Unplug from Holiday Stress

It's easy to get swept into the holiday frenzy, spending money you really don't have, making commitments because you think you just can't say “no.” But you can put a stop to the madness and regain the joy of the season.

James P. Sargen did just that after decades of holiday excess. As general manager of a big-city shopping center early in his career, he worked 80-hour weeks during the holiday season. Raising a young family, his wife enjoyed entertaining and decorating, he says, but he dreaded the holidays. There were extended-family dinners, two elaborately decorated trees, a large holiday event for more than 200 the week before Christmas and more than 300 holiday cards to mail.

Each year, he found himself caught up in this whirlwind of obligations. Sargen says he felt trapped in stressful commitments and the spending frenzy.

The turning point came when he realized the true value of the holidays is spending time with family and friends. “How you did it was less important than connecting with the people you love or care for,” he says. Author and psychologist Cheryl Dellasega says focusing on personal connections is the key to exchanging holiday stress for holiday serenity. It's important to appreciate those closest to you “all year rather than trying to have one intense day of caring,” says Dellasega, a professor at Penn State College of Medicine. “Focus on the significance of the holiday, first for the individual and then for the family, which can help identify what is most important.”

Sargen decided to take control of the holiday madness. He talked with his family and they agreed to focus on sharing presents with personal meaning to the giver and recipient. They also replaced the long holiday mailing list, sending cards personalized with letters and photos for close relatives and friends.

Sargen, of Avila Beach, Calif., says downsizing the holidays was part of his “age of simplification.” He gave up the corporatej ob for entrepreneurial pursuits and now heads outdoor fitness equipment provider TriActive America Inc.

Now, rather than the extravagant holiday party, he enjoys a simple holiday brunch. He sets aside time to “listen to holiday music, enjoy warm apple cider or mulled wine, and celebrate the holidays with good conversation with family and friends.” Instead of last minute shopping, he keeps loved ones in mind throughout the year as he travels or shops. “I let my heart make the decision,” he says.

A Working Mother's Perspective

Nicki McManigal Hayes and husband Ryan wanted their children Regan and Charlie to cherish the holiday season for its meaning rather than for gifts. “We try to celebrate with our children all season leading up to the holiday,” says Hayes, who is director of online retailer Memolink.com. On the holiday, the Hayes family plans a simple, fun activity, like sledding after Thanksgiving dinner near their Denver home.

They also set spending limits and buy only for the children and grandparents. They keep the kids on their regular schedule to limit stress. And she doesn't take on holiday responsibilities she doesn't have time for. “Store-bought cookies are just as good, if not better, than homemade ones!” she says with a laugh.

By not getting caught up in the holiday frenzy, the Hayes family can enjoy “saying and doing the things we don't take time for all year round,” she says. “It's the perfect time to recharge the family bonds and friendships to carry you into the New Year.”

A Life-Changing Holiday

For Matt Lowe and his family, the true meaning of the holidays will be forever etched into their consciousness through his mother's brush with death three years ago. “A supposedly fatal tumor was discovered between my mom's spinal cord and brain stem,” Lowe says. “This happened 10 days before Christmas.”

His mother's only hope was a dangerous surgery. Lowe, now 30, says the health professionals told the family to “brace for her death; that survival was unlikely and the best-case scenario was that she would be a vegetable.”

The week before Christmas was one of the saddest and most stressful for their family. But “to the disbelief of her doctors,” Lowe says, the surgery was successful and his mother made a complete recovery. She was released from the hospital on Christmas Eve.

Lowe, a public relations account director in Kansas City, Mo., says the family no longer wastes time and money on elaborate festivities. “The more elaborate the party, the less it is about the people in attendance,” he says.

And they share presents valued for the thought and the humor. “Last year, I made a horrible, wood CD rack for my brother Mike, which he actually uses!”

Every season since that life-altering event, Lowe says he has just two concerns for the holidays: “Will I see my favorite people, and how much are we going to laugh?”

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