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4 Guidelines for Happier Holidays

Reflections on Celebrations Past

Father and adult-son catching up during the holidays.
Images by © Halfpoint

Many of us older people enjoy the holidays more than we did when we were younger. Back then, I found the holidays, especially Christmas, an annual challenge. But with years of trial and error, trying new strategies, and falling into old patterns, many of us have had the time to figure out what works for us. In this blog, I will share a few highlights from my own evolution and also what I have learned from clients and from the hundreds of older people I interviewed during my ongoing research.

 Here are four guidelines that will increase your joy in holidays whatever your age— and reduce your stress.

1. Let Go of Expectations 

Who could believe that three years of Covid could wreak such havoc and disrupt so much of our holiday plans? We broke traditions that had been unbroken for hundreds of years and discarded behavioral patterns of our whole lives. Christmas took a particularly big hit for the millions of Americans who spent their holidays without any family.

Couple enjoying a holiday video-call with their loved ones.
Images by © Jacob Lund

But big surprise! It turned out that a day with fewer of our usual activities was okay and even joyful. The lack of fuss and clutter was a pleasure. And the phone calls to family, the true gratitude of hearing each other’s voices was enough. We had let go of all expectations and to our complete surprise, it was an unexpectedly happy day. 

As Covid goes on and on and on, we have gotten used to expecting the unexpected. We accept plans being canceled over and over. We know how to adapt. We know, now, that holding on to expectations of how things will be only leads to disappointment. We have learned that nothing remains the same as it was. As the philosopher, Heraclius said, “No one ever steps in the same river twice, it’s not the same river and they are not the same person.” We are different now.

2. Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

Another potential spoiler of our holidays is the huge “To Do” lists that we create for ourselves: shopping, scheduling, writing cards, selecting gifts, decorating, wrapping presents, planning meals, baking, cooking, and hosting. Many of us feel that things must be done just as they have always been done. No shortcuts. We don’t even know why we feel that way. Or why we keep dancing the same old dance? 

Friends enjoying holiday preparations together.
Images by © wavebreak3

An example of how I’ve changed. In my thirties, each year I made special from-scratch sugar cookies in the shape of Christmas trees and stars. I would make icings in 5 colors and then decorate each cookie with 2 or 3 colors. It was a two or three-day project, and, once made, the cookies were almost too beautiful to eat. Worst of all, I usually got bronchitis right after making them and would be sick for days.

 Eventually, I realized I couldn’t keep making those cookies any longer even though the kids loved them. My repeated illnesses were too high a price. It was a very difficult decision but I knew it was right. And having done this, it became easier to do more pruning. The next year I stopped writing long personal Christmas cards and I found that a printed note to everyone was okay, too. And then I persuaded the 10 adults in my family to draw lots and just give and get one present. And each change made room for more fun and more pleasure.

Family enjoying Hanukkah dinner together.
Images by © Drazen

Of course, there is no right way to celebrate the holidays. But it has taken me a lifetime to figure out what genuinely brings me pleasure and what is just too much for me, Katharine, to do and to enjoy. I encourage each of you to review your “To Do" list and see what brings pleasure and what might go.

Katharine's many nativity scenes from around the world.

3. Hold On to What You Love 

There is still so much about the holiday I love. I look forward to setting out my many creches as I have done for over 65 years. They come from all over the world: France, Poland, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Israel, Nicaragua, Peru, Chile, Mexico, the Philippines, Malawi, and the USA. I bought the first one in Provence as a newlywed of 22. The nativity scene I bought has 30 or so half-inch tiny pottery inhabitants of a provincial French village plus Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. Each year when I unwrap them once again, it brings me the sweetest memories and fills my heart.

In recent years, I found great joy in simple activities: seeing the Christmas tree, watching the grandchildren open their stockings, the games my family plays on Christmas night, hearing Handel’s Messiah, and listening to Christmas music. Having aged out of the holiday hustle, as well as most of the work and the chores, I can officially report that my holidays are happier. 

4. Keep on loving your family and friends 

As we gather for the holidays, one of the usual challenges is being with members of our family who do not think like us or behave like us. You may have someone like my Uncle David who makes inappropriate remarks to the young girls or my Aunt Bess who make racist comments. Everyone seems to have people in their family who are a challenge for them. One friend of mine said to me this week, “All the people I found annoying at family events are dead.” But, dear readers, I don’t think waiting for this to happen is the way to go. Rather, you can review the blog I wrote about how to deal with difficult situations around the holidays.

Honestly, there are no easy answers. After years of witnessing several unpleasant scenes, I came to believe that family harmony on a holiday is more important than confronting anyone on anything. But when I ignored some outrageous comments, I felt cowardly and unprincipled. Maybe the real answer to this is for all of us to just learn how to listen. Asking “Help me understand why you feel this way” is often a helpful way to go. Once you hear someone out, you often can realize they are in pain and that makes it easier to feel compassion for them. Another option is to speak up in such a gentle way that harmony is not broken. 

I have found that as I have aged I am far less judgmental of other people and far more appreciative of my friends and extended family than when I was younger. Just being together —that is enough—is happiness for me.

Family enjoying a joyful embrace.
Images by © TommyStockProject

Everyone over age 70 has had so much good fortune. Just to make it through the hazards of daily life for all those decades and to survive is a small miracle. And most older folk, feel that keenly. We think about how lucky we are every day. Despite our many aches, pains, and serious conditions we are here. When we were younger, we thought we would rather shoot ourselves if we had so many problems. But the great irony of life is that these very problems make us appreciate being alive even more. And to see that being alive is the greatest gift of all, not just at holiday time, but every day.


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