There is no time of greater expectations -- or disappointment when those expectations aren't met -- than the holidays. It's a period when every blemish of your life comes under a magnifying glass: Your imperfect marriage, your imperfect children, your imperfect job/house/friends, and even your imperfect checking account are all there rearing their ugly imperfect heads.
For years, I blamed my unrealistic holiday expectations on those vanilla pudding sitcoms I grew up with. While Robert Young spewed pearls of fatherly wisdom to his little "Princess" on "Father Knows Best," my own family just never measured up to those never-screaming, always-nurturing Andersons. Never did the Andersons have an uncle who showed up drunk to Thanksgiving nor did Father Jim Anderson ever find himself scrambling for gifts in the open-til-midnight drugstore on Christmas Eve. For years well into my adulthood, I always exited the holiday season feeling that Mother Margaret Anderson would have pulled off another Hallmark-perfect holiday and mine surely wasn't.
But there's a new me in the saddle these days, one who benefits from the lessons learned over six decades. If I may share:
Overspending will only buy you a financial hangover.
All year long, we count our pennies and pride ourselves on sticking to a budget. We clip coupons, delay purchases and resist impulse-buying. Come the holidays, we spend like a drunken sailor on leave.
No, it's not the American way. Maybe it used to be, but welcome to post-recession 2013 folks. Give generously of your love and don't part with your credit card lightly. You will only regret it come January. And there is no greater stress than the one that comes with the feeling that you can't pay your bills.
Do things because you want to do them, not because you are expected to.
The only obligations I feel nowadays are to my family, my close friends and my job. I need all of them. Every other demand on my time falls under the heading of "optional." In discovering this course, I know I've hurt some well-intended neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances. I'm sorry for that, but with just 24 hours in a day, I can't please everyone. I'm down with that.
Some things are just silly. Stop doing the silly.
Long, long ago in a lifetime before Instagram and Facebook, people took their vacation photos and made them into holiday greeting cards that were sent by snail mail. For those who were seriously into piling on stress, they would also send out a holiday letter detailing all of the year's accomplishments. "Here's our new car, our new vacation home, our new boat!" Then it got uncool to brag about things, or maybe we just don't think "Lost our home in March!" has the same ring to it.
If I see you every day in the office or at school, there is no need to send me a holiday card. Just wish me good wishes and I'll do the same. As for the brag letter, that's why we have Facebook isn't it?
Push some social obligations into January.
People always feel the need to throw holiday parties in December, a time when everyone's social calendar is crammed to the rafters. I've learned to say no instead of trying to juggle three events in one day.
And please don't contribute to the madness by trying to hold your own party and then get upset when people can't come because they have other events to attend. Why not throw your dinner party in January, when nothing is going on?
Stockpile gifts so that you don't have to scramble.
I buy a stack of gift cards and keep them handy. I invariably forget to buy something for the coach, the tutor, the school bus driver who wakes up my daughter when she sleeps through our stop. Not everyone drinks coffee or shares your love of Starbucks, but everybody can use money; I make it a MasterCard or Visa gift card that can be used anywhere.
Is a gift card less personal than something I would pick out? You bet it is. It is also likely more appreciated.
Give generously ... to those who need it.
Charity is good for the soul. It feels much better to give to someone with nothing than someone with everything. So do that. Write a check to Mr. I Have Everything's favorite charity.
It's easy. It's quick. And it's the best way to spend money.
Give generously... to yourself.
A healthy dose of selfishness is the real cure for holiday stress. Accept the fact you can't be all things to all people and treat yourself to some me-first time. I know it runs contrary to the expectation that this is a time of giving. Think of it as giving to yourself. Go ahead. You deserve it.
Me time for me means telling the boss that I'll be at my kids' holiday concert instead of my desk. It also means telling my husband that no, I don't want to go anywhere for New Year's Eve. My best friend and I have already agreed to skip the holiday gift exchange and instead go away together for a girls' weekend in January.
Shortcuts you take will be noticed only by you.
One Thanksgiving, a friend showed up with an elaborate tray of wonderful moist cookies, beautifully plated and wrapped in colored cellophane. Her dessert was devoured by all to rave reviews; my made-from-scratch apple and pumpkin pies went largely untouched. It was one of my kids who outted her. "Mom, can you buy more of these cookies? I had them at Rayah's house last week and her mom got them at Ralph's."
Presentation, like many things in life, is everything.
Sure everyone has gathered at sister Sue's house every holiday since the beginning of time. How many times have you said to yourself: "Self, just once I'd like to spend the holiday in my own house."
So what are you waiting for?
For midlifers whose adult children have families of their own, why not let the grandkids open first-night Chanukah gifts in their own homes? Ditto for Christmas morning. Traditions are lovely but eventually must fade to time. If you are together, does it really matter where?
Dare to dream.
My best holiday season was the one we sat out. We got both sides of the family mad at us and took a beach vacation. It was lovely. By the way, planes aren't as crowded if you travel on the day of the holiday.