Christmas is coming: Tips to make it stress-free

By Dulcie Lee
BBC News

Image source, Getty Images

For many, Christmas may be the most wonderful time of the year, but it doesn't come without hard work - and often a fair amount of stress.

Whether it's caving in and buying that slightly too expensive computer game, or warmly welcoming family you're not entirely comfortable with, Christmas can get a bit much.

In the run-up to the big day, it can feel like you're burning the candle at both ends. There'll be awkward office parties as well as Christmas meet-ups with friends.

Food and drinks menus have to be devised and someone has to organise getting relatives round before lunch. And whatever you do don't miss the last post (it's 20 December for first class).

The pressure to create a perfect day full of Instagrammable Christmas trees, beaming family members, and delicious food can often put strain on relationships too.

Before you know where you are, a supposedly joyful time turns into something all the more stressful. So here are some tips on how to cope with some of the key stresses of the festive season.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Do NOT feel you need to compete with light displays such as Christmas at Kew

"Christmas kind of puts a magnifying glass on relationships," explains Denise Knowles, a counsellor for relationship support charity, Relate.

"Christmas has been sold to us as a time of family, of enjoying being together. So if our expectations are that's what it should be, and that doesn't happen, then we feel we've failed in some way."

"And if we fail then it's human nature to look to point the finger of blame."

According to Ms Knowles, the key to a less stressful Christmas is down to mental preparation and lots of planning.

Anticipate what'll happen on the day. Will Dad have one too many and doze off just as you're about to serve Christmas lunch? Will Monopoly end in tears? (Yes.)

So once it's clear where the stress is coming from, what next?

In the words of professional organiser Jules Langford: "Cheat, shamelessly."

"If you have to get mince pies for the school fair, buy them from Tesco and rough them up a bit," she says. No one will know, or at least everyone will understand. Expecting things to be perfect is unrealistic and instead it's about prioritising, she says.


Image source, BBC/Jellylegs

Tis the season to be... making strained conversation with distant family members.

Every family has its unique and baffling dynamics. "But it's all about communicating," explains Ms Knowles. "You don't want an elephant in the room on Christmas Day."

"If you've always got great Aunt Ethel sitting in the corner and she's a bit of a pain then think 'is there someone else that can take her?'"

Don't expect people to behave differently because it's Christmas. Break up the day to give people space. Go for a walk, together or separately.

For people with separated or extended families, it's best to plan far in advance: "It's not sexy, it's not festive, but actually knowing who is going where, when, and how is important," says Ms Knowles.

And if this Christmas is the first one without a significant person, for whatever reason, it's worth considering putting new rituals in place.

Making things perfect

For busy mum Rachel McPherson, from Morayshire, her high standards and desire to see those around her happy make her stressed at Christmas time.

"I say every year I'm going small and simple," she says. "But I struggle to keep the nagging gremlins at bay.

"My husband is military and works away and both my children either work full-time or are in full-time education.

"I'm part-time in the NHS. So realistically it always lands on my shoulders to make everyone's Christmas great."

Jules Langford, who spends her time perfecting other people's homes, says its important to lower expectations to realistic and manageable levels.

"There's all sorts of Christmases. Don't feel like you have to have the Christmas you see on Instagram. If you're just sitting there in your PJs watching TV, that's okay too. Cut yourself a bit of slack."

She recommends prioritising three things you want to do this Christmas, and treat anything else as a bonus.

This helps get perspective and cut down on the guilt you feel after dropping out of your fifth carol concert of the month.

Remember, she says, it's not all your responsibility. "Make it fun. Have a little Christmas meeting. Dole all the jobs out."

Food and shopping

Image source, Getty Images

Woe betide the cook who forgets about the cousin who doesn't like sprouts. Or the uncle who "won't eat carrots".

Catering for everyone at Christmas is hard, but Ms Knowles says the key to avoiding arguments is delegation: "If you've got everybody coming to you it might be an idea to say 'you do the Christmas pudding, you do the crackers, you help with the dishes afterwards'.

"That way you're not going to be stomping around annoyed in the kitchen."

If you don't fancy the faff of cooking, go out for Christmas lunch. "It also stops people rowing," says Ms Langford.

"They're not going to start a fight in public. And no one person has to feel like they've martyred themselves."

If Christmas food shopping is part of your festive buzz, then hit the supermarkets, but order heavy items like drinks online.


Image source, Getty Images

If you want to spare your wallet (and your relationships) make a budget and stick to it. "Come January that's the sort of thing that causes all the angst, when the credit card bill comes in," Ms Knowles explains.

According to the Bank of England, households in December spend 30% more on alcohol, 20% more on food, and 80% more on books.

One way to save money and time is a family "secret santa" where each member of the family buys (and receives) just one gift. This is maybe just one for the adults though.

Handmade bookmarks, photo frames or baked goods also make cheap, thoughtful present.

Ms Langford says now is a great time to sort through children's toys as they'll get more at Christmas, and you can sell or donate any cluttering up the house.

And if all else fails, she says, remember, everyone else's Christmas isn't going perfectly either.