Our attempts to create the perfect holiday season often end in frustration and anxiety. Princess Ivana shares 11 tactics to help you escape the holiday hassle and create meaningful memories while actually enjoying the time you spend with family and friends.
Just like Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation, everybody wants to have a happy, warm-and-fuzzy, picture-perfect holiday season. As the end of the year approaches, visions of perfectly wrapped gifts, delicious family dinners, a gorgeous home, well-behaved kids, and more begin to dance in our heads. But if you’re like most people, instead of a Hallmark commercial, you always seem to get a few weeks of concentrated stress as you try to run errands, wrangle misbehaving children, meet obligations, and spend time with people you don’t really enjoy. Meanwhile, your house looks more like a tornado went through it, instead of Martha Stewart with her magic wand.
“Enough already with the holiday stress!” says Princess Ivana Pignatelli Aragona Cortes, a featured blogger at Modern Mom, founder of Princess Ivana—The Modern Princess, and coauthor of A Simple Guide to Pregnancy & Baby’s First Year (Don’t Sweat It Media, Inc., April 2013, ISBN: 978-0-9888712-0-5, $15.95, www.princessivana.com). “In our neurotic attempts to control every aspect of the holiday season, we’re actually filling this special time of year with anxiety, frustration, and disappointment. Despite our best intentions, we aren’t doing ourselves or our kids any favors.”
Outside of Pinterest and schmaltzy commercials, Ivana points out, absolute perfection rarely makes an appearance—and that’s okay.
“It’s time to take a step (or ten) back and reconnect to what makes the holiday season—and life in general—truly meaningful,” she says. “Hint: It’s not serving the perfect hors d’oeuvres, showing up at 20 different events with every hair in place, or making a front-door wreath from scratch. You’ll create the warmest and fuzziest feelings, as well as the best memories, when your holiday season revolves around togetherness, values, and balance.”
If you’d like to step off of the fa-la-la merry-go-round but aren’t quite sure how, read on for 11 of Ivana’s tips to help you consciously create a holiday season you’ll actually want to remember:
Create a budget and stick to it. Not surprisingly, money can be a huge holiday stressor. After all, it’s difficult to enjoy gift exchanges, parties, travel, and more if you’re constantly preoccupied by your rapidly dwindling bank balance, wondering if this is the purchase that will zero out the account. So before you find yourself in the thick of the holiday season, sit down (perhaps with your spouse) and decide what you can reasonably and comfortably expect to spend—on gifts, food, transportation, decorations, etc.—and write out a detailed budget. Then stick to it. Creating a separate holiday bank account or using pre-paid credit cards might help.
“This task might not be your idea of ‘getting into the holiday spirit,’ but the stress it can save you is more than worth it,” Ivana assures. “If you think your budget will force you to scale back from previous years’ festivities, remind yourself that a pile of extravagant gifts (most of which your kids will probably forget in a few months) is not worth a sickening credit card bill.
“Also keep in mind that you’re setting a good financial example for your kids,” Ivana continues. “Holiday gift giving is a wonderful opportunity to teach your children about budgeting and how to handle money. A good way to go about it is to create your family budget for a specific number of gifts. Gifts should have a price ceiling. Include your children in the gift budget discussions. Don’t forget to include a few ‘treat’ dollars to reward yourselves with a hot cocoa together while you are out.
“Holiday shopping can be a fun and meaningful family time if you set your parameters before you get to the mall. ‘Okay, kids, we have one hour to find five gifts. Each gift is $10 max. Go!’ Let the gifts be their choice. So maybe Auntie Lisa gets a funny clown instead of that silk scarf. But the gift was chosen by little Ada. The fact that the gift was chosen by her niece will mean more than the perfect scarf chosen by you with Ada’s name on it. Children are naturally innovative and creative. Let them express this in gift giving.”
Spend some quality time with your holiday calendar. During this busy time of year, the temptation is to always say “yes.” “Yes, we’ll come to your party.” “Sure, I’d love to host the family potluck.” “Of course I’ll come watch the play.” “No problem—I’d be happy to bring cupcakes for John’s class party.” But remember, you aren’t inexhaustible, and neither is your family. Packing every single moment with responsibilities and events is a recipe for burnout.
“Think about what you’d like your priorities to be, how much time you want to spend ‘out’ vs. ‘in,’ and your own personal needs when it comes to rest and quiet time,” Ivana recommends. “As invitations start to come in, schedule accordingly—and be sure to ask everyone in your family, kids included, what’s important to them and what they’d most like to participate in. Knowing how to gracefully say ‘no’ can be a lifesaver here. A simple line like ‘Thank you so much for the invitation to your party. Unfortunately, my family won’t be able to come, but please share our season’s greetings with everyone!’ works well. You don’t have to get into the nitty-gritty details of why you’re declining.”
Decide whether social media is “naughty” or “nice.” Sure, it can be fun to scroll through Facebook and Pinterest, especially when ’tis the season to be jolly. Catching up on all the good news and sharing your own can definitely multiply your holiday cheer. On the other hand, you may already be on festive overload, overwhelmed by the giant pressures to be pretty and perfect—not just you, but your house, your tree, your children, your greetings, your gifts, your cookies, and so on. If you often find yourself stepping away from the computer feeling sad, jealous, or disappointed about aspects of your own life, try to summon the willpower to limit the time you spend on social media sites.
“Especially during the holidays, the social media landscape can be harsh on your self-esteem,” Ivana points out. “Comparing your own scraggly tree to the gorgeously trimmed one on Pinterest won’t do your outlook any good. The same goes for clicking through an acquaintance’s album of professional holiday-themed family pictures. (How does she get her children to sit still and behave for that long?) The truth is, nobody’s life is as perfect as it may seem online. And most important of all, the less time you spend staring at a screen, the more time you’ll have to make great memories of your own.”
Give yourself a special gift. As moms, we tend to put ourselves last year-round—and that impulse is only heightened during the holidays. As you get caught up in hall decking, gift giving, treat making, and chauffeuring, it’s easy to lose sight of your own needs. Meanwhile, you wonder why you’re so tired and cranky when you should be feeling the seasonal warm-and-fuzzies.
“If you’re overwhelmed, stretched thin, and exhausted, you won’t be much good to your family or yourself,” Ivana points out. “Building some ‘me time’ into your schedule isn’t selfish; it’s healthy and smart. On at least one occasion during the holidays, do something for yourself: Get a massage, lock the bathroom door and enjoy a bubble bath, get a sparkly red manicure, splurge on the gorgeous sweater you’ve been eyeing (as long as it’s within your budget!), etc. You’ll be surprised by how rejuvenated you’ll feel after spending a relatively small amount of time and/or money.”
Focus on family traditions (or start a new one). Adults often forget how much kids value and look forward to family traditions. That’s why, for example, as you’re mentally arranging and rearranging your seven-year-old’s Christmas-morning gifts under the tree (trying to find the configuration that will look best in pictures, of course!), it can come as a surprise to hear him say, “But, Mom, you’re forgetting to read The Night Before Christmas! We always do that!”
“Family traditions are the cornerstone of the holidays. These are the memories we cherish through life. Despite the rush of so many things to do and less time than ever to do them, don’t skip traditions like reading your favorite holiday story, watching It’s a Wonderful Life or whatever time-honored movies your family loves, baking cookies, or decorating the tree together,” Ivana advises. “You might even want to start a new tradition, like going to see a holiday play or concert! Material gifts will come and go, but the treasures of our family memories will last a lifetime.”
Give yourself a head start to avoid holiday madness. If you’d like to avoid a Santa’s sack-sized meltdown, “start early” is the name of the holiday game. Whether you’re making latkes and rugelach to take to a Hanukkah celebration, dressing up for your company’s holiday cocktail party, or piling the crew into the modern-day sleigh to go to Grandma’s house, give yourself more time than you think you need! You’ll never regret having a few extra minutes if you finish the task at hand a bit early, but your stress levels will spike to dangerous levels if you’re rushing around trying to complete thirty minutes’ worth of tasks in ten.
“Especially when travel is involved, always give yourself a head start,” Ivana reiterates. “Remember, Santa is the only person who can actually travel a thousand miles a second. And since you’re not the only person trying to get to a holiday destination, the roads and airports will be extra-congested. If you know you have a half-hour or more of leeway, traffic jams and long security lines will be much less likely to send you into a state of panic.”
Enjoy a silent night now and then. A holiday movie on TV, seasonal music playing in the next room, lights twinkling on the tree, an assortment of goodies to tempt the taste buds, and a packed schedule are enough to overstimulate anyone, adult or child! That’s why Ivana recommends that you unplug every now and then.
“Have a good old-fashioned family conversation as you trim the tree,” she suggests. “Enjoy some hot chocolate in a candlelit room. Attend a special religious service. Activities like these will help you to unplug, reset, destress, and live in the moment. Remember, at their heart, the holidays aren’t about being entertained—they’re about taking time to acknowledge the people and the values that are most important to us. Make sure you’re consciously connecting to those things.”
Give your community a gift. During the holidays, a variety of faiths emphasize service, generosity, and love. And for good reason: Caring for others connects us meaningfully to people outside of our normal circles. Using your time, energy, and talents to make the world a better place encourages selflessness, empathy, and a broader worldview. No matter what your family’s beliefs may be, think about doing something together that will help another person, family, or organization.
“Try to find something that’s age appropriate for your kids and that connects to their interests,” Ivana suggests. “For example, you might buy an extra bag of dog food during each trip to the grocery store and drop it off at the Humane Society, help an elderly neighbor wrap presents and decorate, or take cookies to a battered women’s shelter. Activities like this will remind everyone that it really is better to give than to receive—and it will also help to counteract the shop-till-you-drop frenzy that runs rampant this time of year!
“My own family used to sing carols at a nursing home every Christmas,” Ivana adds. “We also distributed food and volunteered in poor neighborhoods. Some of my earliest and happiest memories involve sharing my family’s good fortune with others. The values that prompted those traditions are still with me today in how I live my life. I definitely want to pass them on to my children.”
Be grateful. The holidays are a great time to count our blessings and reflect on the things we’re grateful for. Plus, at a time of year when most children think they are entitled to badger their parents with “the gimmes” and the “I wannas,” an emphasis on thankfulness is a great way to counteract materialism and selfishness.
“Teach your kids to say ‘thank you’ for every gift they receive—even the three-sizes-too-small sweater from Great Aunt Matilda!” Ivana recommends. “Keep a stack of thank-you notes on hand so that you and they can promptly express gratitude—for gifts, certainly, but also for things like a special teacher’s help and encouragement. Also, set aside some time to talk with your kids about all of the positive things that have happened in your family over the past year. You may be surprised by what they remember and value!”
Look for teachable moments. The holidays are a good time to reinforce values that are important to your family. Whether you are caroling to shut-ins, writing thank-you notes, or inviting your extended family over for a meal, be sure to narrate to your kids why you’re participating in various holiday activities and rituals.
“For example, you might say, ‘Singing holiday songs to people who aren’t able to leave their homes makes them feel valued and appreciated,’” Ivana says. “Remember, it’s often difficult for young children to connect your actions with their underlying meaning.”
Have something to talk about. Even if you are a born social butterfly, holiday social events can sometimes get tedious and awkward. And if you fall toward the introverted end of the scale, they can fill you with dread for days on end.
“Just like anything else in life, having a good time at holiday parties and mixers—or even while you wait with other parents to pick up your child from holiday pageant practice—often depends on being prepared,” Ivana comments. “If you’re uncomfortable with making on-the-fly small talk or dread awkward silences, have a few go-to topics of conversation ready. Some of my favorites are:
• If you could do anything without any personal consequences, what would it be?
• If you were reincarnated and could come back as anyone or anything, who or what would you be?
• If you were stranded on a desert island and could bring only one celebrity, who would it be and why? (Mine is Stephen Colbert.)
“And, of course, it never hurts to share with others some of the momentous things that have happened in your family during the past year. If you really can’t think of anything to say, relax and just listen to others share their stories. It’s a fact: Being a good listener will make everyone think you are amazingly interesting.”
“It’s so easy to focus on all of the trappings of the holidays: decorations, lights, food, gifts, and more,” Ivana concludes. “But at the end of the day, those things—while certainly pleasing—are not going to ensure that you or your family experience the ‘perfect’ holiday. This season is best enjoyed from the heart, not the wallet. It’s a time for creativity, love, fun, generosity, and expressing those values in all that you do.
“And who knows?” she adds. “You might end up deciding that the ‘perfect’ tree isn’t trimmed with handmade garland and matching ornaments, after all. Instead, it has 15 ornaments on the same low branch, because your one-of-a-kind preschooler put them there.”
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About Princess Ivana:
Ivana is the author of A Simple Guide to Pregnancy & Baby’s First Year, which was co-written with her mother, Magdalene Smith, and her sister, Marisa Smith. Their blog, Princess Ivana—The Modern Princess, is a blend of humor, practical advice, and lifestyle tips on the essentials. Ivana is also a featured blogger on Modern Mom.
While she’s a modern-day princess, she comes from modest means and met her Italian Prince Charming (if you’re curious, he’s Adriano Pignatelli Aragona Cortes, Prince of the Holy Roman Empire) while on scholarship at Pepperdine. She didn’t wait for his kiss to save her, though—using her master’s degree in education, she forged a career of her own as a digital strategy consultant.
Ivana and her husband have two fabulous kids (ages four and two) who are the latest additions to a 1,000-year lineage that includes kings of Sicily and Spain, Catherine of Aragon, a pope, and a saint. Ivana is wild about kids and motherhood. For the past twenty years, she has worked with children, from designing learning toys to tutoring homeless kids.
Ivana’s Super Mom juggling act between life, love, kids, and career inspired her new book. She believes that life is more about attitude than money, and her goal is to help mothers live well on any budget. Consider her “Dear Abby” with a tiara and a baby sling!
For more information, please visit www.princessivana.com.