How to Have a Happy Christmas Using Psychology, Not Money

This article was first featured on the popular blog Motherhood the Real Deal here.

So, you’re under the pump with Christmas coming. All those Christmas movies have imprinted on your mind that a massive extravaganza of decorations, gifts, guests and food is required along with your unfailing organisational skills. You have to deck your halls with boughs of holly, produce a banquet fit for Henry VIII, keep every guest glowing with Christmas cheer, and supply a mound of artfully wrapped gifts reminiscent of the great wall of China. NO pressure!

Christmas is the event-management equivalent of tough-mudder - only the strong survive to stumble over the finish line exhausted. Many a mother gets to Boxing Day frazzled and resentful that everyone else had a good time at her expense. The level of appreciation rarely meets the level of stress, effort and money invested to produce a happy Christmas.

And wasn’t that the point? Wasn’t every bow tied around a gift meant to delight the person receiving it? Weren’t those artisanal mince pies intended to impress? Wasn’t every tap of the credit card at checkout meant to buy you happiness? In the frenzy of trying to meet Hollywood’s expectations of Christmas, we often forget that the point was a Happy Christmas, not to bankrupt yourself emotionally and financially. Those Victorian-style Christmas cards have a lot to answer for!

Here are three ways a clever Mum and uses psychology, instead of money, to make sure everyone wakes-up happy and satisfied on Boxing Day rather than shell-shocked.

ONE...Happiness = Expectations<Reality

The trouble with Christmas is the expectations. You can’t meet other people’s expectations. Other people cannot meet yours. And your budget cannot meet anyones! Instead of trying to stage-manage your own version of Christmas-at-Downton Abbey, face the facts - someone is bound to get stroppy, one of the gifts is going to be a flop, and you can’t afford to replace all your decorations with this year's must-have theme from Liberties of London.

Happiness is surprisingly simple - when reality exceeds our expectations we feel happy. When the traffic is lighter than expected, we’re happy. When someone remembers our name, we’re happy. When the sun comes out on a cloudy day, we’re happy. The trouble is, we keep waiting for reality to meet our staunchly held expectations rather than questioning them. 

Modify your expectations by focussing on what is likely rather than what’s ideal. Stop kidding yourself that you’ll be serving a 5-course meal and prepare for what’s possible - you’ll feel the stress go down as well as the credit card bill.

TWO... Happiness = Creation

Psychology shows that people value what they make for themselves. You treasure the quilt you spent hours making, the homemade dinner (over the one in a box), and the garden you’ve tended with love. You can easily increase the enjoyment of your family by involving each of them as much as possible. 

Start by listing everything that needs to be done. Use headings like, ‘decor’, ‘gifts’, ‘food’, and ‘guests’ to organise the hundreds of tiny tasks. Then, set aside real time for a family meeting to agree on who will do what and when. Everyone is capable of something; unboxing decorations, sending cards, chopping fruit, laying the table nicely, etcetera. Note: everyone should have tasks on Christmas Day - it’s the big show and no one gets a whole day-off at the expense of anyone else. Make a chart and display it so everyone can see what’s coming and what they agreed to. Meet weekly to check progress. 

This might seem less romantic than the Christmas ideal but it’s the best way to avoid ending up with a homicidal mother and spoiled brats demanding more gifts, more food and more entertainment on Christmas Day. The happiest Mum is the manager of Christmas day, not a slave to it.

THREE...Happiness = Relationships

We feel sad for people alone at Christmas, not because they won’t have turkey or a gift, because they’ll feel lonely. In the end, it’s the connection we crave and not all the stuff (although, the stuff is nice, of course). Slow down and talk with your family about Christmas and what it means. About their favourite part. About how they want to express their appreciation for each other and their friends. About any concerns they have and what to do about them. 

By making Christmas about the connection, rather than the performance, you’ve made it something everyone can contribute to - how we treat each other is something we each have control over. As the teacher of family values, a mother sets the tone; frenetic or calm, connected or self-centred, quantity or quality-oriented. 

Keep coaching the children to think about their relationships rather than their Christmas list... “How will Grandad feel after lunch, do you think?”, “How will you show your cousin Allana that you’re a good host when she comes over on Christmas Eve?”, “How do you think people feel who don’t have a family at Christmas time?”.  This line of questioning will help expand your child’s perspective beyond themselves and focus their attention on feelings rather than acquisitions. 

Post these three ideas on the fridge to remind yourself that happiness is the goal of Christmas and there are plenty of ways to be happy that cost nothing at all. 


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