family and friends and being together. WRONG! It’s about Jesus. The baby in the manger. Make sure you leave room for him in your celebration.

2. Focus on the people more than the things. Ok, it is about Family and Friends a little bit! Someone recently asked a group of my friends what was their favorite memory of a Christmas present. Very few said that they remembered their presents at all, but that their cherished memories were of people and activities. Remember that when searching for the perfect present. By next December, people will have a hard time remembering what you GAVE, but they will remember what you DID together.

3. Set realistic boundaries when spending time with family and friends. It would be nice if we all had family members who were considerate of others and fun to be around. But often these are the same people in the bad memories from your Christmases Past. If you have a family member that is not emotionally safe for you, do not feel that you have to expose yourself to them just because it is the holidays. If you do attend gatherings with them, arrive late and leave early to limit stress. If family members are too spread out, find ways to celebrate with those who are important to you without putting hundreds of miles on the family sleigh in just one day. Give up on the idea that you can make everyone happy, and do what is best for you and the people who live under your roof.

4. When it comes to presents, less is more. You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to show someone you care. Heartfelt gifts that show that you really know the other person are more meaningful. Homemade gifts can easily fit this bill, especially from your children. Set a budget you can afford, and stick with it. Don’t let other’s extravagant spending make you waiver...they will not be paying off your credit card bills come January!

5. Put a limit on activities, too. How many Christmas cookies does one family need? And you know they are all going to have to come off with your New Year’s Resolution anyway, so make it easier on yourself by not adding them to your waistline in the first place! Try making a favorite for each family member. Or make a double batch one type and attend a cookie exchange to get a variety of cookies to sample. Do shopping online if fighting the crowd at the mall makes you shutter. Cut back on (or eliminate) your Christmas Card List. Put up only your favorite decorations. Enlist others to help with all of these tasks.

Several years ago, I decided that as a working woman, cookies just weren’t happening. My husband wanted to continue this tradition, so he took it over. I started shopping online instead of fighting the stores. I set limits on when and where I would travel to attend family celebrations. I have to say that my holidays were much less stressful with just these few changes. Once my circumstances changed, I added some things back in, but took others out, as fit my life at the time. I challenge you to do the same. Let’s boil our Christmas celebration down to the bare essentials, and only leave those things in that add to our enjoyment of the season, not take away from it. And remember Jesus, who’s birthday we are celebrating. Maybe with a few less activities, we may even find time for him.

Written by Rachael DeWitt, LCSW