When I was growing up, the term holiday stress did not exist in my vocabulary. Christmas was fun, joyful, a time to see my entire family, (aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents) and of course, get presents. And back then, it was easy to be with family during the holidays because everyone lived nearby.

On Christmas Eve, we would go to Mass, and then spend the evening with my Dad’s side of the family. Christmas Day was reserved for my Mom’s side. I loved it. I loved being able to see everyone, but I also loved still being able to have quiet moments at home. I don’t remember ever feeling rushed or stressed or pulled in a zillion different directions. It could be because I was a kid, and my sole focus was fun and Santa. So, I was simply oblivious to everything that was going on around me. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized it probably also had a lot to do with the proximity of my extended family.

Holiday stress began to creep up on me as I got older. I moved away to college, granted less than 100 miles away, but still further than anyone else in my family. Now, I had to travel to be with them on Christmas. Not a big deal at the time, but then I met my husband. And sharing your life with someone also means sharing your families and your holidays.

All of a sudden, we had to coordinate where we would go on Thanksgiving and Christmas. And since my husband’s parents lived in Minnesota, it would also involve more traveling. For several years, everything ran smoothly, taking turns with Thanksgiving, traveling to one place and then the other around Christmas. Then, we had kids, and I got a third-shift job which involved working holidays. At this point, I learned the true meaning of holiday stress.

Kids add an entirely new element to travel. Gone are the days of one duffel bag and your favorite pillow. Say hello to Pack ‘N Plays, Boppys, bouncy seats, and enough clothing for an entire army of newborns. And that’s just one kid, try four. Besides the essentials, remember it’s the holidays. You also have to pack all the gifts. And if you will be somewhere besides home for Christmas morning, now you have to find a way to hide all of Santa’s gifts in the car as well. Talk about needing some master packing skills, and a car with plenty of storage space.

Plus, don’t forget about that third-shift job. Which means, in addition to all the packing and traveling, I was also sleep-deprived. Holiday stress + lack of sleep = one crabby, bitchy mom. Definitely not in the Christmas spirit.

Despite all of the stress and difficulty, we did this little dance for several years. Pack up all of the kids (first one, then two, then three, then four), pack myself. Make sure all the gifts are wrapped, organized, and packed. Drive to Milwaukee, spend two or three days with my family, who mind you always lived in pretty small houses with not a lot of space. So, it usually meant air mattresses or couches, and babies screaming through the night because they just wanted to be in their own bed.

Then, back to Madison to unpack (maybe work when it was my year to work on Christmas), do several loads of laundry, get one good night of sleep, then pack everything up again and head to Minnesota. Since this was a longer trip, it often involved screaming kids in the car and stopping one or two times to nurse a baby, change a diaper or let the older kids go potty. Plus, there were often icy, snowy road conditions. It is Minnesota of course.

Then we would spend a few days in Minnesota with family. The house was larger, so there was a bit more room for us, which was nice. But when all was said and done, we often did not have enough room in the car for all the gifts we acquired during our visit. More packing problems to solve. And we usually came home with one extra unwanted gift, the stomach bug.

Needless to say, the holidays were less than joyful for me. My husband didn’t get it, because he grew up with a similar scenario. He was used to having to travel around Christmas. And of course, he enjoyed spending time with his family. Besides, let’s be honest, he was not the one who did all of the packing, all of the laundry, all of the unpacking, laundry again, and putting away all of the newly acquired toys. He didn’t understand my holiday stress.

But I knew, in order to maintain my sanity, something needed to change. I desperately wanted to enjoy Christmas once again.

Funny enough, it was partly my job that forced us to pause around Christmas. The years I had to work, we had to be at home on Christmas Eve night and Christmas Day night. I did not want those special days to be wasted just because I was working, so we started to develop our own family holiday traditions. Even if it meant ordering Chinese food for our Christmas Eve dinner, I wanted the spirit of Christmas to be alive for my kids on those days regardless of my work schedule.

And as our traditions grew, and became more valuable to me, my husband, and my children, I began to realize it was in my power to make Christmas less stressful and more joyful. I could choose to focus on my family during the holidays. I could even, dare I say it, be a little selfish.

I needed to decide what was most important to me. What memories would I look back on when the holiday dust settled, when the wrapping paper was thrown away and the decorations were taken down? How did I want my children to remember Christmas? Did I want them to remember an angry, crabby, stressed out mom? Or did I want them to remember waking up in their beds on Christmas morning, tearing open their presents, watching Christmas movies and spending the day in their jammies playing with their loot?

You’ve heard it so many times. The holidays are about being with your family, but what exactly defines a “family?” For some, it still means seeing grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and getting together for a large family gathering. For others, it means a small gathering with close friends because maybe family is too far. Or maybe your friends are more like family than your actual family.

And for some, like me, it is about being at home with my husband and my children for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. Waking up in my own bed, and coming down the stairs to find my children alight with the magic of that special day. Chomping at the bit to tear open their gifts and see if Santa has heard their wishes.

And, yes, we still like to see the extended family around the holidays, and we still cherish those moments as well. But we no longer pack up the car and travel great distances to stay over for several nights. And guess what? I no longer have holiday stress. I actually enjoy Christmas again. Maybe there’s a correlation.

It has also helped that in recent years, my in-laws moved a bit closer, and we now celebrate our large family Christmas with them in July. I guess there were other family members that didn’t like traveling at Christmas and bringing home the gift of sickness.

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