Three Keys for Keeping Holiday Stress at Bay

Christmas is coming! We are in the season of warmth, kindness, yummy eggnog, romantic Hallmark movies … and crammed schedules, equally crammed parking lots, crazy weather, and financial stresses. How can we keep our inner Cindy-Lou Who intact and avoid becoming a grouchy old Grinch?

There are three little truths we’ve seen in the research that are worth keeping an eye on right now: three keys for kicking holiday stress to the curb. Apply them and it is much more likely that you will enjoy the season and emerge with your relationships stronger.

Key #1: Touch base regularly with the important people in your life

The holiday rush makes us time-stressed people. There are so many urgent things demanding our time – school parties, retirement-community decorations, final exams, work reports, and the I-haven’t-gotten-to-that-yet travel planning. Oh, and don’t forget Christmas shopping! (With what spare time, again?)

The problem is that time stress can lead to disconnection from the crucial people in your life. You look up one day in mid-December and realize you haven’t talked to your spouse in, like, three days. So you feel a bit distant. No biggie, right? It’s just the season. But then something amps up the stress – your car gets stuck in the snow, or you learn you aren’t getting a Christmas bonus this year – and suddenly that well of grace you normally have for one another has drained away faster than your resolution to avoid sugar for the next few weeks. You start snapping at each other. Or getting exasperated. Or withdrawn. So much for that holiday warmth, kindness, and romance.

Make a point to touch base regularly with your key loved ones: your spouse, kids, or important others. This doesn’t have to mean adding one more big item to your to-do list. We found in the research for Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, that one of the most crucial things you can do to create a happy marriage is to informally hang out. Having coffee together in the morning for a few minutes before you start your day can be just as impactful as a date night. And the same principle is just as important for parents and kids, or for any important relationship in your life. Carving out time for one another is crucial throughout the year, but is essential this time of year, when holiday stress abounds.

So, make it a point to text your adult kids with an update on your latest funny shopping incident and ask how their week is going. Ask your younger kids to show you their favorite holiday TikToks. Take a few minutes to hug your frazzled wife when you come in from shoveling snow, and ask how her day was. Snuggle up to your husband at night and find out whether he’s still worried about the company being acquired next year. Plan for an hour when you and your spouse will wrap most of your presents together in the same (closed-door) room, rather than dividing-and-conquering for efficiency.

It will be a lot easier to have grace with one another when you are close rather than disconnected.

Key #2: Keep short accounts

If you’re married, this is the perfect time to relearn what you committed to on your wedding day, about keeping short accounts and majoring on the majors. As noted, stresses can lead to snapping, and snapping can lead to hurt feelings. Similarly, molehills become mountains – mountains that really seem important – when one or both of you are tired or busy.

Don’t let those things fester.

Yes, you’ve asked your spouse twice if they could move the car so it isn’t blocking your holiday guests in, and they keep forgetting. You know what? Your spouse probably isn’t purposefully being a jerk; they are just as busy and frazzled as you. Grab the keys and move the car yourself. And don’t sarcastically jangle the keys loudly when your spouse sees you walking in the door. When they say, remorsefully, “I’m so sorry you had to do that,” (or in an annoyed tone, “I was going to get to it!”) cheerfully say, “It’s okay, I just figured I would do it.” And move on.

Now is the time to remember that all of us fall short – it’s why Jesus had to come in the first place, after all! – and be willing to have grace with others who are falling short as well. There is power in letting things go.* In fact, you might build a new habit that brings new life to your relationships long after the holidays are over.

*As long as you’re not enabling an abusive relationship, which goes beyond what we can cover here. However, if you suspect that is the case in your life, please reach out to a counselor or therapist as soon as possible.

Key #3: Every day, set the right expectations

If you and I were to sit down in July, think about the Christmas season, and say, “What would my top advice to myself be about managing Christmas well this year?” I suspect that one of our top answers would be: “Keep things simple. It’s not about the perfect present or the best decorations; it’s about family, friends, and celebrating Jesus.”

The problem is that we don’t actually sit down and think about it in July – and if we did, our own advice might be tossed aside as soon as we see that extra toy we just have to find for our kids, or the request from the holiday party for the special cheesecake we just have to make from scratch. (They asked for our special recipe, after all!)

So, let’s now ask ourselves, “What would I have said was my top advice to myself about managing Christmas well this year?” If the answer is indeed some flavor of “keep things simple and remember what matters most,” then let’s treat that like a sort of compass. Every task, request, use of time, and even thought pattern and feeling gets checked against that compass. Will this task or thought pattern lead us toward “keeping things simple and remembering what matters most?” Or away from it? Once we start making decisions based on that compass, we will decide things like, “I would love to treat everyone with my cheesecake, but it is far more important to spend a few minutes with my lonely family

member instead.” Or, “I know I feel guilty for not being able to afford more presents this year, but there is a lot of love in this house and that’s the most beautiful thing.” When we do that, we are far more likely to return to the type of special and sacred Christmas we are truly longing for, rather than the commercialized, rush-rush-rush Christmas that stresses us out.

As Ruth Chou Simons said in her Christmas devotional Emmanuel, “Many of us lack the eager anticipation we once knew in our youth when it comes to Christmastime … for so many of us, the joyous expectancy of a fun-filled holiday is overshadowed by unrealistic expectations and impossible standards. We replace expectancy with expectations.”

Friends, lets protect our relationships and our own well-being by daily making a point of replacing holiday expectations with holy expectancy. Let us remind ourselves what God has done for us – Heaven invaded earth! – and let Him fill us back up with the true joy and meaning of this special time of year.

*If you want a way to build true Joy in your life, no matter your circumstances, or know someone who does, consider my devotional Find Joy: A devotional journey to unshakable wonder in an uncertain world.

And if you are interested in having Shaunti speak on kindness for your workplace, church, school or community group, please contact Nicole Owens at

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