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It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year . . . Or is it?

The best gift parents can ever give to their children is to love each other.

How can I recapture the excitement and joy that I felt about the holidays when I was a child instead of the complete and total dread I feel about the upcoming season, and all the work it entails? Is it okay to declare a gift-free Christmas in order to savor the more relaxing aspects of the holidays without insulting my in-laws?
Susan from Rumson

Why is it that the holidays are not quite what they used to be? We try to pass on the traditions of our childhood to our children but it never seems to feel the same. Times change, families change and it’s always difficult to seamlessly blend the traditions of two separate families. This challenge is both the essence of holiday stress for couples but also offers a wonderful opportunity to develop new traditions for their families.

Susan wants to return to a time when life was less complicated and more fun. It’s certainly a reasonable fantasy, but to expect her holidays now to look like the pictures of her childhood holidays is not very productive. She can recapture the excitement and joy of the holiday seasons of her youth but she can’t do it alone. She has to work hand in hand with her spouse to create a shared vision of what the holidays should be for their new family so they can offer their children the same excitement and joy that they felt as children.

Couples that have the least stressful holidays are able to do so because they have combined their respective traditions into new ones. It brings the emotions that we remember from the past into the present but focuses on your immediate family. Susan is feeling dread because she has to deal with her in-laws disappointment (or worse) when she tries to change how they do the holidays. Can she work with her husband not only to create new traditions for their family but also help their extended family understand the motivation for their changes?

Even if everyone in the family doesn’t like the idea of a gift-free holiday, Susan and her husband can begin a tradition with their children to create a more relaxing holiday. A great alternative to giving gifts to each other is to each contribute towards a gift for the family, something that everyone will use.

How do you teach your kids the true meaning of the holiday – that it is not just about the gifts?
Jean from Middletown

This concern is a familiar one. Going against the commercial tidal wave that floods our community every December is indeed a challenge to couples. Jean and her husband have the opportunity to teach their children the true meaning of the holidays and to help them to keep gift giving in perspective.

There are lots of creative, fun and meaningful alternatives Jean can try. Donate 50% of your gift budget to a charity chosen by the family; have everyone in the family work at a shelter or soup kitchen throughout the holiday season; speak with your family and let the kids decide how to make the holidays meaningful to them. Teaching your children how to appreciate all they have should bring Jean and her husband together – not create conflict.

My husband Tom spends the first three weeks of every December going to holiday parties – most of them without me. He is out 3-4 evenings a week and often comes home after 1-2 AM stinking of alcohol and cigarettes. He tells me that going to these par- ties is good for his career, but I think he likes to have an excuse to be away from his responsibilities at home and party. He says that he would rather be home instead of going to all of these functions but I do not believe him. I do not like Tom in December and it is beginning to ruin my holidays. What can I do?
Barbara from Colts Neck

Eating too much turkey, drinking too much eggnog and spending too much money on gifts aren’t the only excesses we need to control during the holidays. Too much partying will get you into trouble as well. Barbara is expressing several concerns about Tom in her question – his commitment to his family, his drinking and his sincerity. When Barbara talks to Tom about her concerns, he needs to listen carefully because his wife is questioning fundamental aspects of their marriage.

The conversation about Tom’s partying during the holidays should occur well before the holiday season begins. Once he becomes aware of Barbara’s feelings, a process should unfold where Tom seeks to find a compromise focused on balancing the needs of the family and his work. He is also going to need to think about why he feels compelled to attend all the parties and whether his relationship with alcohol might be unhealthy.

Although her frustration is focused on his behavior in December, Barbara also needs to be honest with Tom if her feelings extend to the relationship as a whole. As difficult as these discussions can be in a marriage, the holidays present an opportunity for couples to communicate to each other what works for them in the relationship and what has become a problem. The goal should not be to just get through December, but rather to keep the relationship strong throughout the year.

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