Whenever I’m With You, It’s a Holiday

The holiday season is suddenly upon us! As wonderful as this time of year can be, many people suffer from what has come to be known as “holiday stress.”

According to Merriam-Webster Online, a holiday is “a special day of celebration: a day when most people do not have to work.” Stress is defined as “a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life; something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety.” Technically, stress is any circumstance that threatens – or we believe threatens – us physically or emotionally. So, why on earth are these two terms paired? They seem like they should be polar opposites. We are not working; we are celebrating, and presumably spending time with people we like and/or love. Where is the threat to our well-being?

In large part, it is really about the “extra” things that must be accomplished before the holiday arrives, such as shopping for food, getting gifts, deciding which events one can attend, determining which people to invite to our own events. The sheer volume of decisions that must be made taxes our ability to cope. We often feel like we are just managing – we wish we had a little more time, fewer obligations – and then the holidays near and we feel that we simply cannot put even one more obligation, large or small, on our list.

Ah, and therein lies a big part of the problem. Holidays become obligations and not celebrations. They become things we “have to” do, people we “have to” see/invite, gifts we “have to” buy, even if our finances say we cannot. They become times of tremendous guilt.

Each “school” of psychology would provide a slightly different view of what is happening. The Behaviorists would say we are doing these things because we have been rewarded for them in the past. We make a meal and our guests tell us it is delicious and we are wonderful. We buy a gift and someone says, “I love it” and the praise encourages us to repeat the behavior in the future. A Freudian would say our superego, our conscience, is guiding us and we have frustrated our id who simply wants us to have fun. The Cognitive theorist would say that we are doing these things because we have irrational thoughts, such as “If I do not invite the family, then no one will, and we will lose touch with each other and never be like a real family again” or “I have to get the ‘right’ gift. Gifts are a way of showing someone how much we love them.” The Humanist would say we are far too focused on the “should” and not on the want. “I should invite everyone for dinner”, but the “want” may be “I want to sit and talk to everyone instead of serving”.

Each psychological school would also give us some advice for overcoming – or at least reducing – our stress:

The Behaviorists would tell us to reward others for behaviors we want to see in them. Give them a gift, or food, or any reward when they are doing/saying something you want them to do more often. For example, give them a gift when they have said, “Oh, I’m so happy to see you!” This rewards them for seeing you. (As opposed to giving a gift after they say, “What did you get me?” which rewards them for seeking gifts from you).

Freudians would tell us to examine the conflict between our superego and our id, examine its source from our childhood, and allow our ego (our mediator) to engage in a solution that balances obligations with desires. For example, perhaps when we were children, our id wanted to stay home and play with our toys, but our parents (now embedded in our superego) “forced” us to go out to see family and friends. This early conflict resurfaces as holiday stress, based on the anxiety surrounding the guilt of wanting pleasure (to stay home and do what we want) and the fear of displeasing others (represented as our superego in the form of doing what others ask of us).

Cognitive theorists would tell us, as would Humanists, to examine the scripts (the stories) that are part of our thoughts and shoulds. They would encourage us to examine the source of our stress by examining the assumptions that are inherent in the scripts. This requires a bit more explanation. For example, we think we need to invite everyone, and the script includes doing all the cooking ourselves. This feels overwhelming. The stress increases. (1) Is it a person, place or thing stress? Is it the people? Is it the fact that our home is too small to comfortably fit the growing group? Is it financial? Is it due to time constraints? (2) Recognize that each of these questions indicates a different source of stress and, therefore, has a different solution. (3) Be honest with yourself and others so that the stress can be addressed. If we want to see the people, then other options do present themselves. We can say, “We would love to have everyone over, but (insert your reason), does anyone else want to host this year?”, or “How about we go to a restaurant this year?”, or “How about everyone makes some part of the meal this year?” This can be applied to any aspect of the holiday stressors. We can say similar things about gifts: “I would love to get gifts for everyone, but I can’t this year, so how about we do a Secret Santa?”, or “How about we give the gift of spending time together?”, or “Let’s make gifts this year instead of buying them.” If we are stressed about a negative person who we feel we need to include, the one who seems to criticize everyone and everything, we can invoke what I call the “Thumper Rule”. It comes from the Disney movie, Bambi. Thumper tells us, “If you ain’t got something nice to say, don’t say nothing at all.” It seems like wonderful holiday (actually wonderful everyday) advice to me!

We cannot overlook that for some, the stress of the holidays rests in the fact that the holidays exacerbate their loneliness. The holidays lead them to ask such questions as, “What is wrong with me that I never get invited to parties? Why don’t I have a place to go for dinner?” Again, each theory would give us different advice for handling this. Behaviorists would say you should reward someone for including you. A Freudian would encourage you to examine your childhood issues of abandonment. Cognitive theorists would encourage you to examine those irrational thoughts characterized by extremes such as “never”; it is likely that every adult has been invited to at least one party in their lifetime. The Humanist would encourage you to examine your choices and consider options such as choosing to volunteer at a shelter rather than being alone.

But perhaps the best holiday advice I have ever heard came from my grandmother. Every time I visited her, she would exclaim, “Every time I see you it is a holiday!” Wow, suddenly holiday stress was gone; one did not have to see her on the holiday itself. She made every visit a holiday visit. By doing so, she enriched every moment spent with family, a very valuable lesson indeed.

 Diane Urban, PhD

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19 thoughts on “Whenever I’m With You, It’s a Holiday

  1. I was waiting to see your new post!!!
    As you say, for some people holidays have become obligations, not celebration, it is very true and I think it will become worse. We see people that are too worried for holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas. People worry about many things; they worry about which food they will cook, which people they will invite, what gifts they will buy and many things. Sometimes they cannot afford all those things, but still they will do that. Holiday is a time to share with others, to be with family members and have a good moment. I understand that it is natural to worry because we want to make everything special for our guest, but sometimes it is too much pressure that people might have. Stress plays a big part in holidays, but it should not be like that. I think that we have to show people that we will be happy with anything that they do, anything that they cook and be grateful for their time and their invitation to any celebration.
    I feel empathetic with you because of your grandmother’s advice, it made me laugh. As you say it is a valuable lesson and I will consider the same too. I think that we have to take that advice and implement in our lives. It is a bless from God to have the opportunity to be with our loved ones, we have to leave the worries and not let stress overcome us and start enjoying the moment, so that as explained by gramma’s “every time I see you it is a holiday.”

  2. I enjoyed the blog Dr. Urban. It’s true that the holidays are supposed to be a time to enjoy and be with the family but it doesn’t always feel that way. I can’t comment on the cooking aspect since that wouldn’t apply to me buuut, I can say that economically I can understand how the pressures begin to mount during this time of the year. Christmas time for example can be a rough time. Buying gifts for loved ones is not always easy when going through tough times. Having to figure out who should receive a gift and how to get a gift for everyone that you love without leaving anyone out isn’t always easy. Not being able to get someone something might weigh heavy on your conscious, not to mention how that person might feel about it. This isn’t what the holidays are supposed to be about but I can definitely see how easily it can become a stressful time.

  3. Agreed, the holidays does cause a lot of stress. Everyone is expecting instead of letting it naturally letting it happen. We shouldn’t be forced to see family or forced to give a gift. Instead we should want to see our family and feel welcomed. Instead they expect gifts. Why should people be given gifts, just for expecting it? We should give gifts for behavior instead, not because it’s a tradition. We have to work to get something. If you expect something, you should give something in return. Why go visit out family? because it’s something that you do every year? It should be because we want to be with family.

  4. This is brilliantly said. Every year my family has hosted the Christmas party at our resteraunt and every year I watch my mom get stressed out about weather or not the rest of the family will enjoy the food she has decided to prepare so she takes in opinions which I tell her not too because people SHOULD be grateful for being invited to an all prepared meal. I do feel as if some people expect a little too much for the holidays and it’s bothersome to me to watch my mom go through this holiday stress.

  5. Holidays are popular time to welcome friends into a family. Holidays also brings special moment in our lives like special cards, gifts decorated with ribbons special decorations like Christmas trees. There are also some problems associated with spending Holidays With the family which includes, having to sit at the kids table again, your drunk aunt may be asking why you are still single,, constantly hearing embarrassing childhood stories and so on.
    In my view about celebrating holidays is that,it is a popular time to welcome new friends into our lives and family. Also holidays brings good and happy times in our lives and again cheers for many. Thx a lot Diane Urban for given us opportunity to shared and comment on this great post. Looking forward to get more from you.

  6. I totally agree with this post. A lot of people worry about the holidays so much and fail to realize that its the distracting them from the small things that matter the most. You shouldn’t feel that you’re letting someone down if you didn’t get them a gift or prepared food for them. If they’re family or one of your close friends they should understand your situation, perhaps switch it around and try something new for a change. As long as the person is alive and healthy that’s all that really matters. Some years will be perfect and others will be pretty rough but as long as everyone is communicating and stays on the same page, everything should be just fine.

  7. This post can be viewed in different perspectives, whilst considering how some cultures celebrate the holiday season without the stress involved. For my family it is more so of the family spending time together, enjoying each other’s company even though we often see each other regularly, making memories no matter how big or small with the laughter, good food, good music, old films and good company. Family and friends leaving an impact of how we care for each other remembering those not present amongst us that year and reminisce and not soo much the necessity of getting a gifts , shopping for gifts bustling through crowds at the mall and the traffic to and from home to get materials things for someone. The most valuable is the time spent amongst ourselves.


  9. Dr.Urban I enjoyed reading your blog! I agree with you that the holidays are a stress full time of the year when in reality its suppose to be a happy time. But we always worry about the gifts to get people and what delicious meal we should cook for our love ones. It can be stress full especially if your family doesn’t get along. Growing up as a kid my grandmother always told me that the holidays is not about the gifts, its who you spend it with during these special times. As I’m growing up I’m realizing that my grandmother was right. It’s not all about the gifts or how much money you receive. It’s about being thankful for another year with your love ones and thinking back and reflecting on how much they truly mean to you and that’s the best gift of all. At the end of the day when your’e sitting at a table with your loved ones,laughing about old times and making new memories you cherish those moments. Without friends or family you would have a boring life. Your friends and family is the best gift of all they put excitement into our lives.

  10. I can completely agree with this post! The holiday does cause a lot of stress. Between planning where to go and what gifts to get people and for many financially. I am young so luckily the only thing I am stressed out about this holiday season is what gifts to get people. But I am also having hard time because I was trying to save money for the week I have off of work during Christmas and the New Year. Sometimes the holidays bring some sadness as well when I think about some of the family members I have lost. It is hard to be without them especially around the holidays.

  11. Love this , I can completely agree , I understand why some wouldn’t like these time of the year because its can be so stressful. I am very happy that I don’t have much to worry about except gifts. I feel that some families get stressed out on the holidays because it can get so expensive. there are families In the world that barely have money to get gift for their family and it a very sad topic.

    I feel when we get stressed we forgot the bigger picture. its the holidays ! we should be happy and grateful just to be with are family and loved one , enjoying ones company …

  12. I love this post because i was just thinking this the other day holidays have turned into people being stress about having to buy gifts and etc to please someone i remember before people used to take the holidays to gather up and have a family meetting and turning it into a whole family party and being able to see everyone now its about i dont have a gift for all these people so we are not going or etc.. It sad how people now only care about the gifts and not about the actual present of the person being there to make storys or make eachother laugh

  13. Holidays should always be about families sharing their love towards each other and sharing memories and having dinner together to bring back good times from when they where younger to get the ability to gather with all your family and friends it’s not always about the gifts I prefer love and company then someone coming by to my house and dropping. A gift off or a meal and leaving it should be about coming in and enjoying the day this century is messed up because all they care about is gifts and always expect somethin from you and it shouldn’t be like this

  14. I miss you professor!!!
    I do not get tired of reading your posts or going to rate my professor and see your name there. You are awesome and you have a great sense of humor. I will never forget you. Your class and your post are great.
    I am waiting for the next post!!!

  15. I wish we can all enjoy every holiday without being so materialistic. In my opinion presents are becoming more important than quality time with families and friends. Holidays had become so commercialized that in my mind the only thought that comes when holiday season is mention is presents, and stress. I have my family in Panama but every time that is holiday season either they come or i go over there, which is nice don’t get me wrong ; but only bad thing is that i have to work double to get presents for them, makes me sick on my stomach. I have to do it because in our family, we not only give presents to the kids but also to the adults . It is beautiful to do this as a tradition but it is really overwhelming some times. I think is time to break the tradition and enjoy the love and the company of everyone.

  16. I completely related to this blog because my family and I do not exchange gifts during holidays anymore, nor do we make big dinners. The only expectation is that everyone gets home at a decent hour to participate in finger foods and movies. I do not think that the word stressful begins to cover what holiday preparation was. Your grandma had the right idea, it is a holiday every time I get home from work or see my love ones.

  17. I am in line with your granny professor, there is a stress free when it comes to where i come from. We don’t really exchange gifts during any holiday seasons may be a few people do but not as a responsible as in this country. And oh well if none do not invite me to a party I careless because I go out with friends and families whenever I feel so. Nevertheless I believed and valued holiday seasons, i thinks these seasons bring families and friends together for good.

  18. As I grew up the meaning of the holidays has changed for me. Now a days everyone wants to just receive gifts instead enjoying the holidays with your loved ones. I know how stressful it could be around that time of year but its also a good time to share those moments with your family and friends

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