Holly Birkeland finally found the perfect cookie cutter. After three years of baking basic sugar cookies—in other words, forming holiday shapes by hand (gasp!), she and her young kids would finally be able to make the perfect Christmas cookies. But when she excitedly introduced the new kitchen utensil —a gingerbread cookie cutter—the kids were shocked.
“They said, ‘Mom! We can’t break our tradition!’ ” Birkeland says, laughing. “I almost blew it,” adds the marriage and family therapist at Rekindle Counseling in Edina. “I had no idea that while I’d been busy searching for the perfect cookie cutter, my kids were having a blast creating their own creations.”
This was the beginning of a conversation about stress during the holidays, much of which, as exemplified in Birkeland’s story, is self-imposed.
My discussions with two psychologists and one financial planner opened my eyes to unnecessary pressures and stresses during the holidays—and to some strategies we can use to avoid them.
Be responsible for you
Give yourself—and others—some slack. We expect everything, from cookies to family dynamics, to be perfect this time of year. But those are unrealistic expectations that put unnecessary stress on us and on those around us.
So you don’t get along with Aunt Frieda? Relax. It’s normal, says Birkeland, who counsels individuals and couples on ways to live more peaceful and harmonious lives.
“The holidays aren’t the time to expect difficult family members to change,” she says. Instead, she encourages clients to be responsible for themselves—and only themselves. “Suspend the mindset that everyone will get along and things will be perfect. Instead, set an intention that you’re going to be your best self and you’ll enjoy the other people around you.”
Be willing to change
If a certain tradition hasn’t worked for the past 12 years, there’s no use believing this will be the year it will work. So change traditions. That’s what Nancy Van Dyken, a licensed psychologist in Edina, says.
Younger families are often running from one destination to the next, dutifully having fun. Birkland says, “If families are running ragged, I suggest they re-examine their rituals. Maybe spend one year with one set of grandparents and the following year with the other.”
Connect with each other
And while we’re running all over town and frantically checking off our to-do list, we can easily forget about our spouse—who’s often our primary support person to help us deal with all that extra stress.
Birkland says five and a half hours is the minimum amount of time couples need each week to actively connect, engage and feel close. And when time is at a premium during the holidays, time together too often gets forgotten.
“Take 15 minutes after dinner and really talk,” Birkeland says. “Turn off the TV, put down the phone and really engage, like when you were dating.”
She also suggests creating special traditions for just the two of you. In other words, put the kids to bed on Christmas Eve, pour some wine and exchange gifts with each other.
Keep your spending in check
Holiday spending can get out of hand—fast. “Most people spend lots of money shopping during the holidays and then dread getting their credit card bill in January,” says Andrea Eaton, certified financial planner. “They spend the rest of the year paying it off, and when December comes, they do it all over again.”
Instead, she suggests spending money mindfully on gifts that recipients will truly appreciate and remember. Van Dyken seconds that. To keep herself in check, she purchases four gifts for her grandkids: something to wear, something to read, something they want and something they need.
If you come across an expensive but seemingly necessary purchase, wait. “In 72 hours if it’s still on your mind, then go back and buy it,” says Eaton.
As I finish up this article, I’m making a grocery list that includes butter, eggs and sugar. I’m getting ready to bake sugar cookies with my kids. But this time, I think I’ll skip the cookie cutter.