03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Five Ways to Avoid Christmas Angst

I'm one of those people who knock the holiday season as commercial and overdone. I complain about the music, the crowds, and the expectations. Yet secretly, underneath all of this angst, is a sentimentality that's more maudlin than a Hallmark commercial and more heart-rending than a Walton's Christmas special. The site of children dressed in velvet and shiny shoes makes me teary-eyed, and not just because I'm remembering the blisters and itches of my own childhood. Modern-day Rockwell scenes of family togetherness make me feel sappy and then, of course, there are animated Coca-Cola commercials, Budweiser horses, and Hermey the misfit, Ted Koppel-looking elf who really wants to be a dentist. What kind of heartless Grinch would I be if couldn't cry over the plight of Rudolph and his misfit friend?

During this season, it doesn't matter that I'm not Christian. There are two sides to Christmas - one that's religious and another that's about pushing every mushy, maudlin button a person of any religion (or even none) can have. Clearly, I'm a sucker for the latter category. Smiling polar bears and dancing penguins just make me happy.

The downside to all this open-hearted December button-pushing is that it leaves many of us feeling over-sensitive. The joy of one thing, such as family togetherness, can be easily marred by a stray comment or slight misunderstanding, which, at any other time of the year, wouldn't be taken to heart quite as much. Then there are those without families -- or with families whose dysfunctions have made togetherness impossible -- who feel particularly pained at being on the outside, looking in on comfortable other-family scenes that they've never known for themselves.

In the interest of keeping the holidays happy and as free from angst as possible, I offer up these five suggestions:

  • During holiday get-togethers, don't bring up something from the past unless it's pleasant. This just isn't the time to remind family and friends and of their failures, embarrassments, or shortcomings. Be gentle with others and if you need to, remind them that you'd like to be treated gently, too.
  • Don't buy gifts for someone who has asked you not to. When someone tells you that they prefer not to exchange gifts, believe them. It can make people feel badly when they receive something and don't have anything to give in return. If the urge to give is overwhelming, make it non-material.
  • Remember that one of the best gifts to give is your time. Making quality time for people who love you is far more appreciated than anything that comes in a box. And giving time in a way that lightens someone else's load is an active, nurturing expression of love - offering to run errands, help with housework, or do other chores - shows a kind of care that Hallmark just can't compete with.
  • Don't be lavish when simple will do. Too many people, especially women, tend to go all out at the holidays, spending hours orchestrating the "perfect" holiday party, when what really matters has nothing to do with an excess of food and dècor. If the pressure feels high, turn it down. Stress is just not festive. There's no reason that Christmas shouldn't share some of the relaxed spirit of a holiday like the 4th of July. Few people really care if their napkin is paper or linen, or if the gravy is served up with the good silver ladle. Relax.
  • Keep your expectations reasonable and your sense of humor intact. There's no magical holiday dust that makes people perfect or more (understanding, kind, psychic, fill-in-the-blank) at this time of the year. The aunt who habitually whines about her aches, or the brother who recycles gifts, will still be who they are. Love and family are year-round, and one day isn't a definitive summary of all that's good, bad, and in-between. Try to enjoy people for who they are, flaws and all, and not for what you wish them to be.

Lastly, no matter what the head elf says, you don't have to spend your life doing things that aren't in your heart to do. Whether you want to be a dentist, a wanderer, a lover, or a writer ... all things are possible.

I wish you all a kind, happy, loving, and beautifully easy holiday season.

Jane Devin is on a year-long writing journey which can be followed at