Aunt Kate’s Safe and Sane Guide to the Holidays

Quick note:
These are some of the things I do to stay sane during the holiday season. While this isn’t a “challenge”, feel free to write your own post of safe and sane ideas, and add a link to it or ping back in the comments section. Maybe we can help each other have a happy winter.

I started this post on Thanksgiving. In the hot living room at Dad’s, football playing at a ridiculous volume because Dad is a bit hard of hearing, but he is also trying to drown out the shrill voice of my sister, who never stops talking. I was exhausted from prepping, setting out (we do self-service), then cleaning up the big feast, and my head was starting to throb a bit.

Since Grandma passed away this year (one of six major deaths of people we know since the beginning of April) the holiday ads designed to evoke an emotional response had worked their “magic”: I was emotionally raw and spent most of that tiring day on the edge of tears. Combine that with a slightly throbbing head and I couldn’t think straight.

What better time to try and advise folks about the holidays? “Do as I say… not as I do?”

Really, this Thanksgiving was an aberration. Usually I am not such a mess, and I manage to manage and still enjoy things on the way.

Approaching the holidays, the first question is: How do you stay sane in this crazy world?

To thine own self be true


But…How dost thou doeth that?

In my case, even in a year where things have gone well, it means not trying to be ho-ho-ho jolly. I mentioned this in my post the holidays: I celebrate Advent. That means that I don’t try to Christmas for a whole month, or wait and pile it on at the end. You might say that I take an appetizers as a meal approach to the season.

I also, even in years where faith is AWOL, try to find a way to look beyond “merry consumer-fest”.

Here are some ideas.

Don’t jump from Halloween to Christmas.

Start with ordinary time.

First spend some ordinary time. In the church year the season of Pentecost is called “ordinary time”. It lasts most of the year. It’s time when you aren’t anticipating or commemorating events, just living. A season without a special M&M’s holiday mix, if you will.

Special isn’t special if you are always doing it.

Then take the time to focus on the good

More dogs than people at our holiday gathering.
The mutt-ley crew.

Thanksgiving is important. Not because of the myth of the First Thanksgiving. It is important because we live in a world that is beautiful, because, motley (or perhaps even more accurate: mutt-ley) crew that we are, there is love in our lives…even if it “don’t look like it should”.

Let Thanksgiving be its own holiday, not the precursor to Black Friday.

Don’t go over to the dark side

The day after Thanksgiving is called “black” because, for many businesses, that is the day of the year when their accounts move from being in the red (losing money) to being in the black (making money). I’ve always thought it was appropriate that “Black Friday” is another name for “Good Friday”, the day Christ was crucified. In some ways the Black Friday mania crucifies us all.

It creates this idea that we need to “win” the giving game. It is about giving the biggest, the best, the most, and if you can’t do that you aren’t worthy. This causes people to take on more debt to try and compete…or more stress by rushing and trying to get good deals to stay in the game or, my personal choice, deciding not to.

Do what you can to clear the decks and make things easy

I like to pay my bills early on so I don’t have to think about them again. Nothing worse than getting hit with a late fee because you forgot to pay on time.

I also try to not have commitments of other kinds (dental appointments, hair cuts…) in the couple of weeks before Christmas. If I miss getting my hair trimmed early (like I did this year) I just go long.

I load up a bit on groceries so it is quick and easy to fix a meal, or just snack one, if I get caught up in something, or am tired, or to have something festive to offer if someone stops by. Hummus, the makings for a cheese tray, frozen lasagna…

…then there is the gift shopping

Shopping is always a challenge, but avoid the weekend after Thanksgiving like the plague. Most of the “deals” are hype, not real.

Santa seemed to really enjoy our visit on the Monday after Thanksgiving.
Santa seemed to really enjoy our visit on the Monday after Thanksgiving.

I have found that a trip downtown on the Monday morning after Thanksgiving is often pleasant, lights and decorations are up but the crowds are back at work or too tired from the “Black Friday” weekend to be out in numbers. I used to take my son to see Santa on the Monday after Thanksgiving because the lines were short and Santa wasn’t frazzled.

I’ve never figured out a way to not shop during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But I have long since given up on trying to find spectacular gifts for everyone. I try to find (or make) things that folks will like, but I mostly don’t fuss about it. If I need to give small gifts I usually make something: glazed nuts in a pretty dish or cookies. I don’t go out of my way to find people to gift to either.

Break things up

A summer garden of lights sparkles on a chilly winter evening at Bellevue Botanical Garden.
A summer garden of lights sparkles on a chilly winter evening at Bellevue Botanical Garden.

Every week of Advent (the 4 Sundays before Christmas Eve) I light one more candle, add a few more decorations around the house, and do something festive. There are generally free and low cost events around. In Seattle they have a Gingerbread Village every year which is free and usually fun and creative. There is a botanical garden in a nearby city that has a wonderful light display that is free on some nights. Just making a batch of gingerbread makes your house smell terrific. And taking a walk to look at Christmas lights is nice too.

This helps kids also

When my son was young we had a St. Nicholas day tea and he got a gift, often based on making things he could give people (he is really talented with origami and knot work).

He also got an activity from the elves under the mini Christmas tree in his bedroom on Christmas eve morning so he had something special to do. That took a lot of tension out of waiting. He seemed to enjoy these gifts as much as the big day stuff, since he could spend time with them and not plow on to the next package.

We always went to the late service at church after the family gathering on Christmas Eve. It provided a bit of balance, and a peaceful end to the evening.

When I talk to my son, now 30, it is these “lesser” events he remembers the best, and most fondly.

The feast(s)

Food is important. If the food is good and the event isn’t too stressful people will remember it happily.

It is given that there will be family members with special dietary needs (or desires) whether doctor prescribed, a desire to live a healthier life, to save the planet, or just preference (my dad mostly sticks to meat and potatoes). I have several ways I cope with this.

Pay no mind to what other people are eating

Beyond replenishing a dish here and there, I pay no mind to who eats, or doesn’t eat, what. And I never comment on it if I notice. Even if you have a serious concern that someone might have an eating disorder, a holiday gathering is not the place to address it. It can raise stress levels and make things worse. (Grandma took this attitude when she was younger, but toward the end would occasionally try to “fix” people, and it never added to the joyfulness of the occasion.)

Accommodate by using variety

I serve meat as its own dish, not an ingredient. We have vegetarians in the family and this makes it easy for them to avoid it. I also make sure there are at least a couple of non meat proteins on the table, and some plain fruits and vegetables for dieters or those on restricted diets.

Appetizers are my culinary weapon of choice to make things go smoothly. I provide a variety of them from healthy to decadent. I do not ask anyone to bring them, because I want them on hand from the beginning, in case people arrive hungry. If you do assign them out don’t ask the person (every family has one) who is always late to bring them.

Complete nutrition is available…plus a little decadence.

Appetizers and mini desserts make it easy for people to drop in to say hi, have a little something and buzz off (teenagers for example) without feeling awkward about not having a whole meal.

Sit down meals are logistically challenging, and, with the exception of Thanksgiving, I avoid them. This has some to do with the quirky physical layout of the places where I serve meals, and some to do with the nature of our family.

If I do a sit-down meal, I like to ask every one to bring something, so there is a sense of sharing. I let people choose what they want to bring, because they will usually pick something that they like and make well. That way the meal is made up of everyone’s best and favorites. The recipes can make a good conversational topic. Providing an array of appetizers makes it easier for times when the turkey doesn’t cook as quickly as you expected or a key person is running late.

The elephant in the room

Our family has issues with alcohol, and my personal preference is to have holiday gatherings that do not rely on those sorts of “spirits”. This supports family members who are not drinking and makes it more likely that everyone will get home safely. I do not, however, make a big deal about it.

A few strategies I use: Brunch or lunch instead of dinner, early in the day serving wine isn’t expected. A festive, not too sweet punch can be a great way to “dress up” a meal without wine. An afternoon tea party is also a good choice for a delightful non-alcoholic event where folks don’t expect alcoholic drinks. The key is to not draw attention to a lack, but have a joyful abundance of good things. People remember my Grinch mini-fruit kebabs, divine cucumber sandwiches and lemon curd tarts, not that we didn’t serve wine.

You do not have to open a hostess gift bottle of wine. Thank the person who gives it warmly, then say you are saving it for a special occasion when you have time to sip and truly enjoy it.

Have traditions, but let each year be different.

Tradition is fine, and good, but families change. Children grow up, find partners, people move away, break-ups happen, new children are born and people die. The challenge is to cling to the right things. The things that have value and enrich our lives. Sometimes you have to think about this, sometimes it just happens. I stopped having a St. Nicholas Day Tea when the kids were in school and busy with after-school activities. It just didn’t happen one year…and hasn’t since.

It adds to the fun of the season to try out new things, maybe a new recipe or a new event. But don’t over-do. If the new idea is a go, maybe you need to let something else go. We have to keep tweaking things so they work for the people in our lives now. That doesn’t mean we forget the ones who aren’t here anymore.


This is last, not because it is least, because it is the most important to remember. You need to take care of yourself, all parts of you: body, mind and spirit.

Holidays are often stressful in ways we can’t control. I have a sister who always flips out one way or another, often in ways that are hurtful to others. It seems to me to be a way of demanding attention. I can’t do anything about it except to recognize that it is a pattern and nothing I do can fix it.

Here are somethings I do for myself:

I don’t deny myself treats that I really want, but I try to eat something nutritious first. I find that denying myself makes me fixate on goodies.

I bake, because I enjoy it and it makes the house smell festive.

I have a collection of children’s holiday books and I read them to myself, sitting by the fireplace with the Christmas lights on.

I usually do a holiday craft or sewing project. I like to work with my hands and I find it benefits my mental health to have a product that I finish.

If I get overwhelmed, and can do so without being rude, I find a quiet corner or go for a walk with the dogs. A little time outside, even if it is chilly, “blows the stink off”. (My grandmother’s sister used that phrase).

I went out to lose "the stink" but the dogs seem to have found it.... just happy they didn't roll in it.
Did they find “the stink”? At least they didn’t roll in it!

Oh, The Empress reminded me, rub your cat’s ears while sitting by the fire.

What do you do to stay sane over the holidays?

While this isn’t a challenge feel free to write your own post and add a link, or ping back to it in the comments.

12 thoughts on “Aunt Kate’s Safe and Sane Guide to the Holidays”

  1. LOVED the wisdom and practical tips in this post.
    and I did share part of the opening in my Friday “hope post” – but I could have added more. Like the part about alcohol – and how having brunch or lunch works way better because of changed expectations – you are so right – wine is expected at dinner and at certain style events.
    I might come back to this post and quote you again later when I write about alcohol again.

    anyhow, loved the other tips (guess they are called hacks these days)
    and cheers to a pleasant holiday for all of us – not because of what we have but because of how we go about it…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad that you will be talking about alcohol. It is a bit painful to mention. Regarding tips: I guess I’m old, I think of hacks as practical jokes with a nerdy engineer-y twist. That is what it meant “back in the day”. Wishing you a happy December.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes – I know what you mean about the meaning of hack changing over the years – and remember if someone said “he was a hack” it meant not the most together person – and then the joke thing too. I finally realized it meant tips after visiting a lot of health sites that mention “hacks” as tips.
        And not sure if I will mention alcohol again or not before the holiday – I really do “wing it” when I post. But I did mention last month about how some folks should start thinking of having a dry holiday season this year – and maybe do it just to see if they can. Fasting from it before someone has any issues with it can prevent issues – because alcohol can take people down!
        And love how you noted they are “spirits”

        Also – whew – six losses is tough!
        My aunt M passed away one year ago November and we did not spend all the holidays together – but he absence is felt throughout our family!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Really loved this post, and agree on so many levels, right from the very beginning -‘try to find a way to look beyond “merry consumer-fest”.’ to the very end ‘A little time outside’. No matter what faith people follow, or not, this can be such a trying time of the year, we need to look after ourselves, and find the way to enjoy and celebrate – well just about everything!

    “No matter how bad things are, they can always be worse. So what if my stroke left me with a speech impediment? Moses had one, and he did all right.” – Kirk Douglas. What an odd quote, but it does the job, It does sometimes seem that it cannot get worse – but I think – It can and does frequently get better!

    This always used to be a time of the year for just my wife and myself, celebrating Yule, and visiting family after Christmas, however now we both have parents who are alone, we visit them both over the main event as it were! Long journeys and stressful times – but we adapt, find joy where we can, and make time for the important things.

    Thank you so much for making my morning a thoughtful one, I am now off to start putting up the yuletide decorations with my wife, and with all the tradition we have made for ourselves over the years.

    Liked by 1 person

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