Every year, precisely on October 1st, my body triggers a programmed response that reminds me of the approaching season. Suddenly, my world changes: The air is colder, the days are shorter, leaves are falling; and for some reason it’s easier to stay in bed in the morning.

Familiar experiences resurface… The aroma of a cold weather dinner in the oven. The swish of the furnace firing up, the comfort of my old sweatshirt, the cold bathroom tile in the morning.

Like it or not, my body shifts in to Holiday Mode. It’s a familiar flight plan that transports me through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. It’s a holiday package of events, appointments, travel, gifts, food, friends and family — and sometimes a dose of disappointment and unmet expectations.How do you handle the holidays?

Do past seasons bring to mind warmhearted, functional family memories? Or does the mere thought of fruitcake and Santa Claus make you want to take a two-month solo vacation?

The holiday ritual has a profound effect on people. Requests for counseling are highest through the holidays. Sales of self-help and personal development books peak in the early year. Sadly, suicide rates are highest at Christmas.

I have incredible memories. But as I grow older, I find myself trying harder to enjoy the holidays. If I’m not careful, I easily fall in a trap of disillusion, anesthetized to the joy and potential possibilities of the season.

I have learned it is not only possible to survive the holidays; it is possible to enjoy and actually create new memories for my family and me. From lessons learned, what follows is my holiday punch list — A guide to help you navigate through this season better prepared and with increased happiness and love.

Don’t Fix It
There is no better gathering of dysfunction than at Christmas time. Past issues and dysfunction easily get in the way of your ability to let go and enjoy the season. Don’t try to fix people — it doesn’t work. Fight the temptation to engage in confrontational-face-to-face discussions. Reschedule that business for another time. Try doing things different this year.

Set realistic expectations
For years my vision of the ideal holiday experience fell far short of the “Norman Rockwell” standard. I have learned to accept the family interaction as a dance I’ve danced before. It’s a slow and agonizing dance, but at least I know the steps. Accept it for what it is.

Be Flexible
I am not a flexible person, so this was a hard lesson. Accept the fact that things won’t be exactly as planned. Flexibility is essential. Just keep repeating, “It’s only a few days, it’s only a few days…” Less control, more toleration.

A friend related a sad story where he and his family spent a Christmas with his out of town parents. Christmas Eve was a disaster. His father had a few drinks, became verbally abusive, words were exchanged — a very bad scene. Christmas morning my friend packed up and brought his family home.

That was four years ago. Since then they haven’t returned to share Christmas with his parents. They decided to regain control of their own lives and protect themselves from future holiday failures. They set boundaries. These days they celebrate Christmas at home. Though it sounds harsh, if your holidays seem like recurring train wrecks, you might need to consider similar changes.

If you are a blended or re-married family, flexibility and negotiation are even more critical. These relationships are complex and challenging, especially during the holidays. Count yourself fortunate if your season is smooth. If not, get your hands on some good resources or counseling.

There are less surprises if Sheri and I pre-plan Thanksgiving and Christmas events. You might negotiate annual alternating locations — your family this year, his family next year. We have a less formal arrangement, sometimes merging winter vacations and getaways with family visits. Some years you might just want to spend the holidays at home.

The best way to ensure post-holiday conflict is to overspend this Christmas. Pre-planning will minimize misunderstandings and prevent January budget shortfalls. Set limits; avoid loading up the charge cards; put less emphasis on gifts. (Warning: Be prepared for push-back from the family when you suggest spending limits. Be creative and stand your ground.)

The In-laws
A big holiday challenge for me is demonstrating love and sensitivity towards my wife’s extended family. It’s too easy for me to be impatient and inflexible when relating to my in-laws. In holidays-past, I wasn’t always on my best behavior.

Don’t learn the hard way. A significant way to meet your spouse’s needs is to show respect and sensitivity towards her family. Serve her by going out of your way to make the “in-law” experience a smooth one. Honor her by demonstrating to her family the kind of husband you really are — the other 51 weeks of the year. Look, your spouse is only asking a few days from you. Get over it! Make this year different.

The Spiritual Component
What does Christmas really mean to you? Buried under the gifts, the charge receipts, the family gatherings, shopping and food — what’s left?

If you are a Christian, Christmas should have special meaning to you. But even committed believers get stuck in the commercialism and stress of the season, sidetracked far from the true spiritual meaning.

How do you get back on center?

Have you thought about if or where you will attend church this Thanksgiving or Christmas? Several years ago while visiting Sheri’s family for Christmas, we embarked on a church-finding mission. We hit the yellow pages and drove into town to scope out prospects. We found a church where we felt warm and welcome. That became our alternate Christmas church home.

For our family, church is a holiday priority — Not an obligation. We are there for community, worship and celebration.

Remember that friends and family are spiritually sensitive this time of year. Outreach potential is high. Be bold — invite someone to church; send spiritually-focused Christmas cards; give a bible as a gift; initiate a spiritual conversation.

If you are a parent, this is the perfect time of year to establish a spiritual foundation. Start some new traditions — Read the Christmas story [Luke 2 ] from the bible. You need to take the spiritual lead in your family.

Christmas is inevitable, so make the best of it. Make Christmas a pursuit of joy and love. Create memories. Make a difference.


Jim Mueller is the co-founder of Growthtrac Ministries and with his wife Sheri, are Marriage Mentors. Copyright © Jim Mueller and Marriagetrac. All rights reserved.

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