Take the stress out of festivities by figuring out what means most to you, and discover your own new traditions along the way…
For those of us who celebrate, the holidays are bound with traditions and ideas of what a ‘perfect Christmas’ looks like. It can be a time of year full of additional pressures we don’t need, from feeling like we have to cook an Insta-worthy roast, to buying presents that painfully dent our bank balance, or spending the day doing things we don’t enjoy but feel obliged to do.
But by thinking about what really matters to us at Christmas, we can help make it into something that’s meaningful and magical.
Emotions and expectations
Contemplating what’s meaningful to us can benefit our mental health, and reduce the stress of the holidays. “People who have a sense of purpose in life feel more satisfied and content, have fewer health problems, and even live longer,” says counsellor Laura Duester. “Finding a sense of meaning at Christmas is therefore great for both your mental and physical health, and will help support your wellbeing into the new year.”
With the cost of living rising, the pressure to spend lots at Christmas can be stressful. Counsellor Louise Brown suggests making space for your feelings about financial pressures, and responding to these feelings with kindness.
“It can be helpful to share your feelings with others, as it is likely that others will have similar experiences, and may be relieved that you have brought this up,” says Louise. “Offering mutual support and sharing ideas can help us to feel more comfortable with some of the harder decisions we have to make.”
It’s easy to fall into a comparison trap. Social media and adverts are filled with images of happy family gatherings, and if this doesn’t echo our own experience, we can be left feeling lacking or hurt. But the images we see don’t always reflect reality – from burnt roast potatoes to missing loved ones. Whether it’s a friend bragging about buying their child the latest toys, or pressure from displays in shop windows, remember that this is just a snapshot.
“Try to accept Christmas as it is, rather than having ‘perfect’ expectations,” suggests Laura. “Just like any other day, it will have great bits, but lots of imperfections and challenges, too.”
Making a meaningful Christmas
Once you’ve let go of comparisons, try thinking about what you would love to do at Christmas, regardless of what you assume is expected of you. From creating and embracing new traditions to letting go of the things that aren’t important to us now, we can have a Christmas that’s personally meaningful to us and our loved ones.
Thinking about your values can help you work out what a meaningful Christmas would look like. “It’s important to be curious about what’s meaningful and important to you,” suggests Laura. “It might help to imagine how you’ll feel when January comes – what will you want to remember doing and enjoying over the festive period?”
Laura adds: “There are no right or wrong answers about what’s meaningful to you – we usually think of family time, eating, and presents as key to Christmas, but they don’t have to be. Perhaps relaxing, catching up on reading, getting out in nature, or spending quality time with your partner is more important for you. Whatever you think is valuable, make it a priority, and ensure you save enough time and energy for it.”
This may mean embracing new traditions. If you and your loved ones are bookworms, how about trying the Icelandic tradition of gifting each other books on Christmas Eve? Or perhaps you’d like to spend some of the day with friends, watching TV, or going for a walk. Or if you aren’t a fan of the traditional roast, why not switch from turkey to tacos?
Understanding your values can help you decide what to do. Are the holidays about quality time with family, or making space for self-care? If you’ve had a hectic year, could scheduling in rest be something that helps you?
If you’re celebrating with others, Louise suggests considering what is important and meaningful to each of you. She recommends asking both yourself and those you’ll be with these questions:
“What are your three favourite things to do at Christmas?”
“What was your favourite Christmas and why?”
“What brings you the most joy at Christmas?”
“If you could change one thing about Christmas, what would it be?”
“What would you most like to skip at Christmas?”
“If Christmas was easy, what would it look like?”
It’s important that everyone knows there are no right or wrong answers. Louise recommends looking for similarities in the responses. While you may not be able to honour everyone’s wishes, this can be a helpful starting point. You may learn that you all love watching The Muppet Christmas Carol, or having a laugh playing charades, but don’t currently make time for it.
Louise explains that doing things like planning activities that people can opt in and out of, without being made to feel guilty, can help everyone enjoy the day.
If there is something you don’t want to do, but another person wants to continue, there may be tension. But this is a chance for a change in responsibilities.
“The first year I said I didn’t want to cook a roast dinner anymore, other people stepped in to do it,” Louise says. “Or if everyone wants to eat different things, maybe you could buy a selection of ready prepared dishes, so everyone gets exactly what they want.”
While weighing up others’ wishes, don’t forget your own wants and needs, and get swept up in trying to make everyone else happy at your expense.
“While traditions can be important to some people, they can cause unnecessary distress to others who feel pressured into taking part,” says Louise. “Giving yourself permission to throw out the rules you may have created for yourself around the festive period can create a wonderful opportunity for something new and meaningful to emerge.”
Whether you’re tucking into a tub of Quality Street with friends, or curling up with a hot chocolate and a new book on Christmas Eve, take time to make this Christmas one that’s meaningful for you.
Find out more on the Counselling Directory, or speak to a qualified counsellor.