When people talk dismissively about the winter holidays—that stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day—they sometimes say things like, "Well, Christmas is just for the kids." In their view, the holidays are just about shaping vacation time, gifts, and photo ops around those who enjoy it most: children.
I don't agree with that for a lot of reasons. I have plenty of child-free friends who use this time to recharge their mental batteries and spend time with loved ones. Plenty of single people and couples without kids embrace Hallmark Channel's ever-growing library of movies and the seminal James Brown Christmas album.
As a parent, you might exhaustedly feel this way. You might begin to feel, by early December, that all of your activity is revolving around making this stretch of time enjoyable for the young ones. There's the checklist of Official Christmastime Parenting Obligations you might have: You gotta see the neighborhoods with all the inflatables and flashing light displays. You have to get the crying-kid-on-Santa's lap photo. You need the kids to write their letters to Santa and for them to leave cookies and milk and go to bed with wild anticipation on Dec. 24.
But when it's a checklist—when it feels like a series of tasks that every parent has to engage in if they want to give their offspring the full holiday experience—it can lose its magic. It can feel like work, and after a few years of this, it can feel less like enjoyable family time and more like chores.
What parents of young kids might not realize is that, even with all the holiday-time media they consume and friends they are talking to, your kids are your kids. They will embrace the expectations and traditions that you set. It's your family. You make the rules. And even if the extended family, the grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, have a way of celebrating the holidays that you feel you have to follow, you can set the tone.
As I'm coming up on my 17th holiday season with kids, I've come to a few conclusions about how to tackle the holidays.
Aim for good, not perfect: The pressure to make Christmas absolutely flawless for kids puts so much pressure on parents that it becomes a stressor. And trust me, your kids can tell when you're stressed and agitated. And their memories will be built as much on the mood and tone of the holidays as what they did. Keep the vibe loving.
You don't have to spend a ton of money on gifts: It's really true that for most parents, buying a big, expensive toy, like say a Barbie Dream House, ends up resulting in a giant box that the kids end up playing with more than the gift itself. One year, my daughters took a refrigerator box and spent a month drawing all over it and making variations of a spaceship in the living room. That was more fun than they had with any Christmas gift they got that year. If you start early, you can get some good Black Friday/Cyber Monday toy deals, but don't forget that it's memories over merchandise. Don't let gifting spin out of control, which is easy to do in our culture.
Take lots of pictures, but don't lose the moment: I've been the dad who spends so much time setting up pictures, posting to Instagram and focusing on capturing video that I have snoozed the moment. Those pictures and videos are precious; I treasure them now. But too often I focused on capturing the moment instead of living the moment. Put the camera down once you've got a few nice shots.
Put the phone down: And while we're at it, let's be real—we use our phones to disengage and to explore other people's lives while our own life is unfolding right in front of us. Your kids will see that, they'll remember it, and they'll adopt those habits. Put the Candy Crush game away, get off Threads and TikTok, have a conversation. And play with your kids. You may think you're too tired or too busy. You will regret not getting on the floor and playing cars or dolls or board games more than you did.
Don't be a Grinch: Now's not the time to lose your temper with your kids if they get wild on a sugar high. Don't forget that you're helping to shape your kids' perception of these holidays. Are they going to look forward to it and have warm feelings or are they going to dread the tension that comes into your home every year around this time? You don't have to put on a fake smile and overdo it, but at least count your blessings and love your loved ones.
Holiday depression and stress are real. If the parenting playbook for this time of year isn't working for you and your family, change it up. Break the traditions that don't work and make new ones.