Families can find joy in pared-down, simpler holidays

The stock market has sunk. Your retirement account is evaporating. Bankruptcies, layoffs and home foreclosures dominate the news. Joy to the world? It’s that glorious time of year, but with money-related worry and sadness so prevalent, how can anyone get into the celebratory spirit of the holidays? 

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According to a report in USA Today, more than eight out of 10 adults anticipate a stressful holiday, and economic worries are the top cause, according to a poll out last week from the American Psychological Association. About half of parents surveyed worry that they won’t have enough money for gifts.

“There are lots of reasons to feel anxious and depressed right now,” says Ian Cook, a psychiatrist at the UCLA School of Medicine.

Time for a ‘mental bailout’

Still, you don’t have to sink into a quicksand of gloom, he says. A do-it-yourself “mental bailout” can help you savor even the most frugal of holidays. “How we think about things and how we take care of ourselves can make all the difference,” Cook says.

Instead of sticking to costly celebrations, he advises flexibility: potlucks with the people you love most instead of standing rib-roast dinners for a crowd; volunteering at a soup kitchen with your kids, so they appreciate all they have; trying new and fun things. “We know the brain thrives on novelty,” he says, “so going to an interesting place or trying new food can brighten feelings around the holidays.”

This year it’s particularly important to keep expectations about people realistic, he suggests. No, your mother-in-law isn’t suddenly going to give up sarcastic digs, so don’t pine for that. Also, care for yourself. Too much alcohol and food, or too little exercise and sleep, will deepen depression, Cook says.

Reframe how you view a pared-down holiday, he advises: “It’s not about ‘I have to have a cheap Christmas.’ It’s about enjoying your family. Would you rather spend an hour worrying about something you can’t control, like your stock portfolio, or spend the hour with someone you care about deeply?”

Ideas for fun but low-cost holidays are nothing new at the 10-year-old Center for a New American Dream, a non-profit that encourages simplified living and consumer choices. The group offers a free, downloadable brochure with suggestions at simplifytheholidays.org.

“This year is an invitation to reclaim the deeper meaning of the holidays,” says Betsy Taylor, founder and a board member of the group. “It’s a time to reconnect with what really matters. Typically, that’s family and friends.”

Diana Verrue, 37, of Sammamish, Wash., says that for the past couple of years, her family has tried to put more emphasis on traditional aspects of Christmas rather than big-ticket gifts. She doesn’t feel alone. “This is an upscale community, and everyone is talking about scaling back,” she says. The Verrues stick to a budget for Christmas gifts and say their girls are none the worse for it.

Shifting the focus from ‘loot’

Verrue’s two daughters will be selecting toys for needy kids. She’s going through the Advent calendar with them in preparation for Christmas. The girls also will be caroling at a senior center with their church and making rather than buying holiday cards, she says. “We want them to feel the spiritual side of the holiday.”

Hanukkah was getting “too much about the loot” for their sons, says Franca Brilliant, 48, of Takoma Park, Md., so the family decided to downplay the commercial side a few years ago. They bought menorahs for both sons and stopped giving gifts each of the eight nights of Hanukkah.

They still give presents, but some are coupons for things like ice-cream sundae parties with friends or a trip to someplace special. They also invite the boys to select a charity for gifts in their name. The family has company over a lot. “We sing, we eat and we really celebrate our closeness and the holiday,” she says.

Despite all the economic gloom, a holiday spent thoughtfully can raise the spirits rather than generate stress, says Cook, the UCLA psychiatrist.

And a child’s happiness does not hinge on glitzy gifts, says child psychologist Ronald Brown of Temple University. “Look at all the kids who have tons of things but parents who aren’t there for them. They don’t do well.

“What children want to know is, ‘Am I loved?’ and ‘Are we going to be together?’ That’s what really matters to them.” 

 

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