Believe it or not, I’ve already started Christmas shopping for next year.
With a big family and a small budget, it’s the best way I’ve found to make Christmas special. Quite apart from practical considerations, I love how it makes the spirit of Christmas last the whole year. When I see something I know someone would like (at a store, at a garage sale, at a fundraiser, wherever), I buy it and put it in the back of my closet for Christmas. Being on the lookout for special things for special people throughout the year allows me to savor the experience of gifting. Instead of being a December have-to-do, it’s a pleasure. Instead of feeling pressured to find the perfect something in crowded malls during the holiday season, I’m delighted by the surprises I find as I just go about daily life.
Getting a family ready for the holidays also is something that can happen throughout the year. In fact, it should happen all year long. Families are inevitably complicated. You may be blessed to have a stress-free, loving family that is perfect in every way, in which case you don’t need to read further. Most of us, though, have someone or maybe even several someones who make the holidays hard to thoroughly enjoy. If you’re lucky, you only have a Scrooge or two to humor through a dinner or holiday event. If you are unfortunate enough to have a whole family of Scrooges who humbug through the holiday season and who seem to enjoy making other people as miserable as they are, you have your work cut out for you.
It can be done. Holidays don’t have to be hell-days if you take a running start and begin the work of changing how family members treat each other now. It all begins with you. It’s just plain true that you can’t make someone change. But you can change how you act and react in relation to your relations. Since families are like any ecological system, if you can change your responses to snipes and bites, you can begin to set the dominoes of change in motion.
11 months and counting:
- January: A time for reflection. It’s important to take stock of the successes of Christmas past. Those are the foundation for more positive experiences. What worked this past year? What went well? Were there any pleasant surprises? What do you want to be sure to repeat next Thanksgiving and through the December holidays? Think about how to continue whatever was positive and relaxed. A good start is to share pictures and stories that remind others that there were some bright spots even if things were generally tough.
Then there’s the down side: What stressed you and others over the holidays usually isn’t new information. The same people tend to do the same less-than-wonderful things at family gatherings. Make a list of the three things you most want to change. Next to each one, make a note of one small thing you can do regularly over the next 10 months to change how you react to it. A resolution to follow through is a resolution worth keeping. Start now.
- February: Valentine’s Day is the perfect occasion to set something new in motion with the grumps in your family. Find something to love about each one. Failing that, find something to admire. For example: Someone who always manages to be late can be admired for their consistency. Someone who unfailingly makes a comment about people’s weight can be admired for their predictability. By admiring negative traits with a sense of humor, you put yourself in a place that is less reactive. Practice thinking this way and you’ll be strengthening your resistance to getting snared in the usual family drama.
Now send everyone in the family a Valentine. Send them two. Let the people you love know you love them. Let the people you wish you loved more know they are important in your life.
- March: Don’t you just love the name of the month? You’re on the march now to make your family more what you want it to be. St. Patrick’s Day isn’t only for the Irish. St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. Work on driving the snakes (negativity, criticism, putdowns) out of your family. Find little reasons to make contact with family members with little tidbits of information, jokes, or forwards. Politely decline any invitations to fight. Find excuses to send a little loving their way.
- April: Be an April Friend, not an April Fool. Make a promise to continue what you’ve begun. Surprise people with compliments and cards. Catch the kids being good and right as much as you can. Make sure you make positive physical contact with each member of your family at least twice a day. A pat on the shoulder, a little squeeze of the hand or a hug lets people know you notice them and love them.
- May: Spring. A time of renewal. Get back to the list of the family strengths and positives you made in January. Send people spring flowers in the form of notes and emails, letting them know what you appreciate and like about them. Deliver flowers to elders. Put little notes in the kids’ lunchboxes. Be as sappy as you like. It’s that time of year.
- Summertime: Vacation time. Summer months are a perfect time to start rehearsing for the holidays. Make short visits with the people you spend the holidays with. Practice reacting differently to any negativity. Someone starts drinking too much? Simply give them a hug and tell them they’re entitled to drink if they like but you are so uncomfortable with it that you’ll see them another time. Someone criticizes your kids or tells you your bathing suit makes you look fat, tell them how much you appreciate their concern and move on. No sarcasm, please. You’re working on modeling a different kind of behavior.
By the way: This is a great time to get the kids involved in making things they’ll give as gifts for the holidays. Craft projects keep little hands busy and secrets make the tasks even sweeter. This is also the time to enlist the kids in discovering “finds” at garage sales and summer sales. Finding that special something for relatives, teachers, and friends can become a family game.
- September: New school year. New starts. The time to talk about any major change in how the holidays will be spent is now. People need time to work out compromises and to get used to change. If you’ve always gone to your in-laws’ but it’s become too burdensome to get the kids and gear rounded up to go, start talking about what might work better. If the older generation is getting up there in age, think about ways to make the holiday travel, meals, and celebrations easier on them. Talk about it with everyone. People who feel left out generally act out. People who feel included will generally do their best to be helpful.
- October: Don’t be tricked. Family holidays can be a treat. The secret is to plan ahead. Early in the month, sit down with a calendar and plan out the holiday season. By spreading tasks over the next six to eight weeks, you’ll feel in control when Thanksgiving rolls around. Plan a budget you can commit to. Plan ways to keep your own stress down.
- November and December: Here they come! The holidays! Stick to your schedule, budget, and lists. Think ahead about how the family gatherings generally go. Practice scenarios in your head or talk with your partner about positive ways to manage whatever usual stressors usually stress you. Come up with a number of ways to handle them more gracefully. Remember that flexibility is the key to managing competing needs. Make sure you have an exit plan if things get too hard during a holiday visit. Emphasize the positive. Focus on gratitude. Practice those random acts of kindness. Even if family members don’t respond as you’d like, you’ll leave the holiday season feeling good about yourself and your role in the family scene.
If you’d like more specific suggestions for how to make your holidays bright, my e-book, Tending the Family Heart through the Holidays is chock full of advice for nurturing the family through holiday celebrations. PsychCentral makes it available to you for only 99 cents for either Kindle or Nook e-readers.