(originally written 2015, updated 2023)

There is a inflatable dinosaur with a santa hat eating a gift in the front garden of a neighbour. My 2 yr old is captivated by the dinosaur and excited about Santa but has no dinosaurclue about baby Jesus. Hmm.

The holidays, whether one celebrates Christmas or not, have become a machine with a life of their own and I need a compass.

Others have bigger concerns this holiday – loss, loneliness, fear of addictions getting out of control, difficult family dynamics, eating disorders, anxiety and depression are only some.

Without a rudder or compass it can be easy to get confused, swept up and spat out at the end of the season. You then realize you’re broke, emotionally exhausted, a bit overweight, disoriented and wondering what happened.

For those who have family rifts, problems with eating, drinking or socialising the questions might be:

  • How do I stay sane?
  • How do I not entrench my depression or escalate my anxiety?
  • How do I practice healthy coping in a family without healthy boundaries?
  • How do I navigate my mother-in-law’s alcoholism?

For some (like me) I have more or less glowing memories of the traditions I grew up with. It all seemed so orderly, so reliable. Now that I’m the one making many of the choices for our family, but in a different culture and different country, I miss being part of someone else’s order. I want to create that order for my family but in a new way that makes sense with my values.  So it’s that also that guides this article.  I want my boy to know more than dinosaurs and Santa.

Below are some questions and ideas to ponder. I also offer a Holiday Compass to fill out with your responses to help you plan a sane holiday season whatever your situation.

  1.  What do you cherish most about the holidays?

(e.g. celebrating the birth of Jesus or other religious observances; celebrating and encouraging peace; time to rest, be quiet and restore yourself in the darkness of the season; time to reconnect; time to volunteer and be charitable cause; baking; making crafts; something else?)

When you know your priorities, you can turn down the less important things – it’s easier to say ‘no’ if you know what you’re saying ‘yes’ to.

What’s relevant this year? Christmas’s gone by may have found you in very different life situations than what you now are in. What do you want, and what is your capacity this year?

2.  What feelings are you going for?

How do you really want to feel this season? Let yourself want what you want. Narrow them down to a few potent ones. See firecracker coach Danielle LaPorte’s worksheet for more on this.

3. Make a plan for the holidays that generates those feelings

Get as specific and detailed as possible. Put it down on paper: 3 things I will do today to generate those feelings. 3 things I will do this week.

  • remember the holidays don’t have to be “perfect”. You don’t have to do Christmas. Especially if you’ve had a major loss or struggle this year, this may be the perfect time to step out of the game.
  • have realistic expectations of family and yourself – “Your family tensions probably existed the rest of the year, but they didn’t upset you as much as they do now because you weren’t comparing them to your holiday expectations,”says Darlene Mininni, PhD, MPH, author of The Emotional Toolkit (source).
  • include a self-care plan – for example: taking time to tune in – maybe 5 minutes each evening to see how you’re doing (I like Focusing by Eugene Gendlin for a tune in tool); baths; walks alone or with a friend in nature; a guided relaxation; a plan with someone to meet for tea on Christmas day if you’re concerned about being lonely that day; journal – “people who write about their deepest feelings when they’re upset are less depressed, less anxious, and more positive about life than people who write about mundane things,” write for 15 mins/day 3-4 days in a row. Ask yourself questions like : “why does this upset me so much?” “what would I like to see happen?”

4. Keep going with what is working in your life during the holidays

Stay with exercise, eating and drinking habits that are working for you. Let the “extra’s” of holiday indulgences be just that – extras. If you are depressed, remember that alcohol is a depressant so it ultimately won’t help your mood.

Same goes for the supportive people in your life. Balance the socializing with strangers with time with the people you feel good with and time on your own.

Be with people who genuinely like you and value who you are… and who you value, too. Just being with good friends who make you laugh or think or feel good is a gift during this holiday season. Instead of forcing yourself to spend time with people who drain you emotionally, who treat you badly, choose instead to be with people who respect you. Remember, you get to choose your social sphere

5. Set boundaries

Of course generosity is admirable; it’s satisfying to offer support to the people we love, help out a neighbor, or do something positive for the community, but the conflict arises when we continually agree to things that please everyone but ourselves or when we commit to tasks for which we have no time or desire.boun

It’s okay to say no thank-you to parties, commitments or visits that don’t feel good. Discern what you can and can’t do, or what level you’re willing to do them at. Look at how to protect yourself from people and situations that deplete you.  E.g. drop by the office party for 10 minutes then excuse yourself; have a meal with family but don’t stay all day; organise not to sit next to the relative you find most challenging at the dinner table.

Don’t be wishy-washy about decisions. People can’t read your mind. If something upsets you they won’t know it unless you say so.” Susan Newman, PhD. Author of The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It — and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever.

6. Make your own meaningful season traditions

Inherited traditions tire quickly when they lack meaning, or when they just bring up melancholy. Follow the juice inside and make use of your circumstance to find what’s meaningful to you. It can be absurd, simple, whatever, as long as it’s meaningful or simply engaging to you. (We have 4 x 6″ high pieces of branch with pipe cleaner arms holding hands on our dining table now from a half completed craft project. I like them. I imagine decorating them more as the season goes on. Maybe they will become something we keep year to year. A tradition in the making?).

Some ideas include: plant an evergreen tree in a big pot and use it each year; make some decorations with family or friends or solo; make a decoration that symbolizes something meaningful from the year.

7. Reach out to folks

You’d be surprised how many people are far from their relatives or other loved ones during the holiday season. If you have the capacity, invite them to coffee or to go see a tree-lighting ceremony or see Christmas lights. Some host an “orphan’s Christmas”,  some choose to spend the holiday working at a local shelter.