9 Tips to Destress Your Holiday Gatherings

The holidays bring images of family and friends gathered around a table sharing a meal and enjoying each other’s company yet, for many of us it can mean stress. 

Once you get a mix of people gathered together, things can get heated. Or, as you’re passing out the desserts, Aunt Cindy announces that she has a food allergy but she never told you. How do you cope? Our tips below can help you sidestep some of the bigger issues and help you have the holiday experience you wish for!

1. Don’t assume anything and communicate with your guests

This cannot be stressed enough. Communication is critical when you’re having family and friends over for the holidays. Don’t assume that all of your guests like pets, can eat the food you’re serving, drink alcohol or have been COVID vaxxed. If that’s a concern, please read the Center for a Secure Retirement blog post about staying healthy and safe during the holidays. The following tips get into more detail but always think through the lens of what could go wrong and plan accordingly by communicating and asking questions including where they’re planning on staying if they’re coming from out of town. Sometimes communication breaks down and you thought they were hoteling it and they show up with their suitcases.

2. Ask all attendees about food allergies/sensitivities/dietary restrictions well in advance.

This seems like a no-brainer but with the stress of the holidays and the focus on getting things planned, it may fall through the cracks yet it should be one of the first things to think about. 

Food allergies are serious and can be deadly. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), the following eight types of food account for about 90% of all reactions: Eggs, milk and dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, soy and sesame. Also important, are those guests who have medical conditions like diabetes so ask! It can be a gracious thing to offer an alternative for them or ask if they’d prefer to bring their favorite treat so they can be sure to enjoy with everyone and not be sitting with an empty plate at dessert. 

3. Mention if you have pets and have a plan to contain them.

Not everyone loves dogs or cats or your favorite reptile. Some have allergies to pets and some have fears. Similar to asking your attendees in advance about food allergies or sensitivities, it’s important to mention that you have pets in the home and ask your guests if they are comfortable and if not, put a plan in place that works for all. Having the family dog jumping up on everyone or the family cat perched on grandpa’s shoulder during dinner might be OK for you but not for others. 

4. Plan for kid/infant needs

Find out ahead of time if kids are attending and what needs they may have. Most parents are good about bringing what they need but mention toys or games that might be good to have on hand. You may also need a quiet space for kids to nap, a nursing mom to retreat to, etc. Communication is important so just ask! The more you know ahead of the big day, the better prepared you’ll be and especially with kids, keeping them happy, fed, and entertained will make the day go smoother!

Want to read about connecting with grandchildren if distance is an issue? Click here to learn tips to keep that relationship going if miles separate you. 

5. Set ground rules for discussions.

Holiday meals are notorious as the perfect stage to air hot button topics. Setting up ground rules from the outset and verbalizing them to everyone in a kind way before the meal begins is key especially if you know some of your holiday attendees will want to talk about topics that can get guests riled up like politics, religion, etc. 

You may want to designate one trusted guest to be a referee if things start to get out of hand reminding everyone that you’re going to stay away from topics that could cause stress and even anger for others. Suggest topics to turn attention to other things if things get heated i.e. what was the best gift you received this year? Granted they might respond, “my favorite politician won!” as their answer but at least you’re trying to keep the peace!  

Other questions to turn attention could be: What was the best trip you’ve ever taken? What’s your favorite childhood memory? 

6. Establish boundaries

Whether it’s your mom peering over your shoulder asking if you really know now to make turkey gravy from the drippings or other challenging personalities who may cross your threshold, setting boundaries is key with any gathering large or small. Certain family members might be better to have later for dessert and coffee if it’s too stressful to have a huge crowd for the main dinner. 

Talk to your immediate family or significant other or decide for yourself what stresses you most about having family over. Identify what you want and how best to get that to happen. 

7. Limit alcohol.

Another push button topic can be alcohol. Most families know the family members who may have issues with alcohol whether they’re nondrinkers or tend to imbibe too much. This is a personal decision but it’s OK to limit drinking and it may be a good idea to not offer it at all. 

8. Have puzzles or games available.

Nothing distracts from stress on a holiday better than a puzzle, game or even charades. Have a few things out on the coffee table or wherever you have space as it can be a great diversion when things get heated or stressful and redirects people’s attention to something you can all do together. You can also take the games outside by tossing a ball, playing tag with the kids, playing cornhole or even taking a walk around the block.

9. Work in mindfulness and self-care for yourself.

The holidays are wonderful but can be equally stressful. Take some time for yourself to do some deep breathing, have a cup of tea and just look out the window, take a walk around the block, do something small that helps bring YOU joy and peace before you open the door and the crowd comes clamoring inside!

No matter what tips you choose to incorporate into your gathering, keep reminding yourself that the reason for the season of holidays is to be together, so savor the little moments and keep your sense of humor and it will make a big difference. 

Happy holidays! 

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