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Years ago, I began to dread the month of December.

The holiday season had become a stressful period when my to-do list far exceeded the time I had to complete it.   I constantly felt I was letting someone down, missing out on an experience, or forgetting something.

Eventually, I came to realize the stress was self-inflicted.

There are a variety of reasons to feel stress this time of year, and while we can’t make it all go away, I thought I’d share some of the solutions that helped me look forward to December again.

Family and Social Commitments

If you’re married with children, the holidays can cause family friction as you try to meet everyone’s expectations for getting together.  I come from a very close family, and after our children were born we would have as many as 5 Christmas celebrations.  Starting from our home in Cincinnati, we would head to my parent’s house in southern Ohio, then to my grandparents’ homes in the mountains of West Virginia, and then on to Pennsylvania to visit my husband’s family.  Not only did we have packages for everyone, but we also had special Santa wrapping paper and hidden presents to make sure that Santa didn’t forget our kids while we were traveling.  We looked like we were moving.

In addition, we had different school, work and social events that overlapped.  We found ourselves running from one to the next because we didn’t want to offend or hurt someone’s feelings by missing something.

I finally realized I was so busy running from one thing to the next that I was no longer ‘present’ no matter where I was, which defeated the entire purpose of showing up.  We began to limit our visits and events during the season, so we could actually enjoy being with friends and family while we were there.  We now make other holidays the focus for some family visits, and feel we have a better time together as a result.

Unreasonable Expectations

I confess this stress was a result of my own personality flaw – the eternal quest for perfection!

We are bombarded by images of perfectly decorated homes,  freshly baked cookies, and hostesses who throw fabulous parties during Christmas and New Year’s Eve.  We’re also told to buy the perfect gifts, send a thoughtful family letter along with a photo in a beautiful Christmas card, and sustain the spirit of Christmas and goodwill toward men during the entire process.

I, for one, could not measure up.  Although I did spend many frustrated years trying!

I had to decide what things were most important to me and my family, and focus my efforts on those priorities.  As a result, our home will never win the best-decorated award, and I haven’t been able to get a letter or picture enclosed in my cards over the past several years.  I have, however, seen a SIGNIFICANT improvement in my Christmas spirit and goodwill toward men, women and children as a result.   I prefer pleasant over perfect any day.

Financial Stress

As a financial advisor, I admit I had a plan in place for Christmas spending, so this wasn’t a stress inducer for me.  But if you’re like the majority of the population, it’s easy to get caught up in the spending frenzy at the mall or on-line.  Gifts for family and friends alone can become a significant expense, and when you add on teachers, gift exchanges and year-end tips for service providers the total grows.

Lots of people enjoy shopping, and it’s easy to get caught up in the Christmas season atmosphere to the point that you lose track of what you’re spending.  Then there are the ads and incentives to buy things for yourself while you’re shopping.  ‘Treat yourself – you’ve been very good this year!’

A shopping list has always been the most helpful tool for me to stay on track with spending, whether it’s for groceries or gifts.  If you have a specific list of people to buy for, a dollar limit and at least an area of interest  to get you started, you can control some of the impulses you may feel to buy all the things that are designed to tempt you.

Many of us have reached the point where we feel we don’t need any more ‘stuff.’  USA Today recently published a great article on alternatives to purchased gifts that may have much more meaning for friends and relatives.

This year I told my husband I wanted a low-stress December for my Christmas and birthday presents.  As a result, we’re not buying gifts for one another.  Instead, we’re going to enjoy a few dates together enjoying the holiday sights and sounds.

Less stress, less stuff, and less expense – it’s a good way to be Merry at Christmas!