Let’s all be honest: As much as we love Christmas, it’s stressful. Expectations are high. Expenses are high. Reality doesn’t match up to the images you see online. No wonder so many people take their Christmas decorations down on December 26. They’re ready for it all to be over.

Keeping Advent and Christmas according to the Church calendar can help reset expectations and reduce stress. We don’t start a non-stop celebration on Thanksgiving, and keep going until we burn out somewhere around December 25.

Instead, we spend 40 days preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ. We pray more. We give alms. And then, when Christmas comes, we celebrate.

At least, we try. It’s hard to do, when the world around you pre-celebrates Christmas. It’s a little easier, I’m told, for folks celebrating on the Old Calendar. I’ve always been in a New Calendar parish, but the advantage of separating the secular celebration from the spiritual is easy to see.

But if you’re on the New Calendar, and the stress is already building up, what can you do to keep from burning out? Especially if you’ve got little kids who are just going wild?

Try these tips. They just might help you have a merrier Christmas.

Get Plenty of Sleep

That might sound unrealistic. But sleep matters. Don’t let your kids stay up late just because school is out. Their bodies need the same amount of sleep, at the same time, every night, all year round. Even during vacations.

And don’t you stay up too late, either. You need sleep, too.

The CDC offers sleep recommendations for the whole family.

So how much sleep do you need?

  • Newborns: 16-18 hours
  • Preschoolers: 11 – 12 hours
  • School-aged kids: at least 10 hours
  • Teens: 9 – 10 hours
  • Adults: 7 – 9 hours

Make sure everyone in your house is getting enough sleep, and you’ll have a merrier Christmas.

Maintain Routines

Whatever it is you do every day all year round, keep doing it during the holidays. Change – even good change – is stressful. I would say that it’s particularly stressful for small children, but many older children and adults need their routines, too.

So, as much as you can, keep your routines in place, even when school is out, even on vacation. If you always end the day with bathtime, bedtime stories, evening prayers, goodnight kisses, keep that going during the holidays. If you always get up and have a cup of tea, then walk the dog, then have breakfast, do it. The holiday chaos will feel less chaotic if you do.

Keep mealtimes consistent. Make regular weekly activities happen. If Friday is family movie night, then watch family movies on Friday night.

Don’t Do Too Much

Accept the fact that you can’t do it all. Not during the holidays. Not ever.

And doing more won’t make your Christmas any merrier. So prioritize. Choose what you will do. And more important, choose what you won’t do. It’s okay not to do everything.

Make sure that, between baking and shopping and cleaning and decorating, everyone has some opportunity for chilling out.

It might seem odd, but setting aside time for chilling out will make it easier for you to prepare spiritually. The Church sets aside 40 days so that we can make our hearts ready through prayer and fasting and almsgiving. Don’t let the baking and shopping and cleaning and decorating crowd that out.

And don’t try to pack too much into any one day. Because we celebrate Christmas from Christmas Day until Theophany, you can spread the goodness out. Christmas cookies can be baked, and eaten, every day during the Christmas season. Gifts can be given after the 25th. Seriously, the Wise Men arrived with their gifts two years after our Lord’s birth. If your gifts arrive two days after Christmas, it’s okay.

You’ll have a merrier Christmas if you take it a little at a time.

Avoid Surprises

There’s a fantasy world where the wonder and magic of Christmas is defined by surprises. Most of us don’t live there. Most people thrive on regular routines. And when the routine changes, we enjoy it more when we know in advance what’s going to happen.

So skip the surprises. The holiday activities that you’re adding to your regular routine will create enough disruptions. There will be worship services, family parties, and the like.

To prevent the disruptions from turning into disasters, plan ahead.

Don’t try for spontaneous. If you want to take everyone to see The Nutcracker on the day after Christmas, get the tickets before you breathe a word to anyone. Schedule your confession with your priest. Decide as far in advance whether you’ll be visiting Grandma on Christmas eve or Christmas day. Plan your menu for Christmas dinner.

Then make sure everyone in the house knows what will happen and when it will happen. Write it on the calendar, or make a “holiday schedule” poster for the kitchen wall. And do what you can to work your regular routines around them.

Don’t Give Too Much

When my oldest was two, we went to the grandparents’ house for Christmas. And there were mountains of gifts there. And my child opened a few, and then he was done. He didn’t want to open any more gifts. He didn’t want any more stuff. He was approaching overload, and he knew it, and he tried to back away.

It’s easy to overwhelm a child on Christmas morning. And whatever Christmas magic you were expecting, if the child is overwhelmed, it won’t be magical. Trust me on that.

So limit the number of gifts. Gift-giving traditions can help both those giving gifts and those receiving gifts keep their expectations realistic. For example, at your house every year, everyone might get PJs, a Christmas ornament, and a book. Or you might follow the four-gift rule: Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.

Encourage godparents and grandparents to give the gift of themselves and their time: an afternoon making cookies, a weekend getaway, dinner at a restaurant. If they live too far away for that, suggest that they give other experiences: a museum membership, music lessons, or the like.

Have a Merrier Christmas

Keep it simple, keep it sane. The Savior is coming into the world. Give yourself the space to think about that. Cut back on the busy-ness, and give yourself, and your family, the time you need to rejoice and have a merrier Christmas.

Read More

Pascha Parenting Tips: The midnight services of Pascha can seem awfully difficult, especially if your children are very young or have special needs. These tips can make it easier.

Thoughts on Our House Blessing: Theophany house blessings aren’t just for perfect houses. They’re for the houses we live in, and for our lives, however messy they might be.

Four Tips for Fasting as a Family: Sarah Wright, who blogs as The Orthodox Mama, explains how the Advent fast works in her young family.

Charlotte Riggle, author of Catherine's Pascha and The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
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