Secrets of a Less Stressful Holiday Season

1995 was easily my worst Christmas.

I was in my mid-20s, unemployed, living with my mom and in debt after quitting my job to backpack around Europe. On Christmas Eve that year – exactly one month to the day after my Dad died unexpectedly – I totaled my widowed mother’s car.

I hit black ice on the highway as I was driving home after staying up most of the night to finish memorial photo albums about my Dad to give to my family for Christmas. The car fishtailed, spun around several times and rolled into the ditch. Miraculously, I was not badly hurt. Covered in glass from the smashed windshield, I opened my eyes to see that I missed a telephone pole by only a few feet. My seatbelt and sheer luck saved my life, although I also believe my Dad was looking out for me that day. I had a good cry as I stood in snow up to my waist and collected the photos of my dead Dad strewn across the back seat.

My family was in the midst of such grief that year that we didn’t really want to celebrate Christmas. I remember that even simple tasks like putting up the tree required Herculean effort.

While it marked a low point in my life, my close call on the highway actually helped our family through that terrible first Christmas without Dad because we were all so happy I wasn’t dead. I also remember the family and friends who supported us that year by dropping by to visit, bringing groceries, inviting us to dinner and even helping to tidy the house.

And maybe this sounds strange, but thinking about that awful Christmas helps me deal with pre-holiday stress now that I am a parent to two young girls who take a full throttle approach to December. There’s nothing like a sudden death and a close call to teach you a lifelong lesson about the preciousness of life and gratitude.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the crazy, frenzy of Christmas, especially once you have kids. Parents can sometimes feel immense pressure to create the ultra-perfect Martha Stewart (or Gwyneth Paltrow depending on what team you are on) holiday experience for their kids. A Pinterest perfect tree. Elaborate Elf on the Shelf shenanigans nightly. An over-the-top amount of perfectly wrapped gifts done weeks in advance. Home baked showstopping Christmas desserts. Five-course formal dinner parties for 12. You know what I mean.

Every year, when the desire to do too much or buy too much or care too much about insignificant holiday details bubbles up inside me, I ask myself these questions:

  1. Did I get my girls something to read, something to wear and something to hug?
  2. Are we spending quality time with each other and the people we love?
  3. Are we reaching out to those who may be struggling, sad, lonely or in need?
  4. Will we get to eat my Mom’s overnight potatoes at least once over the holidays?

If I can answer yes to those four questions, then I can take a deep breath and relax. It’s going to be a wonderful Christmas indeed.

Li’l Girl Talk

“That would look fine if you had a Santa Claus beard,” says The Oldest, age 11, as I model a blazer I planned to wear to a party.

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