Remember National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation? Chevy Chase's character, Clark Griswold, and his family face one disaster after another: An elaborate Christmas light display doesn't work; eccentric family members show up unexpectedly; the tree goes up in flames; and Clark doesn't receive the end-of-year bonus he's been counting on.
With any luck, your holiday won't be filled with quite as many cringe-worthy catastrophes. Still, the movie does teach us one thing about the "most wonderful time of the year:" It's often a farce.
"The 'perfect holiday' has got to be put in the myth box," says Kathleen Hall, founder and chief executive officer of The Stress Institute in Atlanta. Forget the Norman Rockwell-esque holiday meal, the impeccable wreaths and crafts a la Martha Stewart, and the tree surrounded by mountains of gifts. These ideals rarely reflect reality, Hall says.
Expecting holiday frustrations may sound pessimistic, but doing so will likely lead to a merrier season. "The paradox is that the more realistic you are, the less disappointed you'll be in the moment," says David Reiss, a psychologist based in San Diego, Calif. "The more you can laugh it off and say, 'Ha! Here we go again!' instead of 'What do I do now?' the happier you will be."
U.S. News consulted with a few experts who weighed in on how to keep six common holiday stressors from turning jolly elves into frazzled, wine-guzzling Scrooges:
Cancelled flights and unbearable traffic. Traveling during the holidays, especially with children, can be a nightmare. Instead of framing a trip as leaving at one specific time and arriving at Grandma's at another specific time, think of it as an adventure. Say to your kids: "We don't know what's going to happen but we're in it together, and we'll remember this trip for a long time—so let's have fun," Hall suggests. Instead of shuddering because you're not going to arrive at Aunt Peggy's until two hours after dinner, tell the family, "Well, we can stop at this interesting little town and grab a snack with locals to hold us over."
Plus, "Kids mirror your stress," Hall says. "We've got to remember that." Rather than grumbling in dismay at the screen of cancelled departures and arrivals at the airport, make it a game. Ask your kids where they would go if they could visit any of the cities listed on the screen.
If you're traveling by air, pack lots of snacks, since you could wind up sitting on the runway for a few hours. Be sure to include essentials like medicine in your carry-on, as well as comfort items like e-readers. So frazzled that you'd like to give the flight attendant a piece of your mind? It's rarely worth it. "Try not to take it out on the employees, because they're stressed, too," says Reiss. "And they're not going to help you any quicker if you're screaming at them."
Hosting a holiday party. If there's a chance drama is going to brew at your shindig, don't blindside anyone. If you're friends with a couple who recently broke up, call each of them and let them know the other will be attending. Same goes for friends and family who notoriously butt heads.
If you're feeling stressed because you hold this party every year and you always bake gingersnaps, play Monopoly, and sing carols after dinner—and this year, it's just not coming together—relax. "Whatever your tradition is, enjoy the old and create the new," Hall says. If every detail doesn't turn out exactly as planned, step back and remember the point of throwing a party. "If you want to serve pizza with sprigs of holly on it, that's fine," says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. "Don't make yourself crazy thinking that everything has to be picture-perfect because in the end, people just want to get together."
Family members who drive you crazy. "The fantasy is that we'll all be one big, happy family," Reiss says. "But when you find one big, happy family, let me know." Haven't gotten along with your cousin for the last decade? Don't expect to suddenly be best friends just because it's the holidays. Keep your distance. And if you can't, and your mother-in-law starts hounding you at the dinner table? "When you feel your heart pumping, or you're starting to get hot … leave the situation," Hall says. Excuse yourself to go to the restroom, because even a brief break can keep you from saying something you'll regret.
Also keep in mind that you may be creating stress for others without realizing it. By trying to make conversation with good intentions, you could accidentally bring up sensitive topics. How's the book coming? When are you two getting married? How's the job hunt? Avoid these land-mine conversations by simply asking, "What's keeping you busy these days?" suggests Rubin. "Then people answer with whatever is most important to them, be it work, play, or a hobby."
Braving the mall for last-minute gifts. Crowded parking lots, blaring Christmas music, other shoppers swarming like vultures to grab the last Kindle. You're not the only one who finds holiday shopping stressful, and there's a good chance others won't be handling it so well. "Put on your blinders and go your own way," Reiss says. The toy aisle is clogged? Go check out the sweaters and come back later. Notice another shopper cutting in line and want to set her straight? Laugh it off instead. "Engage with someone who is under pressure and irrational, and you're not going to get a rational response," Reiss says. "It's going to make things worse."
If it's overspending you're worried about, consider leaving the credit card at home and bringing only as much cash as you can afford to spend. "When it's done, it's done," Rubin says.
Receiving a terrible gift. We've all been there. The whole family is watching, including the gift-giver, as you unwrap a package to discover a horrific sweater, one size too small and six stripes too many. "Be kind and say thank you," says Hall, and "be as low-key as possible." Don't fake that you absolutely adore it, or guess what? You'll be getting that same kind of sweater for the next 10 Christmases." Take it all in stride. "It's not a tragedy, so keep some perspective," Reiss says. "It's not like Santa has abandoned you."
You still have to send holiday cards. At this point, you have a handful of business days for your cards to be delivered, barring some blizzard that closes the post office. Not to mention that you still have to make a run for a book of stamps, and oh right—actually buy the cards. Skip the greetings this season and send Valentine's Day cards instead, Rubin suggests. "Everything is so much easier in January and February," she says. After all, you've got enough to stress about for now.