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How to Manage Expectations Around the Holidays

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and it’s the most dreaded time of the year. Christmas is coming, and with it, a slew of traditions and expectations that—if we’re not careful—will pile on so much guilt and busyness that we can’t enjoy the reason for the season. But how can we manage everyone’s expectations around the holidays and still have the Christmas we long for?

The best way to have a Christmas to remember is to take some time before the hustle and bustle overwhelm you to think through what matters most to you, your spouse, and your children or grandchildren. Here are 13 ways to cut through the clutter and recapture the heart of the season for you and your family.

Holiday Activities

Our December calendars can become overstuffed with events, leaving us exhausted by all the comings and goings, not to mention all the stress of hosting family and friends. It can be helpful to take a step back and evaluate whether or not these activities still work for your family. Here are some ways to manage your December calendar.

Make a list. No, not the one your kids give to Santa or grandma with what they want wrapped under the Christmas tree. This is a list of the traditions your family celebrates in December. Beside each one, write down the why behind the tradition. Then gather the family, make some hot chocolate or another holiday treat, and discuss the list to see what stays and what goes. Maybe no one really likes dressing in matching PJs on Christmas morning. Perhaps making wassail on Christmas Eve is something everyone loves to do together. Whatever the tradition, have a family vote on what stays and goes.

Add to the list. Now that you’ve gone through the list of traditions you have done in the past see if there are any you’d like to incorporate into your family celebration. Maybe you’ve always wanted to drive around looking at holiday lights in your neighborhood, or perhaps you want to unwrap presents from the immediate family on Christmas Eve instead of during the chaos of Christmas morning at your in-laws. Get input from each family member if possible.

Build your calendar. After culling the old traditions and wrapping in some new ones, it’s time to pull out your calendar and see what’s feasible in light of school and church functions. Don’t forget to build in margin—that extra time of empty space to account for the unexpected.

Holiday Gifts

Children, teens, and adults love to get—and give—presents at Christmas, but sometimes, buying, wrapping, and giving gifts can add a layer of stress that feels more Scrooge-like than Christlike. Here are some suggestions for managing expectations around holiday gift-giving.

Develop a budget—and stick to it. No matter the reason, it’s good to have a set amount you’ll spend per person this holiday season. I sometimes approach holiday spending as a game to see how close to the amount I can come for each family member.

Tell the kids and family. If you are scaling back spending for whatever reason, then let those for whom you purchased more extravagant gifts in the past know in advance. This will eliminate Christmas morning surprises.

Pare down the gift list. Is your gift-buying list getting longer each year? It’s okay to stop giving presents to those in the outer circles of our lives. For example, a handwritten note of appreciation to teachers would be treasured even more than another Starbucks gift card.

Consider experiences over things. Sometimes, giving tickets to a play or sporting event can be fun rather than something tangible, so think outside the box when it comes to presents. For example, some families give the gift of a vacation to a place everyone’s wanted to go.

Shop early. Try not to put off holiday shopping until the last minute. The sooner you can check off those on your list, the less stress you’ll feel. Wrap your presents as early as you can to avoid the last-minute Christmas Eve scramble.

Don’t second-guess yourself. One way we let others’ expectations overwhelm us is when we think what we bought isn’t “good enough” for the receiver. That gift you bought on sale back in August for your mother is still perfect, even if you’re now wondering if you should spend an extra $50 to get her something else. And let me tell you a secret—even if it wasn’t the perfect gift for that recipient, it’s okay because it really is the thought that counts.

Holiday Treats & Decorations

Live or fake Christmas tree? Lights on the outside of the house? Decorated shortbread cookies? Elaborate Christmas dinner? The trappings of Christmas can bring joy, but they can also raise expectations. Here are some ideas for managing the treats and decorations this time of year.

Focus on the reason. Sometimes, we get too involved with making our homes look and smell like Christmas that we forget why we celebrate. Keeping the reason—the birth of our Savior—firmly in mind can help us say no to going overboard on the outward trimmings.

Ask the family. For our family, we love (okay, I love!) a live Christmas tree and lights on the outside of our home, so every year, that’s our main decorating focus. If we add anything else in the way of decorations, it’s considered a bonus, but we put our time and energy into those two main things.

Store-bought is okay. For tasty treats, homemade is good, but store-bought is fine too. If your ambitious Christmas baking plans fall apart, it is all right to pick up a box of Trader Joe’s Decked Out Tree Cookies or a bag of wrapped chocolates from Costco. If you receive treats from a store rather than the giver’s kitchen, you’ll enjoy them just as much as if she’d baked them herself.

Prepared foods taste great too. As with buying baked goods, you have permission to get a prepared meal from a restaurant or retailer as your Christmas dinner. Some years, a homemade Christmas meal isn’t feasible, so let someone else take care of the cooking.

The main thing to remember is that no one wants a stress-filled Christmas. Jettisoning the expectations of others and focusing on what matters most to you will ensure you’ll have a Christmas to remember—and time to enjoy it.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Aaron Amat

sarah hamaker author bio picSarah Hamaker is a national speaker and award-winning author who loves writing romantic suspense books “where the hero and heroine fall in love while running for their lives.” She’s also a wife, mother of four teenagers, a therapeutic foster mom, a UMFS Foster Parent Ambassador, and podcaster (The Romantic Side of Suspense podcast). She coaches writers, speakers, and parents with an encouraging and commonsense approach. Visit her online at



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