The festive season is often a peak time for stress, strained relationships and spending. But a bit of planning goes a long way in boosting holiday harmony.
Do you feel like you're on an unstoppable express train to the end of December? There's relentless Christmas shopping, a tendency to overindulge in alcohol, and the looming get together with relatives who don't necessarily get on with each other.
It's a pressure cooker time of year, acknowledges Kylie Dunjey, a West Australia-based counsellor and spokeswoman for Relationships Australia. But taking some time out to think and plan ahead could help take some of the stress out of the holiday season, Dunjey says.
Ask yourself honesty, 'what am I expecting of the festive period and is it actually realistic?' she advises. "There's a little perfectionist in all of us when it comes to special events. The fact of the matter is: it won't be perfect and we have to deal with it."
Also know you won't please everyone. "Try not to buy into this myth that we can actually make everyone happy," Dunjey says. "Often behind our stress there's a core belief that is really unhelpful and just not possible."
If there is conflict among family members, you may have to accept it and plan to manage it, rather than expect or hope to change it during the pre-holiday madness.
"We often get a rush of [counselling] appointments at this time of year. People think 'I've got to get this sorted'. But often things get a bit messy before they get better. What optimises change is having more energy. Do you have more energy around Christmas time? Probably not."
Her suggestion: try to "maintain and manage" relationships rather than reinvent them at this time of year. But make a commitment to address the relationship issue in the new year.
Get (everyone) planning
Start planning now. If you're playing host to this year's festive gathering, encourage everyone to play a part. Have a Christmas planning meeting and once everyone is listening... delegate, delegate, delegate. (If you aren't playing host, breathe a sigh of relief and then offer to help out. "For people who have a little bit of martyr in them, Christmas is full of landmines," Dunjey says.)
Be honest about how much you can handle and ask for help if you need it. Don't tell people you're happy to do everything when you aren't, or you risk feeling resentful and bitter on the day. You don't want to spend hours buried under a pile of washing up.
If you're worried about how some more difficult guests might behave, try and raise your concern, Dunjey says. "The more you bring people into the picture, the more mindful they're likely to be of their behaviour." (If not, find yourself a pile of washing up to hide under.)
Plan to minimise conflict
For many of us it's not Christmas without some kind of family drama.
But if Uncle Bob always argues with your Mum, separate them. Plan activities, board games, backyard cricket or even a water fight to lighten the mood and distract warring parties after lunch.
Make sure you have fun things for the kids to do – bored kids are grumpy kids, and grumpy kids means grumpy grown-ups.
Offer plenty of non-alcoholic drinks. Too much booze can lower inhibitions and throw fuel onto the fire of slow burning disputes. Try not to drink too much yourself, so you can keep a cool head if things turn ugly. (You can always have an extra glass to celebrate later, when you've got through the day without mishaps.)
But don't run yourself ragged trying to control things. Rather redefine what will make you happy.
"You could just appreciate something simple: how lovely it is that people can get together in one place on one day," Dunjey says. "The minute people arrive, that's achieved and you can delight in it."
Don't blow the budget
Pressure on your bank balance fuels stress, especially at this time of year. Talk to friends and family about how to keep Christmas fun, without breaking the bank. Dunjey suggests you could bring this up at your Christmas planning meeting.
"Sometimes people throw caution to the wind because presents have a certain meaning to them," she points out. "But the receiver may not find it so rich in meaning. We can't go into some unreal space where there are no boundaries. It will catch up with us. It might be helpful to purposely think about what January is going to look like, and maybe the whole of 2013, because of decisions made in December."
It can also help to take a creative approach to gift giving. Home-grown tomatoes anyone?
Give yourself time and space
If there is family conflict involving you, or you're dealing with a loss of some sort, emotions and inner turmoil can be heightened at this time of year. Giving yourself time and space to focus on this before Christmas arrives can be helpful, Dunjey says.
"Look at whatever it is that's not the way you'd like it to be and rather than deny or fight it, name it and acknowledge that you find yourself sad or hurt or anxious and just work your way through this process with time and space.
This doesn't take it away, but very often it means it doesn't last as long. It has a diffusing impact."
Prioritise self care
Recognise how stressful the end of year/holiday period can be and manage your stress as you do any other time of year. Prioritise getting enough sleep, eating well and getting regular exercise. "Just because you get busy, try not to stop doing the things that work for you the other 11 months of the year," Dunjey says.
Remember there's no rule that says you have to accept all invitations to social events. Say no to invitations if you need, especially if saying yes will leave you feeling worn out.
"Putting an organiser on the fridge that spells out how many plates you have to provide for how many different parties can sometimes confront you to make some hard decisions about how much to do too."
Plan a Christmas "post mortem"
If all else fails – the Christmas gathering is a disaster, everyone hates their presents and the season leaves you financially and physically drained – plan to debrief with someone you trust.
Try to come up with a plan for how you'll do it differently next year, even if that means escaping to a remote location for the whole of December with just your nearest and dearest. (Preferably somewhere Uncle Bob's never heard of.)