The last two months of the year usually finds us in a frantic state of shopping, decorating, cooking and traveling, so is it any wonder we are more stressed than cheerful. Having so many "to do" lists, we are wound up and too exhausted to enjoy that which normally makes us happy, as in cherished traditions and intimate family gatherings. There is an underlying expectation at this time of the year, that everybody is supposed to be cheerful, and to some degree caught up in the frenetic activity. The external pressure of being merry creates an unrealistic goal for many of us.

Who do we have to thank for the pressure to have an over the top Holiday Season besides ourselves? Well there is Madison Avenue flashing the perfect holiday scenes into our living rooms by Halloween as we are nudged to start preparing earlier and early every year. The illusion is that if we start sooner, do more, consume more, in order to translate the advertising images of perfection into our lives and project them onto our real families, we can have a Currier and Ives experience. What ever possesses us to imagine that our holidays will be a cocoon of love, warmth, acceptance, and safety? It will be that way only to the extent that our lives are like this throughout the year. We yearn for warmth as well as intimacy and somehow believe that if we go the extra mile, prepare delicious meals, go without sleep, shop for the perfect gift in throngs of people, this year will be different.

More likely what happens is that when the Holidays are over we are left tired, irritable and somewhat empty. Once again we tend to feel inadequate in that we did not pull off the season, as we desired. Our culture tends to promote the belief that if we try harder, we can have that snapshot of beauty, frozen in time: that somehow we will evolve into a finer representation of ourselves, magically for the season, eschewing the usual family dysfunctions.

And while we are at it, let's look at how dysfunction tends to play out. Dysfunctional family members stay that way, and under the pressure of the season's expectations become more of whom they really are. Things in families that are tamped down the rest of the year can rise to the surface and become turbulent and weird at a holiday gathering. Aunt Sue will drink more to medicate her empty feelings, becoming sloppy and obnoxiously loud. The control freak becomes a micromanaging intrusion into everybody's business. This behavior is more prevalent because he cannot control the holiday hustle and bustle, thus he becomes more and more anxious. The rageful one sends family members tip toeing around, in order to avoid out and out volatility. Agatha, the sister, is more critical and demeaning in an attempt to lessen her envy of your success. Uncle Mike who is fundamentally distrustful of the Christmas experience is more cynical and fully into his "Bah-Humbug!" personality. It is noticed however that he is interested in the receiving part, sizing up his gifts against the number and value of others years. Is this the tribe you have fantasies of pleasing? If the above examples do not fit, fill in the blanks for yourself, before you decide to "overfunction", become overwhelmed and disappointed with you and them. So what part do you play in this drama. Are you pushing harder expecting different results? Do realize that more of the same will not work. The key word here is expectation of self and others, that somehow the illusion of warmth and togetherness will hold, if only for the season.

I am not talking here about families who are close compatible, who ebb and flow all year, with love, support, flexibility, and warmth. In such families everybody shares in the doing and the adjusting to changes, or simplifying as is necessary. The season's activities here are not about should do or I have to, they are a want to. As well as the wanting is the freedom to say "no" I prefer not to this year. The key here is that it is easier. Oh yes there are problems, have no illusions, there are always problems, however the problems do not take over. They seem to be on a parallel track along with joy, support and sharing. "We-ness" seems to predominate and a feeling that we are all on the same side folks. Commitment outweighs the dysfunction, as people are able to be more authentic.

Even in less messy families, there may be a tendency to over do, even as they discuss simplifying the way to celebrate the Holidays. It is important to grasp that simplifying does not mean getting more organized, although we are bombarded with "how to" articles at this time of the year. Getting more organized means trying to do the same things in less time, to become a combination of Martha Stewart and whomever might be her male counterpart, say Bob Vila. Stop torturing yourself, let go of such ideas while giving yourself permission to eliminate rituals and activities that are no longer meaningful, so you can focus on what you love. It may take you a few years to get there, as most likely there will be family resistance to change. So take baby steps. We cling to the old and the familiar because we fear being propelled out of our comfort zone.

To simplify does not require the abandoning of gift giving, or replacing holiday feasts with Spartan fare. It does however require us to rethink the ways we celebrate overall. It means becoming more conscious of the waste inherent in our usual ways and taking a stand to curtail excesses. It is a time to focus more on the decorating of our "inner tree", with true generosity, love and compassion. It is a time to reach out and encourage our children to give in ways that only children can. When we teach by example and include them, our children are willing to become actively involved in worthy causes, and in turn they teach us. Children in our culture are often left to be passive recipients of the holiday giving. We owe them an opportunity to participate in the kind of joyful giving, where no gift-wrap is required.

Since most of the responsibilities of making the Holidays come together rests on the shoulders of the women in the family, I suggest that you remember the Currier and Ives picture was not a reality, even back then, it was a picture. So forget the forced frivolity, the shoulds and all of its attendant madness. Dare to shake up how you want to handle the season. At this time your desires may be quite different from what they were the last five or ten seasons. In today's climate of economic uncertainty, a simpler less hectic holiday may make much more sense.

In order to clarify what you really want, it is a good idea to take a little time and make out the Holiday job list. After doing so, ask yourself some questions, regarding each item on the list:

* Do I like doing it?
* Would the Holiday season be the same without it?
* Who is responsible for seeing that it gets done?
* Is it a one-person job, or can it be shared?
* Do you do it out of habit, tradition, freedom, choice or obligation?
* Is this something you want to do differently? (Doing more of the same will bring the same results.)

Subsequently, it is a good idea to sit down with your household members. Have a discussion about the way the family celebrates. Ask: what do you dislike? What would you like to eliminate? What would you like to add? What do you love? Eliminate what you can, adding only what would be more meaningful while sticking to simplicity and sharing, as you select a few favorites, and if there are several, agree to rotate them. Finding more modest ways to celebrate, leaves us less vulnerable to stress as well as overeating and over-drinking to relieve tension and, or, rampant spending. It allows for time to express important values, deeper relationships, providing a sense of meaning across the generations. Experience Thanksgiving with true heartfelt gratitude, Christmas with the love, wonder and the sacredness inherent in all of the twelve days, and Hanukkah as the profound spiritual experience it is. Give yourselves permission to stop reflect and take in the true meaning of the Holidays.

Author's Bio: 

Laura Young is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and a Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist (CCH) devoted to helping people become more of what is possible for them. She draws on almost thirty years of clinical experience, with the last sixteen at Life Resource Center, a Private Practice, she established in 1992.

Over time Laura has specialized in Relationships; Life Transitions: Grief Resolution, Stress Management, and the Healing of Adult and Childhood Trauma .She has lead groups with a special emphasis on Women's Creativity Groups. Laura has given numerous presentations, as well as written many articles for local newspapers and regional magazines.

Laura's most recent venture has been her book, "The Nature Of Change". This book is the beginning of a dialogue to encourage, uplift and inform the reader. In it, she reaches out to others who may never choose to seek professional help, however they may appreciate having some tools and self-understanding to make necessary life changes.