Planning ahead for holidays eases stress, increases joy

Carmen Musick • Nov 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM

The holiday season should be one of the happiest times of the year. Unfortunately, for many, the peace, love and joy are sometimes swallowed up in a sea of stress as celebrations seemingly start sooner, cost more and require more work each year.

Kingsport’s Ginger Little knows that feeling all too well. Unlike most people, however, she decided to do something about it. So far, her plan — or, more specifically, her planning — is working.

“I really don’t think Jesus came to Earth so that we could work ourselves into a frenzy. Yet, I know so many people who, by the time Christmas is over, they’re exhausted,” Little said.

“I think that God probably looks down and sees all this frenzy and just kind of shakes his head and thinks ‘It wasn’t supposed to be this way,’” she said.

Little has come to believe that people in today’s world put way too much pressure on themselves to create a picture-perfect holiday season.

A self-described perfectionist and a traditionalist to boot, she, too, would often find herself in those old familiar traps — ones that can quickly rob the joy from the holiday season.

“I’m a people pleaser. It’s hard for me to say no. I still have to sometimes back up and say, ‘I can’t do that.’ You have to learn to pick and choose,” Little said.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘What are the favorite things or the most important things that we want to do? And what could we skip this year?’” she said. “And, then, you have to release yourself from the guilt.”

That, she admits, is hard to do.

“That’s hard for me. I’m definitely still a work in progress, but I’m doing better with it,” she said.

In the past, Ginger and her husband, Greg, often celebrated the holidays at the same frantic pace as the rest of the world.

She’d shop until she dropped, bake and cook, attend parties, try to keep the house looking perfect, visit all the relatives, and stay up into the wee hours to complete last-minute homemade gifts.

Then, Cade came along — and the Littles decided there had to be a better way.

“We took a long, hard look at it and decided that we didn’t want to look back 10 years from now and remember just being exhausted,” Little said.

“I have had years like that. But especially since Cade has come along, the biggest thing for us has been the kind of Christmas memories we want him to have. We want it to be peaceful and joyful, and not stressed,” she said.

Easier said than done? Absolutely, Little admits, but it’s also absolutely possible — for anyone who’s willing to try to plan ahead, learn to say no and learn to let go.

“I really am one of those disgusting kinds of people that always plans ahead,” said Little, who teaches a class on how to survive the holidays with less stress at Hope House for Women.

“I won’t say no stress because I don’t think that’s possible. But there are lots of things you can do to make the holidays less stressful for you and for your family.”

Planning, Little says, is the key that opens the door to a less stressful holiday season.

“If you plan to make stuff for people, the time to decide that is not the week before Christmas. You’ll have a nervous breakdown,” Little said.

“But if you plan ahead and start early, you’re not pulling that 24-hour all-nighter, hot gluing things together. ... Believe me. I’ve had to learn some of these lessons the hard way, and I’m just now learning to put them into practice.”

And it seems to be working.

A week before Thanksgiving, Little had not only purchased all except one or two gifts on her Christmas list, but had all of the gifts wrapped with bows on them.

She had already baked and frozen many of the holiday cookies and cakes she’ll use for parties and gifts this season.

She had even taken her own advice and broke with tradition this year by hauling out the Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving at her young son’s request.

“He’s in kindergarten, and he’s super excited to get started. I told Greg, ‘He’s not always going to be this excited about helping decorate for very long, so why not go ahead and do it?” Little said.

“I’m very tradition oriented. I’ve had to learn that Christmas is not going to end because you do something different,” she said.

It’s one of the first lessons she shares with her holiday classes at Hope House for Women.

Learn to let go

Before the pressures of the holidays set in, Little recommends sitting down and talking with your friends and family members about your plans.

”If there’s a tradition that’s not meaningful anymore or if there’s something you’re doing that’s not working for you, don’t be afraid to say, ‘Hey, could we rethink this?’ You might find that they’re kind of thinking the same thing, and they just haven’t been brave enough to say it,” Little said.

For instance, if everyone always gathers at one household for Christmas dinner, chances are that person spends the days before guests arrive frantically cleaning the house, preparing the food and making sure the good china is ready for the big day.

And for what? So that the family can enjoy sitting down for a good meal together — just as they have every year for the past decade.

Well, the important parts of that equation are “family,” “enjoy” and “together.”

Would it be less enjoyable if everyone brought a covered dish and used paper plates? Probably not and, in fact, it might be even more enjoyable for the host or hostess.

Instead of catering or working to prepare food for a Christmas party, consider having everyone bring a finger food to share.

“That way everybody has a good time,” Little said.

The best plan for your family might even be to stay at home.

“On Christmas Eve morning, we do a brunch at his mom’s and we do dinner at my mom’s, and on Christmas Day, we stay at home,” Little said.

“I do a couple of easy casserole things and some finger foods. [Cade’s] 5. He wants to be home to play with his toys. We don’t want to drag him from pillar to post. And, luckily, our families have been understanding about that.”

Plan ahead

From entertaining to shopping, Little believes, every aspect of the holidays can be made less stressful by simply taking some time to plan ahead.

“I make foods I can make ahead of time. Today, I’m making cookies. I go ahead and do that now, and freeze them for later,” Little said.

Many cakes, casseroles, and other dishes freeze very well.

“There are cookie recipes where you can make the dough ahead and freeze it, and then bake them when you need them. And there are some, like the ones I’m doing.

“I go ahead and bake them, and I put them in the gallon freezer bags. Then, in the middle of December, I just thaw them out, and I’m not losing my mind.”

Anything you can plan ahead or break into small batches is a good place to start, she said.

“Take Christmas cards, for example. If I’m sitting down watching something on TV, I get my card stack out and address a few cards each day,” Little said.

Holiday shopping is the other area where planning — and working — ahead can really pay off in the stress department.

“I kind of have Christmas on my mind all year around. I try to keep a list all through the year, and when I hear somebody say, ‘I would love to have one of those,’ I write it down in my little notebook. Then, I just keep my eye out as I go for those things that people have mentioned,” Little said.

A self-proclaimed “frugalista,” Little also watches for sales.

“It’s especially important if you’re on a budget to try to work ahead,” Little said.

“If you get stressed, you end up making those impulse buys. You’re in the mall and feel like ‘I’ve just to buy something’ so you end up spending more than you should or buying something you normally wouldn’t buy.”

Be realistic

Instead of getting caught up in the need to buy something extravagant for everyone, Little says more people should think about giving the gift of time.

“Go rake someone’s leaves. Go do some repairs around their house. What new mom, or any busy mother for that matter, would not love to have a couple of week’s worth of freezer meals or a couple of hours of babysitting?

“Maybe you have a parent or grandparent, or an elderly neighbor on your list. Could you take them to doctors’ appointments or the grocery store or go over and eat supper with them once a week? I promise you that would be more valuable to them than another knickknack,” she said.

Homemade gifts are also great, and usually carry with them more meaning than store-bought items.

“I think the economy has forced people to re-evaluate their spending. If you’re honest with your friends and families and say, ‘I can’t buy gifts for everyone this year,’ you may find that they feel the same way,” Little said.

“I’m a big proponent of do it if it works for you. If it doesn’t, do something else,” she said.

And, be realistic about your holiday expectations.

“Your house doesn’t have to look like a magazine cover. You don’t have to have a picture-perfect family,” she said. “The key is to make sure it’s meaningful.”

For some of Little’s favorite tips and advice on taking some of the stress out of the holidays, visit www.organizedChristmas.com or www.flylady.net.

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