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Your Biggest Holiday Dilemmas – Solved!

Need to cut your gift list? Too many family obligations? Here’s how to reduce the holidays stress for everyone.

There’s nothing like the holiday season to put us under pressure. Whether it’s buying the perfect gift or hosting the best party, we’re in a race to meet high –and often unrealistic — expectations during what’s supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year.”

“We try to make our friends, relatives and children happy, but you just can’t please everybody all the time — especially during the holidays,” says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and author of The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It and Mean It.

Here, a guide how to navigate four of the stickiest holiday dilemmas while keeping your relationships intact and reducing holiday stress.


Situation: Trimming your gift list without upsetting anyone.

Solution:  In today’s economy, drawing the line on gift-giving is a no-brainer. But the key to making this arrangement work is to spread the word early, before your sibs and gal pals max out their credit cards. “Many families limit how much the adults can spend on each other, or they do a ‘Secret Santa’ where everybody buys and receives just one present,” Dr. Newman says. “Another option is to set a policy that the adults buy for their young nieces and nephews, but not each other.” Among friends, there’s always uncertainty about how much to spend — and fear that your gift will look chintzy. Solve the problem by setting a spending limit in advance. Or suggest an alternative, such as cooking a fabulous meal together or pooling your money and making a charitable donation.


Situation:  Changing an established family tradition. 

Solution: It’s the same thing year after year — Christmas Eve at your mother’s place, New Year’s brunch at your sister’s — and you’d like to be the host for a change. “You have the right to say, ‘I want to try something different; I want to host the family celebration this year,” Dr. Newman says. Try this approach: First, acknowledge the other person’s feelings while presenting your side: “Mom, I know how much you enjoy having us over, but with our crazy schedules, it would be easier if I could host dinner this year.” Second, encourage her to contribute to the celebration: “It wouldn’t be Christmas without your chocolate cake.” And if your mom balks at giving up hosting duties, suggest that she schedule her gathering on a different day. “Be prepared for a little pushback at first, but remember that families not only adjust to change, but even embrace it,” Dr. Newman says. “More than anything, your parents want to be with you on the holidays.”

Situation: Celebrating when you’re not feeling festive.

Solution: If you’ve been going through a rough patch — a divorce, a layoff, the loss of a loved one — the thought of going to holiday parties, concerts and tree-lighting ceremonies may seem overwhelming. The answer: Instead of accepting every invitation, choose one or two that you think you’d enjoy. To the rest, decline with a simple answer: “It was sweet of you to ask me, but I can’t make it” or “I’m sorry, but I already have other plans.” Don’t give a detailed explanation as to why you can’t attend. As Dr. Newman points out, “If you say, ‘I’m not happy this year’ or ‘Things are going badly for me right now,’ you’ll give the host wiggle room to say, ‘Oh, you’ll feel better if you get out and see people.’”

Situation: Trying to please both sides of the family at once.


out from racing to both your parents and in-laws’ houses on Christmas? Some boundary-tightening is in order. You and your
kids will have a far more pleasant day if you don’t have to fight traffic and chow down two heavy meals
to avoid hurting Grandma and Nana’s
feelings. “Don’t let yourself be held
hostage by the past,” Dr. Newman warns. “On a rotating basis, visit one
set of relatives on Christmas Eve and the other on Christmas Day. Or celebrate
with one set on Christmas Day and the other during the week.” Stand your
ground. After all, you’re an adult now, and it’s up to you to write holiday rules that
work for your family!

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