12/24/90 & 12/31/90, Revised 11/1/02

Holiday Season Pitfalls *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

"'Tis the season to be jolly," or at least, that is how the song goes. However, for some people, the holidays are not so jolly. We will explore some seasonal pitfalls and how they can be remedied.

Holiday obligations. Many holiday projects might be seen as things you have to do, rather than things you want to do. Some people don't enjoy sending greeting cards, making a gift list or even planning festive get-togethers. If you believe it is something you "have to do," this robs the cards, gifts or visits of their happy, holiday spirit. Give yourself permission to share the holiday with those you really want to be with most. During the holiday season, we seem to overlook our limitations more than during the rest of the year. It is wishful thinking to believe the "magic" of the season will change our less-than-perfect relationships with certain people. It is acceptable to admit that this might not be true.

Overspending. Do you remember the holiday season you cherish the most? I'll bet that whatever makes it memorable had little to do with the cost of the gifts you received. Some people give expensive gifts to impress or overwhelm others, rather than giving something the other person would consider special regardless of cost. In an attempt to outdo others and being influenced by holiday advertisements, we may feel obligated to spend more than we can afford. This is not what the "spirit of giving" means. Be aware of your reasons for buying gifts before you make a purchase. Try to buy gifts that will seem special to the persons who receive them, not just expensive ones for the sake of spending money.

Too Much Sympathy for the Unfortunate. Don't get me wrong. We need to be concerned about those who suffer misfortune. Especially with the general happiness of the holidays, their misfortune seems even more tragic. However, during the holiday season, organizations and individuals try to make the most of the "spirit of giving." It feels good to give to humanitarian causes at any time. However, if you do not respond generously to every request for help that you receive, you do not need to feel guilty.

Last-Minute Shopping. If you are spending Christmas Eve in a convenience store asking a clerk to gift wrap your purchase, this is your problem. In the weeks before the holidays, you need to plan ahead and pace yourself. The crowds are thinner and the merchandise selection is better earlier in the month. As the holiday gets closer, the people in the crowds get more impatient and tense. If you shop earlier, it will reduce your shopping stress.

Overeating. If you follow holiday tradition, you will eat foods typical of the season. Unfortunately, traditional holiday foods are overwhelmingly high in calories. This is definitely not the time to start a diet. I wouldn't suggest going without your favorite seasonal treats. However, to stay in control of your eating during the holidays, plan to have only small portions. (This one is easy for me to say, but hard for me to do especially if someone is sabotaging me by trying to be a "good" host and continually offering me more goodies.)

When you do eat your favorite fattening foods at any time give your full attention to eating them to increase your satisfaction. Don't eat them while watching television or while engrossed in some other activity. Make every calorie count in terms of the pleasure you get from eating them.

If you are like me and do overeat, forgive yourself. Don't become so disappointed with yourself that you give up all self-control and go on an eating binge. In other words, don't punish yourself for one mistake by making another.

Deciding Between In-Laws. Most families have holiday traditions. However, when children marry, this might disrupt these traditions for both families. For many families, Christmas traditions have an almost magical quality. In the newly married couple, one member might view missing their family celebration as being too much of a sacrifice. To add to this, parents on both sides might pull out their big "guilt guns" to pressure their children to spend the holiday with them.

There are several ways to find a compromise for this situation. The couple could alternate sites for the holidays, host the members of both families or even start new traditions for their family. It helps if both spouses and parents can take a realistic view on how to spend holiday time. All of those involved need to realize that old traditions frequently change, when marriages occur.

Overdrinking. With most holidays especially New Year's Eve some of us have problems with drinking. This is especially true, when others pressure us to "have another." However, good hosts do not pressure their guests into drinking alcoholic beverages. On the other hand, if you don't drink more than you really want even if urged on by well-meaning friends this pitfall can be avoided. Of course, you have the right to not drink at all, if that is what you desire. However, if you do drink, don't drink on an empty stomach. (Good hosts always serve food with alcoholic beverages.) I'm sure that I don't have to remind you that over half of all holiday accidents involve alcohol.

Division of Labor. At holiday times especially Christmas and New Year's Day women seem to do all the cooking and dishwashing, while the men watch football on TV. Part of our holiday tradition has kept women in the kitchen. This has often caused a great deal of fatigue and resentment for women. In these cases if men shared the labor more equitably a potential pitfall could be avoided. Already in recent years, more men are volunteering to help out in the household chores.

Loneliness. Traditionally, holidays are sharing times with those you love. If you don't have someone or are far from those you love, your loneliness can be extremely painful. It is unlikely that you can escape all feelings of loneliness during the holidays. However, you do not need to be overwhelmed by them. This loneliness may be related to other, more specific pitfalls.

Longing for "Old Times." This may be caused by loneliness and wishing for significant others who have moved away or died. It may also involve a longing for the magic of the holidays as seen through your eyes as a child. With all the responsibilities of buying gifts and planning for the holidays, adults find it difficult to recapture that wondrous feeling of childhood. However, those who dwell in the past often do not appreciate what they actually have in the present.

Child Custody. Problems with child custody also lead to loneliness during the holiday season. With family togetherness as part of holiday tradition, single parents without custody of their children can feel especially lonely, angry and/or sad during this season. Parents could alternate celebrations on different days possibly one on Christmas Eve and the other on Christmas Day so each parent can share their children's joy. If this isn't possible, the parent without custody could have the holiday celebration at a different time. With the technology of videotapes and VCRs even if parents are hundreds of miles away the joys of the day can be shared. However, the decision of what to do for the holidays needs to be made by the parents without trapping the child in the middle.

Year-End Blues. At the end of each year, we sum up the year's events. With advancing age or feelings of disappointment with the achievements of the preceding year, some people might become very depressed. A healthy way to deal with this depression is to set realistic goals for the next year. However if you set unrealistic goals this will guarantee future failure and the year-end blues at the end of next year. Reasonable goals are those that are challenging but obtainable.

Whatever the cause of depression or loneliness aging, divorce, moving or death there are constructive ways of dealing with these unpleasant feelings. Rather than being inactive and miserable, plan creative holiday activities that will be enjoyable for you. Arrange to get together with your friends, have a special meal or involve yourself in some pleasant activities during the holidays. If you have not developed new friends, you can spend some time helping to make someone else's holiday a little happier. Many different organizations can always use volunteers to serve meals to the homeless, bring meals to people who are shut-ins, provide activities or entertainment for people in various institutions or just listen to someone who needs a friend more than you do. You may start new traditions for yourself that will make the holiday season more meaningful and fulfilling. Isn't that what the holiday season is all about?

* Adapted from Linda Marcello's pamphlet, The Twelve Pitfalls of Christmas, for Camelback Behavioral Health Services in Scottsdale, Arizona, 1981.

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