John Townsend, Ph.D.

The Christmas and New Years Holiday season is a special time for families and friends to reconnect and celebrate the birth of Christ.  At the same time, the positive impact of this holiday can be diluted by the mass commercialism of the day, and the stress and pressure to consume and become frenzied and obsessed with gifts and “things.”  While gifts are a sign of care to those you love, it can diminish the good you want to experience, and often leave people entering the New Year feeling empty, as if they missed something, which they did.  Here are a few tips to right your needle and welcome the New Year with a great Christmas behind you.

Set a ratio of 70 percent experiences to 30 percent wrapped gifts.   Most of us really have what we need, and our kids do too.  The “things” often get forgotten, broken, thrown away or given away. But experiences will last forever, and they become great memories of doing fun things with those you care about.  For example:  a sports event, a music concert, a hike or a spa day.  Most of us don’t give ourselves enough peak experiences, but we have way too many “things.”  Be creative and put some thought into what your family members would really appreciate.

Talk about the “why” of the gift.  Instead of shredding through lots of presents, have a tradition in which the giver explains why they gave that present to the givee.  It will mean more. For example, “That shirt reminds me of your sparkly personality” or “That dinner reservation is because the restaurant holds great memories of us together in the past.”

Read the Bible and talk about the spiritual core of Christmas.  Healthy families read the Bible together, talk about their faith and pray together.  Don’t lean on the church service to do that job.  Kids need to know they are being raised in a family in which Christ is worshipped.  And if your child is questioning or denying the faith, that doesn’t mean she can go read in her room while you are reading the family Bible.  She needs to attend as well, just as every member has to work, go to school and take out the trash.  She is being raised in a Christian home, no matter where her faith is.  Without being pushy or harsh, talk about your faith and even have discussions about her questions or skepticism.

Schedule serving time.  The neuroscience research on altruism says that giving to, and serving others less fortunate, is almost like an antidepressant to your brain.  You simply “feel better” when you know you are making someone’s day better during the holidays.  Find a soup kitchen, check with your church for service opportunities or feed the homeless.  Our family has done all of these things, and they have been highlights for us.

Have thoughtful and honest talks about difficult matters that are pressing. Sometimes people avoid dealing with their feelings about challenges they are facing, such as a marriage problem, a parenting issue or a financial struggle.  They don’t want to spoil the holiday.  You certainly don’t want to ruin a dinner with some protracted argument.  But don’t pretend that negative realities don’t exist, and don’t “play happy.”  Kids can sense it, and it will cut you off from your true self.  Instead, talk to a family member or a safe person in your life about the issue.  You will feel more whole, and relieved that you are not alone with the struggle.

Just put a little effort into adding these tips, and your holiday will go much better!