Surviving the Holidays with Your Family—and Sanity—Intact / by Alison M. Newcomb


Three days ago, the temperature finally started its steep descent into a suddenly-bitter chill that is so often the calling card of December’s arrival in Colorado. When I slipped out early that first morning to walk our dog, while the rest of the house was silent—still cozy and asleep in bed—the frigid air nearly took my breath away. As I turned back inside to find a jacket and some gloves, I abruptly realized, with some amount of panic, that we still had not gotten a Christmas tree. 

Right, I know. What’s the big deal? I realize it is only the first half of December and there is still quite a broad selection of trees available. Growing up, though, we often did not get our tree until few days before Christmas, sometimes not until late on Christmas Eve, when it was hard to even find any place still open for business in our small Southern town. 

And I have always loved everything about this season—the lights, the decorations, the anticipation. Ever since I moved out of my parents’ house, Christmas has been my thing. I was in full, deck-the-halls mode well before any person in their early 20’s, who would end up bouncing between apartments and cities for nearly a decade, ever should be. Along with my furniture and clothes, I moved boxes of Christmas decorations back and forth across the country twice, before I finally settled down long enough to sign a two-year lease.

As I put down more permanent roots, my holiday “thing” only grew bigger. Just a few years ago, I was actually told by a 7yr-old boy (who was at our house, one December weekend, for a sleepover with my husband’s oldest son) that “I had really overdone it this year!” Without a shred of irony. Not one. 

As my life and my family grew more complicated, my Christmas compulsion began to feel more and more like a chore. Only adding to the fever pitch of holiday obligations—company dinners, Christmas cocktail parties, and (these days) the boys’ own mounting social calendar. It took several years of whirlwind Decembers and early-January exhaustion to finally force me to revisit my real motivations, and whether the joy I’d always found, diving head-first into the holidays, was even really there anymore. For myself or my family. 

What I discovered is that, while the kids do love the sparkly fun of our holiday decorating traditions, everything else I thought was so important to do was either not important, or not even noticed, by anyone else. What was noticed, though, was my distractedness. My stressed and hurried demeanor made me into a to-do list drill sergeant, rather than a partner or coparent. This time of year that should be a space for rest and spending soul-nourishing time with family and friends had become something I was not present enough for in my own body to enjoy—too caught up in a checklist mentality to leave any room at all for the joy of human connection.  

It was clear that I needed to redefine, with my family, what this season really means to us. Though that will be a continual discovery process over the years to come, what I know now is that people, kids especially, can sense your distraction before you may know it yourself. They feel when you are simply going through the motions. 

I wish I could say that I am self-aware enough to notice this in myself, but one thing I have always been good at is putting on the blinders and hunkering through stressful periods until I safely reach the other side. Only to realize I have few memories of what I’ve just been through. Now this has certainly been a convenient capability at difficult times in my life but somehow, when I wasn’t looking, the holidays got lumped into my brain’s “traumatic events” bucket. And I was missing out on so much as a result.

These days, I am still in the very early stages on Christmas addiction recovery. Today, I still start to feel that itch to break out the Christmas decorations well before it’s appropriate, but I’m working to dial it back. I realize there are times when I may need supportive reminders to prevent me from sliding back into old habits, and so I’ve been keeping track of the advice and tactics that best help me keep things in perspective at this time of year. So far my list is pretty short, but I can personally vouch for its effectiveness. 

Photo by Nick Morrison.jpg

7 Tips for Surviving the Holidays

Sanity Intact

  1. This may sound completely obvious, but it is something that has blindsided me many a holiday season. As you approach the November/December holiday block, take a minute to count the number of full weekends in December before Christmas. Knowing that you only have two weekends, instead of the three you typically expect, will make a huge difference in how much you will try to pack into those precious few days.
  2. If sending holiday cards is a tradition for you, like it is in our house, consider ordering them early. Most online sites offer incredible discounts for orders placed in the first two weeks of November, which leaves room for upgrades like envelope addressing. 
  3. Limit weeknight social commitments, at least until school is out for the holiday break.
  4. On Sunday nights, write out a weekly family calendar that shows everyone's day and evening schedules, including plans you have as a family—then put it front-and-center on the fridge. This weekly calendar gets everyone on the same page and allows us to plan ahead for at least two dinners at home each week during the hectic holiday season, which really helps keep all of us grounded.
  5. If you don't already do this during the rest of the year—or if you are just a bit lax about keeping your commitment when other things come up—be sure to add workouts to your calendar and treat them with the same level of importance as you would a client meeting or your kid’s school play.
  6. Come fall every year, I have an ingrained habit of starting to slowly collect unique, and on sale, host/hostess gifts as I come across them. By the time the first holiday social invite sneaks up on us (as they always seem to do), I have a stockpile on hand and no one has to worry about running out to buy something, last-minute, just when the holiday shopping crowds are reaching their peak. 
  7. Schedule a post-holiday date (with just yourself or with your partner) that is just as exciting, if not more, than all the festivities that will come before it. I’ve found that this is a great way to trick myself into reserving my energy through the hectic holidays in anticipation of some quality alone time with my husband.

Each year I am sure I will add to this list of preventative measures that keep from slipping back into my habitual checklist mentality. But, as I am writing this now, we still have not gotten our Christmas tree. Yet I am somehow calmly sitting here at our kitchen table—one kiddo to my right, researching how to make the best slime, the other one across the table writing his latest Captain Underpants-inspired graphic novel, my husband reading on the couch with our new kitten snoozing at his feet. And there is nowhere else I need to be. 


Right now, that is proof enough for me.

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