I recently got a call from a reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper who wanted to interview me about my new book, "Simplify Your Christmas." She mentioned she'd spent a good deal of the previous two weeks in the gift and department stores in her area doing research on a story she was writing on gadgets that are designed to relieve the stress of the holidays.
The stores were already festively decorated, and happy carols were being piped out of Muzak speakers.
But everywhere she went she heard people grousing and complaining about the shopping and the wrapping and the entertaining they had to do for the holidays. Not once did she hear anyone say, "Gosh! I just love Christmas!" Or "I can't wait till Uncle Charlie opens the tie I bought him. He's going to love it!" She asked me, "Where has the joy gone from this holiday?"
I believe there's an inverse relationship between stress and joy. As the stress goes up, the joy goes out the window.
There are some simple steps anyone can take to reduce the stress and recapture the joy of the holidays.
Start by holding a family powwow to figure out what is most stressful for your family.
If sending Christmas cards has become more of an obligation than a pleasure, pare down your list this year. You don't have to send cards to the doctor and the dentist and the insurance agent.
Nor do you have to send cards to people you see on a regular basis. Make a point of wishing them Merry Christmas in person, and save the cards for people who live out of town. If your list is still too long, cut it in half and send to half this year and half next year. Few will miss your card for one year.
If you're ready to stop sending cards altogether, but feel too guilty, do what one reader did: Send out your cards with a note letting people know that you've decided to stop sending cards because it's such a drag on the environment. She got dozens of responses back from people thanking her for giving them the idea that they could cut back, too.
If the Christmas dinner has made you a slave to the kitchen, perhaps it's time to shift to potluck, or at least to reevaluate the menu. Do you really need to bake eight pies, three kinds of potatoes and four vegetable dishes? Are you still preparing your grandmother's candied yams, even though no one ever eats them? Do you secretly long to skip the dinner altogether? I've heard from many families who have transformed their holiday meal by serving dinners at homeless shelters or nursing homes. They've found a way to be together and make a contribution to their community at the same time.
If decorating does you in, cut back. Rather than killing a tree this year, trim a live tree outside with nuts, dried fruits and peanut butter balls. You'll have a beautiful tree with colorful birds for ornaments, and none of the mess will be on your carpet.
If you're tired of waking up the day after Christmas in debt up to your eyeballs because of the money you've spent on gifts, draw names for the gift exchange. And set a dollar limit. Or do what other families are doing and trade treasures you already have. I heard from one family who for years have traded their favorite books every holiday. They've just recently branched out to include their preowned CDs, videos and video games. Keep in mind how truly ridiculous it is to go into debt for something you put under a tree.
If you eliminate the stress, the joy will emerge. It didn't go anywhere. It's been there all along, buried under the trappings we sometimes mistake for the real thing.
Elaine St. James is the author of "Simplify Your Life" and "Simplify Your Life With Kids." For questions or comments, write to her in care of Universal Press Syndicate, 4520 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64111 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.