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By Patricia Montemurri

RISMEDIA, Dec. 6, 2008-(MCT)-A happy holiday doesn’t have to be a stressful holiday. Keep it simple and keep your sanity.

Eleanor McGuire has made her stand against grand holiday expectations. No more does she heed magazine covers compelling her to bake multi-layered, frosted holiday cookies. No more does the Pontiac, Mich., mother of four shuttle between upstate Illinois and Up North to visit with the children’s grandparents. No more does she buy the children elaborate gifts, a change precipitated by unearthing dust-covered boxes of unused presents of Christmases past from their rooms.

“We’ve scaled down,” says McGuire, 43, the religious education director for Birmingham Unitarian Church.

Now, she aims to delight in what the holidays can give her family-some cherished time together and a commitment to celebrate the season with others. “I keep it simple, so we maintain serenity,” says McGuire. “I try to enjoy the moment, and that’s what I give myself.”

We all could use some serenity right now. ‘Tis the season for stress.

The period between Thanksgiving and the New Year is multitasking crunch time for many folks juggling the obligations of family, work and the expectation-and exhilaration-that accompanies Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and year-end merrymaking. And this year, it’s all tempered by the sense of economic doom that has engulfed the nation, and especially Michigan.

Yet, we can use these annual celebrations of ritual to take a holiday from worry, says Philip Lanzisera, a clinical psychologist, and director of Henry Ford Hospital’s psychology internship program.

“If you take an approach that we’re going to have fun, we’re going to leave all these concerns about GM, Ford, Chrysler and the stock market for a couple of weeks, it can be a wonderful break and a chance to get away from it mentally,” says Lanzisera. “You say, ‘This is my time, my family’s time.’ And you don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a good time.”

First off, just take a deep breath before you figure out a game plan to deal with your holiday sore spots, says Carissa Gaden, 42, of Ferndale, Mich., a clinical psychologist.

For Gaden, it’s the holiday card routine. She likes to get them. And she likes to send them. Which she did last year, but not in time for Christmas.

“I think it was the beginning of January,” explains Gaden. “I decided I could send holiday cards whenever I get them done. If people don’t like getting them in January, too bad. That’s one thing I’ve been able to let go.”

To reinforce the season’s goal of sharing bounty with others, Gaden and her husband, Dale, bought their three daughters a goat-actually it was one sponsored for a poor family in an underdeveloped nation through the charity group Heifer International.

“Those kind of gifts people appreciate more than we realize,” she says.

Back at the McGuire household in Pontiac, the family aims to minimize holiday hassle.

The McGuires adopt a less-fortunate family for gift-giving through their church’s relationship with the Whitmer Human Resources Center in Pontiac. She takes her kids, ages 8-12, shopping to pick stylish outfits and cool toys for the recipient family.

For gifts outside the immediate family-to teachers, coworkers, etc., “everybody gets cookies,” says McGuire.

“I did that for years-the beautifully decorated cookies. There were five or six kinds and multiple layers of cookie dough. I just don’t do that anymore.”

Now, the kids help her make the cookies-a cinnamon variety and a chocolate mint-flavored one-and package and label them.

“We do send out Christmas cards. We used to try for a nice photo. Now we just try for a photo where nobody is blinking,” says McGuire. “I don’t go crazy decorating. We put up a tree.”

They used to travel to Illinois to see her husband’s relatives at the holidays or to the Newaygo area to see her parents. It wore them out, and the travel time took away from family time.

“It was not well received” by the grandparents, recalls McGuire. “It took a few years of just gently standing our ground. Now we see them for longer periods of time at winter or spring breaks than at the holidays when people are tired.”

Laura Slenzak, 45, of Commerce Township, Mich., infuses her holiday preparations with wit and realism.

“I don’t have time to spend days and weeks and months over whether this or that is going to be perfect,” says Slenzak, a lawyer and married mother of two children, ages 13 and 11. At Christmas, she’ll host dinner for 20.

“If I’ve got a houseful of people coming over, I generally try to make sure I’m done vacuuming a half hour before they come,” says Slenzak. “As long as everybody has the illusion of clean, I’m fine.”

She’s mastered the illusion with cleaning wipes. “Because God created the world in six days, and on the seventh day he took the day off, and on the eighth day, he created those Clorox wipes and that was good.”

She’s never had any Martha Stewart wanna-be moments, although she doesn’t slam those who do.

“If people want to do it, and they find it enjoyable, that’s fine,” says Slenzak. “But … why would you give yourself another thing to feel inadequate about?”

8 Tips for Coping With Holiday Stress

1. Like Santa, make a list. And like Santa, delegate to the elves. Psychologist Carissa Gaden, a Ferndale, Mich., mother of three, says “If you spend 10 minutes figuring out how to get other people to help, you’ve spent your time wisely.”

2. Don’t feel burdened by tradition. Upend it. Take a vacation at the holidays instead of what you’d normally do, says Dr. Laura McMahon, a psychiatrist practicing in Macomb County, Mich.

3. Ditch the holiday shuffle. Instead of running between houses, stay home for the day and invite family or friends to a late-day or early evening dessert gathering.

4. Volunteer. If you do it at a soup kitchen or church, it will remind you of the season’s reason.

5. Shopping shift. Make this the year you pare down your gift obligations and institute “pulling names” among extended family.

6. Make it fun and free. Gas prices are down. Take a drive to see the light displays. “Sometimes I tell patients, instead of spending money, let’s get to basics. Bake cookies and do things that are simple with friends and family,” says McMahon.

7. Just say no. It doesn’t make you a Grinch if it keeps you sane. “You don’t have to promise everything to everybody,” says McMahon.

8. Have a holiday exit strategy. If an uncle always drinks too much at a family party, he’s not likely to change this year. Says Gaden, “You can say ‘I don’t like the way this is going, we’re going to do something else.’ ”

© 2008, Detroit Free Press.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.