Latter-day Saint Life

2 reminders to soothe any parent’s heart during the pressures of Christmas

A woman sitting on a sheepskin rug meditates in front of a Christmas tree.
We don't have to fit in everything during Christmastime to make the holiday season memorable.

Sometimes I think the phrase, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” should actually be, “It’s the most full time of the year.”

No matter who you are, there is pressure to do so much for the holiday season—decorating, attending social events, giving gifts, making things “magical,” and keeping track of regular household maintenance on top of it all. Add to this list the ways Latter-day Saints aim to “keep Christ in Christmas” through events such as countdowns, nativities, service, and more, and it’s no wonder we can feel overwhelmed at Christmastime.

Juggling these to-do lists can be especially difficult as a parent. We want to give our children a wonderful Christmas, but the reality is that we often compare our holiday schedules against an unrealistic standard. We can’t possibly fit in everything, which means frustration can risk poisoning our holiday joy.

This experience is often described as “mom guilt” and can happen any time of the year. But moms are not the only ones who can face feelings of disappointment, frustration, or failure that come from comparison and unfulfilled expectations during the holiday season in particular. So, here are two ideas for fighting off holiday guilt this year and enjoying the season more with your family.

1. Redefine traditions

Christmas is packed with traditions. From foods and decorations to activities and events, the holiday season was likely brimming with expectations when we were growing up. And sometimes, the desire to recreate our own childhoods, execute new traditions, or make sure we don’t miss a single tradition can lead to burnout more than joy.

Instead of creating dozens of specific traditions for your family to carry out each year, consider making your family holiday rituals broader. For example, instead of choosing to make serving in a soup kitchen on Christmas Eve a tradition, you could redefine your family tradition as doing community service during the month of December.

By broadening your definition, you can have more flexibility to adapt an activity to your schedule and needs from year to year—without adding on the guilt of not keeping to the same specific annual routine. For example, when the kids are busy with school events and you’re traveling to visit relatives, your community service might look more simple, like donating clothing to a shelter or even making a short trip to the Giving Machines.

Of course, if you really love specific holiday traditions, you don’t have to abandon them! Just make sure your traditions fit your family rather than trying to make your family fit your traditions.

The traditions we had as children, while often wonderful, are not always practical in our families today. So, remember them fondly and then adapt—get rid of the guilt of not creating enough traditions, the right ones, or the memories you loved as a child.

Sometimes, a holiday ritual you wanted to start might not be memorable enough to continue, while another activity that you never intended to become an annual tradition might become one. This happened in my family when I had us make a “thankful chain” around Thanksgiving one year. Though it was meant to be a one-time activity, my kids now ask me every year when we are going to make our thankful chain.

As Elder Gerrit W. Gong put it in the recent First Presidency Christmas Devotional,

“A Christmas memory recalled is a Christmas memory made anew. Layered over time, Christmas memories become traditions, which can deepen our love for Jesus Christ—the Lamb of God, the Son of the Eternal Father, the Savior of the world” (emphasis added).

In other words, keep that guilt at bay when a Christmas tradition or holiday event doesn’t go just right because you might actually be forming a new tradition. Don’t forget that no matter the activity, you are spending time together, which is the most important outcome of all.

Another tip to eliminate guilt around traditions? Be brave enough to be picky during the holiday season.

It can feel important to go from one traditional activity to another, making sure that you have gifts for all the neighbors, attend every family, ward, work, and friend’s Christmas party, and find time for the dozens of other little family traditions, like making sugar cookies or gingerbread houses and setting up nativity collections and Christ-centered advent calendars. But do we really need to do it all?

By choosing some events to leave out, we might feel like we are letting people down; however, if we simplify our holiday schedules and focus on the most meaningful traditions and activities, we and our families will better enjoy the holiday season.

If your kids are really young, you can pare activities down even more. Few things kick guilt and frustration into overdrive more than braving the busy holiday season (and all the planning that goes with a cold, wintery outing) to have your family not enjoy what you planned.

2. Evaluate your expectations

If comparison breeds guilt, then perhaps Pinterest inspires the guiltiest feelings of all.

Several years ago, I read a beautiful article about how our children need our specific talents and personalities despite our own perceived shortcomings. The author talked about how she felt guilty that she wasn’t a “crafty mom” or “baker mom.” Eventually, however, she realized that she was a “crazy dance mom,” and this was exactly what her kids needed.

Everyone has different specialties. You don’t have to decorate to make a season special. Did you catch that? You don’t have to decorate everything to make Christmas special. Try picking a tradition that fits your talents. Like to craft? Pick a seasonal craft for the family to do. Like to do puzzles? Put one out for the family to work on each December. Like to be outdoors? Pick a tradition like skiing or building a snowman. Your kids will enjoy doing something with you that you are excited about.

Even after we’ve narrowed down and picked the best traditions we can for our family, things can go wrong. One of the best ways to eliminate the guilt that comes with a plan gone wrong is not to expect it to go right in the first place. Hear me out—of course, we plan and have a vision for our activities, but if we preemptively anticipate the need to be flexible and adapt when things go wrong or change, it can help mitigate our guilt or disappointment.

If our expectations for a picture-perfect outing to look at the Christmas lights turn into a half hour of over-tired toddlers who are upset because the prettiest lights are not on their side of the car, you can acknowledge the effort you made and adjust the next year instead of feeling guilty that your plan for a nice Christmas outing failed.

An expectation shift that helped reduce my holiday “mom guilt” was to accept everyday life as part of my family’s holiday celebrations. I don’t have teenagers with busy social schedules yet, but life gets chaotic with toddlers too, and I can only accomplish a few things. My best intentions of remembering to put hay in the manager every time someone does something kind or to read a Christmas scripture each night leading up to Christmas Eve often dissolve. But as I’ve thought about it, there are dozens of other ways our family already emphasizes Christ during Christmas without adding more checklist items.

Pick one or two of the most important things you want your kids to learn this season. You might be surprised how well it stays at the forefront of your mind and works its way into everyday activities. I’ve found myself pointing these messages out after watching children’s Christmas cartoons, listening to popular Christmas music, and even talking at dinner or about Christmas lists.

I love this gentle reminder from Sister Tracy Y. Browning during the First Presidency Christmas devotional:

“Remember to emphasize the importance of family gatherings and traditions that make Christmas different and special. For many during this time of year, our deep love of preparing the same meals, retelling consistent family stories, and decorating our Christmas trees with ornaments that we display each year are significant activities that preserve our natural desire to remember experiences that are important to us.”

To me, this means that the traditions and events that matter the most are the ones we will ultimately spend our time on. Guilt can come the strongest with all the “extra” things that we try to do beyond the important, special moments that bring the Spirit of Christ and the spirit of Christmas.

So if you find yourself or someone you love drowning in guilt this season, remind them that it’s okay to simplify. You’re probably doing better than you think.

▶You may also like: You can let go of a ‘perfect’ Christmas: The reminder from a psychologist we all need this season

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