Well, here we are, smack-dab in the middle of what so many people tell us is “the most wonderful time of the year.” And yes, it can be, or it can be pure misery. It’s all in how we approach it.
This time around, my post is going to be just a little less dog-specific and more about how to get through the holidays with our sanity intact. Although, of course, you know there’s a dog angle, right? The angle is that what affects us inevitably affects our dogs (which is something I recently talked about in What Happens to Your Dog When You Divorce?). So if we’re stressed beyond measure during the holidays, you can bet that our dogs pick up on that, and nerves can end up very frayed for both the human and canine members of the household.
So how do we keep that awful holiday stress at bay? Before we get into details, let me tell you about my worst Christmas ever, and my best one. Both involved Janice and Leroy.
I’d barely gotten settled into my new house, and Janice and Leroy were just coming into adolescence, so they were a handful. I wanted to do Christmas up perfectly, so I’d been shopping like crazy, trying to afford gifts for everyone I cared about, on a call center income. My credit cards were reaching their limits, but I figured I’d worry about that come New Year’s. I was also determined to cook a big Christmas dinner and invite friends and family.
As to decorating well, I had a new house; need I say more? Everything had to be perfect. I debated for weeks over the “natural vs. artificial tree” issue, and finally settled on a funky retro white artificial. Naturally, one starts with the lights, right? So I had them all on the tree after probably three hours of loving attention and positioning before half of the top strand went out. Of course, I had started from the top. So I fiddled and frigged with the bulbs but couldn’t get the rest of the strand to come on. I carefully removed the strand and then headed off to the store for another string in the same color.
Unfortunately, I had inherited my lights from my mom, so that particular shade of blue was no longer available. I had to buy all new lights.
Now, here’s where things get really rough. I’d left the bad string on the sofa, and when I got home, I discovered that Janice and/or Leroy had eaten part of the string. With no way of knowing who the culprit was, I had to rush them both off to the vet for x-rays. Fortunately they were both fine, no thanks to my carelessness.
When we got home, I figured I’d just relax with a cup of hot chocolate and do up the tree the following day. I just got settled under a blanket with my remote in hand, preparing to watch some Christmas movies on TV (still trying to preserve my holiday mood) when Janice decided it was time to get up in my lap and sent hot chocolate flying all over me, the sofa, the rug, and even the tree. I lost it and shouted at her, telling her what a horrible dog she was. Then I spent the rest of the evening feeling like the worst person in the world and trying to make it up to her.
I’d been trying to do too much, while worrying about spending too much, and was so obsessed about getting everything right that I completely lost the meaning of the season, which is supposed to be peace, love and joy – things that none of us were feeling right about then.
It got even worse later, but I guess that’s enough of the nasty details for you to get my point. We won’t talk about Christmas dinner.
A Holly Jolly Christmas
This story will be a little briefer. My best Christmas ever was a few years ago. I’d left my call center job and was working from home, freelance writing. I’d given up the security of my poverty-level job, and money was slow coming in, but I had a roof over my head, and Janice, Leroy and I all had enough to eat. Thanks to some careful financial management, my credit cards were no longer maxed, but I’d resolved that year to only buy modest gifts, and only for people who really, really mattered to me.
As to decorating, I’d strung a few lights and bought an inexpensive pre-decorated Norfolk pine from Wal-Mart to put on the antique sideboard I’d inherited from my grandmother. All done.
Christmas dinner was Chinese takeout (no guests). Then, after my repast, I loaded Janice and Leroy into the car, and we drove into a nice part of town. I parked in a likely-looking spot, and snapped on their leashes. Then we wandered the blocks, looking at all the work other people had put into their Christmas decorations.
We went home exhausted and happy. No one got yelled at; no one was stressed; and we all slept with visions of sugarplums and Milk-Bones dancing in our heads. It was the best Christmas ever.
So When Did Stress Become a Tradition?
I wish I knew when stress became the norm for the holidays rather than an unwanted aberration. I remember when I was a kid, Christmas seemed like such a peaceful time. Sure, it was exciting, but I don’t recall my parents (or anyone else’s, for that matter) obsessing about getting things just right, or not being able to afford whatever we kids wanted. Some years, if Dad’s work was going well, there was bounty under the tree. Other years, not quite so much.
If we didn’t get the decorations up until the week before Christmas, no one panicked; we’d just leave them up a little longer after the big day. If the turkey ended up being a bit dry, there was still plenty of stuffing and vegetables. We knew, I suppose, that the holidays were to be enjoyed on whatever terms the fates chose to deliver.
So, to get (finally) to the point, my take on it is that we need to get back to those values, and relearn how to have an enjoyable, stress-free Christmas. And I think a lot of that hinges just on understanding how to say, “No”, not just to people who are making demands of us at this time of year but to ourselves as well.
A lot of the time, we tend to make outrageous demands on ourselves, and to cave into the demands made by others. Just because you’ve always coordinated the company Christmas party, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do it this year. Just because you’ve always spent Christmas Eve with your brother and his wife, that doesn’t mean that it’s not okay to take a pass this time around. And just because you’ve baked cookies for your kid’s Christmas party at school three years running, that’s no reason why you can’t just say “No” this year.
Too Many Parties?
This is another area where we can all end up ridiculously over-committed. Sure, it’s nice to socialize over the holidays, but if you find yourself racing from Point A to Point B to Point C and beyond, scale it back a bit. Simply explain that you’d love to attend, but you just have too much on the go, and suggest getting together for coffee after the holidays.
I know that sounds counterintuitive when it comes to Christmas, since it’s supposed to be a time of giving and generosity, but you can’t be all things to all people, and when you try to do that, you’re shortchanging yourself and those who are nearest and dearest to you – kind of like what I did to Janice and Leroy during that awful time.
So, do things that please you, and those closest to you. Work on the relationships that really matter and don’t waste time on things that you’re not really committed to and that will matter little once the holidays are over. Otherwise, you’re just going to end up tired and cranky, and you will have missed out on the joy of the season.
Don’t Make Excuses
If you are asked to do something that you’d prefer to take a pass on, don’t lie or make excuses; it could come back to bite you later if you forget the story you made up to avoid what you were asked or expected to do. Just say, “I’m so sorry, but I have plans.” No one needs to know that your plans involved drinking hot cider while channel-surfing.
Don’t Go Overboard on Gifts
Nothing says love like maxing the plastic, right? Wrong. There’s no shame in telling family and friends that you’re going to be scaling it back a bit. Suggest drawing names if you think others will be amenable. If that makes you uncomfortable why not try making gifts? I’m handy in the kitchen, so recipients on my gift list often end up with jars of homemade preserves. If you knit, everyone loves handmade socks or mittens. Everyone has a talent, so put yours to use.
Turn Down Work
Yes, really! I know that this is the time of year when everyone seems to want extra hours to help pay for all those gifts they’re buying but, since you know now that there are alternatives to going spend-happy, why not let others who haven’t caught on cover the slack while you take some time for yourself?
I used to be the worst one, too, for saying “Sure, I’ll cover your shift,” or for falling into that age-old trap where a supervisor would say, “Ash, you don’t have kids, so how about working Christmas Day so Bill can spend it with his family?”
I wouldn’t do that anymore. Bill would be what my sister Colleen calls “SOL.” I know that the last two letters stand for “Out of Luck.” I’m not sure, but I think the whole phrase is something like “Seriously Out of Luck.” I’d just point out that I have family too – Janice and Leroy – and that I want to spend Christmas with them.
Sure, Christmas is a time for giving but choose whom you’re going to give to, and why. Someone is going to have to work Christmas Day and during the days leading up to it, but it doesn’t always have to be you.
Don’t Feel You Have to Open Up Your Home
Here’s another thing I used to get a lot: “Ash, you’ve got that empty house at Christmas, and I know some people who are going to be in town and could use a place to stay…”
No. Just NO. Keep them away, because it’s a lot easier to do that than it is to get rid of them once they’ve overstayed their welcome. Give them a list of hotels.
If you’re asked to host the family dinner, don’t get in over your head. There’s no reason why you have to try to do what I did, which was fix a huge turkey dinner with all the trimmings. There’s no reason why you can’t welcome your family and friends for Christmas dinner if it’s not going to be too onerous, but there’s also no reason why you can’t ask everyone to bring a dish and then serve it up buffet-style.
The Final Word
We lose so much when we try to give too much. The holidays are supposed to be a time of coming together, not wallowing in stress because we’re over-extended financially and emotionally. I will never subject Janice and Leroy to “Jingle Hell” again, and I hope that you won’t do it to yourself and your dogs.
Remember what Christmas is all about; it’s Christmas, not “Stressmas.” So pull back, regroup, and enjoy. Have yourself a stress-free little Christmas