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Last year at the holidays, I was recovering from an ankle break and surgery. While the pain was no fun, the upshot was that I was forced to rethink my approach to this bustling season.

With limited energy and mobility, I didn’t attend every social gathering. I skipped the mall and did some online shopping instead, and I cut way back on the amount of gifts given. For decorations, we kept it simple: My husband put up the tree and hung a wreath outside, but we didn’t hang our usual light display.

Curiously, I didn’t find myself missing out. Instead, this minimalist Christmas approach was a breath of fresh air. I found that I enjoyed get-togethers more because I was focused on the people rather than the “stuff,” and I could finally let go of all the “shoulds” we set for ourselves. I was grateful to have my family and health, and I could work on my recovery. It didn’t matter one iota that some ornaments would remain in boxes that year.

This year, the conversation surrounding holiday stress returned between coworkers, girlfriends, and my social-media channels. We promoted the “7 Tips for a Saner Holiday” on the Experience Life Instagram page and received a great response. Clearly, we’re all having a hard time escaping the marketing and culture of the holiday should-dos and must-dos, and we’re feeling the stress.

When I was in a holiday-stress conversation recently, my response was most likely a bit maddening for the crowd:

I avoid holiday stress by simply doing less.

Easier said than done? Perhaps. But I kept my perspective from last year in mind.

On gift-giving, I think:

Do I need to buy a gift for my second cousin? She’d probably prefer a hiking adventure with me instead of another candle. (Or she might even be relieved to be off the hook from the gift-giving pressure.)

Who sets the rules for how many gifts you should give? Yourself? Cut back, give experiences, or donate to charity in someone’s name — think of all those who have so much less than you in this world. If you are truly getting joy from gifting to your kid’s school-bus driver, then so be it. If not, why not write a nice note instead? A thoughtful thank you may mean even more to him or her.

On my to-do list, I plan, delegate, and delete as such:

  • We have a set budget each year, and a core group we purchase material goods for, so throughout the year, I keep my eyes open for items they’d like. If I haven’t purchased earlier, I do my shopping online in early November. This year, I started my Christmas card mailing the week of Thanksgiving. Wrapping gets spread out when we have time, but my goal is always to have the majority of this done by the second weekend of the month. That gives me space for any last-minute purchases or DIY projects to make and share.
  • Not that I’m a cheap hostess, but if I have guests coming, I suggest a potluck. We make the main dish, and my friends bring the sides. I remind them homemade is not a must if they are short on time; the deli section abounds with ready-made salads and rice pilafs. If the group is small, I let them know they can prep and cook at my house, too.
  • We review what activities gave us the most joy last year, and we only plan for those outings. As our daughter grows, this will change based on her input, but for now, we aim for one fun event and allow for flexibility where we can.

On my own self-care:

  • Those PTO or floating holidays allowed from your company are ripe for taking! Grab some Fridays off to shop, relax, sleep, or work out. Whenever I feel like I don’t have enough time, I reevaluate my schedule and find ways to make the time. Tapping the PTO account is at the top of my strategy.
  • Meditation is a must this time of year. I Zen out doing the dishes, add in extra time for my commute, and listen to calming music, and I spend some time deep breathing in the morning and right after my toddler’s bedtime.
  • I schedule a massage from the gift card I’ve been hanging onto and aim for a once-weekly relaxing bath (even better: nightly). Soothing aching, tired muscles in Epson salts and lavender oil seems to even change my mindset. Instantly, I’m less worried and more at peace.
  • Finding time for fitness is challenging any time of year as a mom, but especially now. I aim to focus on more movement: walks, dancing with my toddler, getting up from my desk more often. Yoga is a perk, too, even a short sequence at home before bedtime, and it aids in improved sleep. (For more intense intervals you can do in 5, 10, or 15 minutes, see “The Workout: Fit in 5.”)
  • Enjoying more nourishing foods so the holiday treats don’t stress me out. Sometimes this means greatly simplifying my meal (a bowl of roasted cauliflower or cucumber slices and baba ganoush has been known to happen). When I focus my plate on eating more veggies, healthy fats, protein, and fiber, I don’t feel thrown off-course by the family tradition of sugary sweet potatoes.

The biggest hurdle to overcoming holiday stress will always be your own mindset. How do you want the holidays to feel? What do you want to remember — for yourself, for your kids? Your brain is powerful, and if you truly want to find more joy and less stress this time of year, you can shift your thinking.

Then when great-aunt Peggy asks if you’ve gotten everything done on your holiday list, you can smile without guilt and confidently say you’ve been making some sweet memories instead.


If changing up holiday traditions is giving you grief, see “Reinventing Traditions” for guidance. And for healthy holiday-eating advice, see “Holiday Food Frustration.”

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