I’ve been thinking a lot about the song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” this week. Partially because, well, it’s the season, but also because I heard Liza sing it in her fantastic show at The Palace last week.

But mostly, I’ve been thinking about it as I’ve been talking to people who are in the final throes of holiday stress—one event away from a total yuletide meltdown. I think the, often forgotten, verse of the song is a guideline for all of us at the holidays.

“Christmas future is far away.

Christmas past is passed.

Christmas present is here today,

Bringing joy that will last.”

As I talk to people all over the country in these last days, I’m hearing a lot of stress. A lot.

But when I ask about what’s causing that stress, it comes down to one thing: Trying to fulfill expectations of what the holiday is supposed to be.

That’s ridiculous.

It’s also very common.

Think about it, though: Our notions of the holiday and our family traditions come from a few years of our childhoods. We try to recreate those supposed magical times, and then we feel obligated to do it for our parents. So much energy goes into trying to create the perfect image that the reality of the present gets obscured. We’re not creating Christmas 1958 or 1978. This is Christmas 2008 and we should enjoy it as such.

I’ll tell you a family secret. My mother slaved for years to create a holiday that she thought would be perfect for her mother and her in-laws. She labored to fulfill the image she thought they had of the holiday, and at the same time make magic for all of us kids. It was only late in her life that I found out she was miserable doing it, and that she couldn’t wait for it all to be over.

How many of you are saying, “I can’t wait for December 26?”

That’s a total waste.

So, I’m advocating that we all take a deep breath, realize that this year is not going to be like any other year and let it go at that. There will be family traditions we’ll enjoy, favorite ornaments, favorite dishes, and, most importantly, favorite people. Take time to enjoy them now, revel in your memories, but don’t try to recreate them. Create new ones!

Here are some tips that we’ve found can be really helpful to think about in the last days before the holiday:

1. You’ve done enough. Really. Don’t fret over the unbought present, the unsent card. Do what you can, and realize that most people really do accomplish what’s most important to them. If you didn’t do it, perhaps it’s not that important. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

2. Pay attention to other people’s time. If you’re invited for 2 p.m. Show up on time. Nothing adds to stress like uncertainty. If you’re going to be late, call in plenty of time so people can make adjustments.

3. Don’t overplan. It’s not too late to change plans if you suddenly find you’re overwhelmed. We know one family that tries to see too many different people from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. They have an infant now, and have scaled back. Not all the family members are happy, but they’re all adjusting.

4. Zip your lip. You may want to “help people” with things. Or, you may have the impulse to bring up an old resentment. You may even get upset and angered by something someone says. In times of stress, tempers can run very high, especially among family members. If you feel yourself getting pushed, it’s a good time to take a walk, go look at the tree, play with the dog, etc. Yes, your sister-in-law’s pies are just awful. Your brother always overcooks the turkey. You knew that going in to the event. Keep it to yourself.

5. Roll with it. Whatever happens, try to keep a light heart about it. Remember, what seems like a “tragedy” today—a dish doesn’t turn out, the parrot attacks the Christmas Tree (it’s happened at a friend’s house), or whatever—can often become a favorite holiday story.

Try to take it easy, and enjoy the holiday. There will never be another like it. Sure, there will be times that will be wonderful and times that will be bittersweet. We love seeing the delight in kids’ eyes. We miss those who have passed on. But enjoy today as you find it, and you’ll have a better time all around.

Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas…now.


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