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Holiday Survival Guide

This time of year, you often get exactly what you want. So be careful what you ask for...


ShutterstockI had a friend who used to rent a car on December 24 to do his holiday shopping in San Francisco. All of it. As in bumping up over the curb in front of whatever department store, throwing on the emergency flashers, and running into the store to grab whatever caught his eye. Then, it was on to the next store, the next city street, the next curb as red as Santa’s suit.

The time saved in not having to find a legal parking space outside every store was enormous.

Now, maybe your first question is not, Why rent a car to do that? Anyhow, I’ll tell you. This was before everything was so annoyingly coordinated through computers. At the end of the day, my friend drove back to the rental agency—provided the car hadn’t been towed—then transferred his mountain of purchases to his own car, and deposited the day’s wad of parking tickets in the trash, generally never to be heard about again.

Aah, the holidays.


This guerrilla style of gift buying was my friend’s way of fighting back against the feeling that the holidays are a chore, a forced march in which we’re trapped, waiting in lines, driven to dizziness at the mall, or circling in parking garages like land sharks. His response to all that wasn’t, “Now, what would Martha do?” followed by quickly whipping up a batch of festive holiday treats and engaging in a round of carols by the tree. Born of desperation, it was more like, “In her darkest moments, what would Courtney Love do?”

Mind you, this guy was not some petty criminal. He was a doctor. (“Sorry, Doctor can’t see you now. He’s in a no-parking zone, stuffing 12 pashminas into the one remaining empty spot in a rental car.”) His behavior, although I’ll admit not entirely uncharacteristic of him, is like an advertisement for what can happen to us at the holidays.

For more evidence of the holiday hazards threatening us, which I’m sure you don’t need, simply turn to lists of local workshops offered this season. How not to get too stressed during the holidays. How not to get fat. How not to get depressed. How not to go broke. How to make a holiday wreath from something in your recycling bin that’s not completely nasty and smelling of sour milk.

How do we get back to holidays that we actually enjoy?

Ghosts of Holidays Past

Well-meaning purveyors of wisdom tell us we’ll be happier during the holidays if we scale back, particularly with regard to presents for our kids. They tell us our kids will be happier, too, but that is certainly not how it worked when I was growing up. I remember walking on air from about December 1 on, knowing that in a mere three and a half weeks, our fireplace would be surrounded by concentric rings of presents: skis, bikes, games, painting sets, wood-burning kits, books, records, six-packs of fruit-flavored lip gloss, “books” of Life Savers—some items wrapped and some delivered as is from Santa so that my youngest brother and I could spot them as soon as we ran down the stairs at 5 a.m. on Christmas Day. I was about to burst with joy, and for crying out loud, what kid wouldn’t be?

It was a thrill for us, and I never doubted that my parents stayed up until 3 a.m. wrapping gifts because they wanted to watch us open them. It was my parents’ tradition, if a new one for my mother. My mom grew up in a Polish ghetto in Providence, Rhode Island, receiving holiday gifts à la Little House on the Prairie: hand-knitted mittens, a single orange.  

Did my brother and I, and other kids who leaped about throughout the holidays amid a full-on tractor trailer full of presents, grow up to be self-centered jerks? Well, my personality disorders specialist tells me my narcissism is minor and totally controllable, and no, we didn’t. If only kids’ futures were that easy to predict: Lots of holiday gifts equals bad outcomes later in life. I’d say my friend whose parents gave her the most—as in a ski house, then a horse, then a picture-perfect barn to go with the horse—is phenomenally generous with her time, her money, and her energy.

My point is that this stuff isn’t cookbook; it’s not one size fits all. Downsizing might make you feel less stressed about the holidays, but downsizing for the sake of it is not for everyone. You may be thrifty about some things—ever hear yourself asking, “What do you mean the waist is so tight you can’t breathe in those expensive pants we bought you last year?”—but it’s not necessarily wrong to engage in a lot of holiday gift giving if you want to and can.

The question is, What do you like to do during the holidays, and what do you do simply because it’s expected? Go ahead, embrace the madness; just make sure it’s your own and not someone else’s.

It’s All in the Planning, Sort of

It seems crucial to choose the kind of holidays you want and not simply hope for the best. Even if things go wrong, at least you had a plan in mind. The truth of it is, you never know what truly dreadful holiday episode is going to end in a Hallmark moment. And I speak from experience.

When my daughter was two, we had a beautiful Christmas Eve dinner at my sister’s house. I made cioppino. My sister prepared an awesome salad and garlic bread, and my brother-in-law brought out some amazing wines. My husband had baked a kind of flan. In addition to all of us, my nephew, my mother, and my sister’s father-in-law were there. The house was decorated and candlelit, and a fire crackled in the fireplace.

Toward the end of the evening, we all went to our various bedrooms to go to sleep. After I turned the light out in our room, though, I could hear my daughter tossing and turning in her crib. She wasn’t crying or fussing, but she couldn’t seem to get comfortable. After about 10 long minutes of listening to her move around and wondering when she’d go to sleep, I suddenly heard her throwing up.

By the time I’d raced to the light switch across the room, she was standing in and covered with a disgusting mess, with her hands on the crib rail and a huge grin on her face. “I had a nice sleep,” she said.

Hmm. She had a nice sleep, and I didn’t even have another pair of pajamas for her to wear. I started to consider wheeling my daughter and her port-a-crib into the backyard to hose her off. It seemed a little chilly for that, though, maybe about 40 degrees. Could I fit the whole shebang into the shower? And here I was without a hazmat suit or at least some serious rubber gloves.

Luckily, my sister, who had already been snoring loudly after countless hours of holiday preparation and enough red wine to fell an elephant, came running. She helped me get my daughter’s pajamas and bedding rinsed off and into the washing machine. We put my daughter into a warm bath, where she chattered contentedly about how Santa was coming, she had had a very good sleep, and wasn’t it therefore time to open presents? Luckily, when we got her out of the tub, she agreed to get back into her cleaned-up crib and fresh bedding, wearing an adult-size T-shirt. After such a nasty cleaning detail, my sister found clean pajamas for herself and for me, too.

“Although adults equate happiness with contentment, your kids think it’s synonymous with being out of your mind with excitement.”

Not your usual holiday tale, but we tell the story all the time. It’s about an aspect of my daughter’s personality that has endured—a tendency to put a positive spin on things in the hope that something really great could happen any minute. I think she gets that from her aunt, who seemed completely fine springing out of a sound sleep to start doing laundry, drawing baths, and improvising pajamas for half the house so everyone would be comfortable.

I think we still all felt, clean-up crew included, like we had the holiday we wanted. We were grateful to be together, we love big celebratory feasts, and my sister’s house felt like a cozy inn in winter. We were there because we wanted to celebrate in a way that we loved. We looked at the whole package and accepted, as Zorba the Greek would have said, “the full catastrophe.”

Sort It Out

So, do you want to invite a houseful of people or just sit by the fire with your cat? Do you want to celebrate the Winter Solstice and dance naked in the woods as you decorate pine trees, or are you thinking of attending a service at your church or synagogue? Do you want to choose the best gifts ever, or would you rather build a bonfire and burn all the junk you got last year? Do you want to be close around the fireplace at home or in a place where you hope people have almost never heard of celebrating at the end of each calendar year? Figure out which traditions, if any, you want to embrace.

Unfortunately, even if you opt for sitting by the fire with your cat, you’re probably going to have to negotiate all this, and there’s bad news if you’ve got kids. Jennifer Aaker, a business professor at Stanford, says research has shown that although adults equate happiness with contentment, your kids think it’s synonymous with being out of your mind with excitement.

In any case, deciding what’s important during the holidays is a great conversation for a family to have. Imagine asking your kids, with no expectations, whether they want lots of presents or would like to emphasize something else over the holidays. If you’re not trying to force-feed them the glum religion of nonmaterialism, maybe you’ll be surprised. My friend’s daughter said the one thing she wanted to make sure they did as a family was to dress their black Lab in an angel costume and bring her to several nursing homes. That was a huge hit with everyone, except maybe the dog.

If you suspect you’ve been overdoing it with the gift giving—like you and your children don’t speak except to arrange the purchase of their next Apple product—by all means, slow it down. You know what feels right for you and your family. Christine Carter, a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, suggests finding ways to help others over the holidays, not only to counterbalance the holiday swag but to keep everybody happy. She cites research showing that people, even kids, derive a lot of happiness from acts of altruism. That boost—and maybe planning some activities that sound exciting to your kids—could definitely be helpful if you turn down the gift spigot.

So, take charge, people. Don’t wait for someone to relieve you of your holiday “duties.” Any that you don’t like, just quit, and then they’re not your duties. Work it out with your family, and negotiate a new end-of-year reality.

Just don’t drive on the sidewalk when you’re shopping.
I don’t care if it’s a rental.


Bust That Stress

James Baraz, the Berkeley author of Awakening Joy and cofounder of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center, offers six ways to stay sane this season.

1. Set your intention to enjoy the holidays as much as you can.

By priming yourself to experience well-being and happiness, you’re more likely to get there.

2. Savor any moments of well-being when they’re here.

Noting that you’re enjoying yourself reinforces the experience and the memory.

3. Take a break to regain your focus.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember to breathe, have a cup of tea, take a bubble bath.

4. Practice gratitude.

Stave off the blues and foster connections with others by feeling and expressing your appreciation for all that is good in your life.

5. Practice generosity.

Baraz points out that neuroscientific research has found that performing an altruistic act can affect the same pleasure centers in the brain as food and sex.

6. Play and have fun.

Goofing around with your kids, singing, and dancing will open you to joy.


Do Not Shop ’til You Drop

For those of you wanting to make your holiday shopping less harrowing, consider research by business guru and Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker. A study she published in the Journal of Consumer Research documents our tendency to grab just about anything when we’re pressed for time—which results in gifts that get, well, regifted. So be sure to schedule time to shop early for the really special people on your list. Then buy a bunch of more generic gifts, which you can give to everyone else.


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