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For many of us, planning for the holidays is just another thing to add to our long list of things that stress us out. I felt the pressure as I walked into Home Depot over the weekend—I was greeted by a HUGE variety of holiday decor. 

OMG! It’s that time of year, again. 

This year, like no other, will cause you to search for the true meaning of the holidays and new ways to celebrate.

As you prepare for this upcoming holiday season, here are a few questions to consider:

  • What’s the meaning of the holidays to you and your family? 
  • In the past, what have the holidays looked like? 
  • What are some of your family’s favorite holiday traditions?
  • This year, what will be different? 
  • What needs to change?

Personally, the holidays are a time of celebration and gathering. It usually includes families who travel and friends who are like family. Food and fun are the centerpieces of activity. However, this year requires more conversation and planning beyond the menu and what football game is on television. Below are some ideas to consider as you make your holiday plans.

Think About Other Years The Holidays Were Different. Learn From Them!

This year will be like no other, but there may have been some years that didn’t go according to tradition. I recall one Thanksgiving where I had to work on the day after, but I wanted to have dinner with my out-of-town family. We decided to meet midway between our homes so we could be together. The only thing open was a southern-style restaurant. We were the only people there, and the food was pretty good. Was it our traditional holiday? No. But it is one of the ones that my children talk about and remember the most. 

Consider Creating New Traditions.

Change is not always comfortable for our near and extended family. A tradition becomes a tradition because it has meaning, and it occurs over time. Traditions take many forms: from using Grandmother’s china and silverware to who carves the turkey. As your family grows, it’s inevitable that change will occur. You may have had to create new traditions or adapt old ones. Different doesn’t mean deficient. It’s just different.

Create A Plan.

You have considered how things used to be. Now, think about the new possibilities for the holidays. It’s ok to look at a variety of conditions in order to create a plan that works for your family this year. (You may need to work on contingency plans as well.) 

Here are some thoughts that may enhance your planning:

  • What are the latest health guidelines and recommendations? 
  • Are we willing to travel? If not, will we allow family to come to us?
  • How many people can attend? 
  • Should we be tested before gathering? 
  • Should we gather in homes or try to find a large space for our festivities? 
  • Can we celebrate earlier? Later?

Talk and Listen to Family

Seek out your family to discuss plans. Everyone may not be on the same page and that’s ok. Be open and willing to be flexible with the plan. Listen for concerns and fears, but also new opportunities. Remember the meaning of the holidays and how you can work together to make it come together this year. 

If this year has taught us anything, it’s that family and friends are what matter. The holidays are moments of concentrated time we have with those we care about the most. It may not look the same as it has in the past. It may actually be better because we’re keeping first things first.

With all of the expectations around the holidays, things can get kind of crazy. The very time that’s supposed to bring families closer together is often filled with extra stress, fighting kids, awkward extended family dynamics, and sometimes marital tension.

Sometimes the craziness gets the best of us and family members start to feel disconnected. This leads to all kinds of holiday drama—the very thing we all want to avoid.

Want to help make sure the holidays are a time where family members feel connected and close? Here are some things you can do at home, in the car, during meals, and out in the community that not only will create conversation, but also laughter, insight, memories, and you guessed it, CONNECTION!

IF YOU’RE TRAVELING…

Instead of automatically plugging into technology, what about giving your kids a limited amount of time with tech stuff? Don’t be intimidated by the pushback and don’t expect them to thank you any time soon. Get creative and offer some motivation for participation. For example, for every 30 minutes you play the game you get X number of minutes with your screen. During the downtimes, interact with each other by playing some of these games:

  • Categories:  Pick a category (Disney movies, popular songs, flavors of soda) and take turns naming something in that category until someone is stumped. (This person loses and the winner picks the next category.)
  • Going on a Picnic: This is a memory game for all ages! The first person starts a story with, “I’m going on a picnic and I’m going to bring…” and then lists an item. The next person says, “I’m going on a picnic and I’m going to bring…” and then lists the first person’s item PLUS a new item. As the story grows and grows, each person repeats the list and adds a new item. The first person to incorrectly list all the items is out! You can keep playing until only one person remains.
  • License Plate Game: Interpret the letters in each license plate you pass. For instance, TMK could stand for “Toasty Miniature Kangaroo.”
  • People-watching: Watch a vehicle traveling on the road near you for a few minutes. Make up a story about the people in the car. Answer questions like: What are their names? Where did they come from? Where are they going? Why are they going there? What are they going to do when they get there? The sillier and more detailed the story is, the better!

IF YOU’RE STAYING AT HOME AS A FAMILY

  • Plan a walk and play “I Spy.” When you exercise together, your brain releases endorphins that create “feel-good memories” you can all enjoy for years to come. Walk around the yard, neighborhood, park, or find a local hiking trail, but encourage the whole family to come! To keep the kids engaged for the walk (and to keep things playful for the adults), play as many rounds of “I Spy” as you can. Then keep track of who wins the most “I Spy” rounds and award them with a special treat when you get home, like hot chocolate, a cookie, or maybe watching the movie or show of their choice.
  • Make something special. Baking goodies for the ones you love is fun, but baking goodies for someone in need, or someone who doesn’t expect it is even more fun. It also teaches the littlest ones in the family that holidays aren’t just about receiving, but giving! Choose one or two people, families, or organizations you’d like to delight this holiday season. Then, gather together in to bake something yummy together and share. Consider giving to an elderly neighbor, a family friend, the staff of a local nonprofit your family supports, etc.

IF YOU’RE SHARING A MEAL WITH OTHERS…

To avoid awkward silence at the dinner table with relatives or friends you may not see very often, try a few of these conversation starters:

  • What is one way you have helped another person this year?
  • Who is someone in your life you’re thankful for and why?
  • If you could have dinner with anyone (past or present), who would it be and why?
  • If you could have a superpower what would it be and how would you use it?
  • What is the most beautiful place you have ever seen?
  • What is the hardest thing about being your current age?

It’s possible to be in a room or a car full of people who are not interacting fully with each other, especially when routines get thrown to the side and people are tired and cranky. When people feel disconnected and schedules are upside down, chaos reigns. Instead of chaos, plan for what you know is coming, whether it is boredom, difficult conversations or unwanted silence. During the busiest season of the year, these tips may help lessen the drama and help you make memories with family and friends.

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on November 30, 2019.

Image from Unsplash.com

If you’ve ever been a caregiver during the holidays, you know how stressful it can be when caregiving tasks already fill your day. Heap the expectations of a joy-filled season on top of that, and there is real potential for feelings of guilt, anger, resentment and complete fatigue to take over.

Many caregivers are constantly exhausted, and sometimes just putting one foot in front of the other seems daunting. It can be tempting to hide away until after the holidays to avoid dealing with the added stress.

If you can relate, these suggestions may help you as a caregiver during the holidays.

Give yourself permission to put self-care at the top of the list. 

You probably know that you can’t give what you don’t have to others, but that is just plain easier said than done. Some family and friends may have more flexibility to give you much-needed breaks to exercise, sleep, treat yourself to some time with friends or to just do nothing.

Instead of trying to do it all yourself, let someone help.

Driving to doctor visits, picking up prescriptions, changing beds, grocery shopping, fixing meals and keeping the house clean can keep you going 24/7. Friends are usually looking for ways to be helpful, especially during the holidays. It will bless you both if you take them up on their offers or ask for what you need.

Think about what makes your heart happy when it comes to celebrating the holidays. 

Do those things and eliminate the rest even though you might want to do more. Instead of doing all the decorating, ask a friend if they would do it for you. Send an email instead of cards or have someone help you address envelopes. If hosting the annual holiday gathering feels like too much to handle this year, ask someone else to host. If you still want to host but want less responsibility, let others bring the food.

Take control of your mind and guard against negative self-talk.

If you typically do everything yourself, this can be a particularly complicated time of year. On one hand, you know you need help, but on the other hand, you hate to seem needy. Healthy people ask for what they need and don’t feel guilty about it.

Caring for a loved one goes on for a season, and that time period may be months or years. Whatever the time frame, most people understand how hard it is, and there are often many people in your life who are willing to help you shoulder some of the load so that in the end you don’t end up sacrificing yourself in the name of caring for the one you love.

Click here to read the entire article, which was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on December 9, 2018.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

What are your goals for this holiday season? If you want to provide a time and place where people can relax, celebrate relationships, laugh, count their blessings, play, and help create warm memories, you may want to rethink how you’ve always done things and change things up a bit. As the old saying goes, simple is better… and it’s often a lot more fun for everyone involved. These ideas can help you celebrate with more focus and less fuss. 

  • Make a list of everything you plan to do. Divide it between must-do, would like to do and not really necessary. 

  • See what you can mark off your list. For example, maybe you won’t send holiday cards this year. Instead of throwing a holiday party now, put it off until July. 

  • Let each family member choose a few of their favorite decorations to put out and leave the rest in the closet. 

  • Participate in alternative gift-giving. Tell everybody that all gifts have to be homemade this year. Challenge your children to be creative and let them do it themselves.

  • Donate to the favorite charity of a family member or friend in their honor instead of spending hours at the mall purchasing a gift they don’t really need or want. 

  • Ask family members to bring a favorite dish to the family gathering instead of doing it all yourself. 

The key to feeling good about the way you spend your time and money during the holidays is to make a plan and stick to it. It is important to involve your family in the process, so share your goals with them and discuss ways you would like to simplify. Encourage them to find creative ways to celebrate. Then work your plan together.

Click here to read the entire article, which was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on November 25, 2018.

As you gather with friends or family, chances are good that at some point you will encounter people who don’t share your point of view about topics that you feel strongly about, such as politics, faith, raising children, immigration, or… you fill in the blank.

While emotion surrounds these topics, it is possible to have civil conversations about any one of these things with capacity to agree to disagree and remain friends or connected as family.

Keeping the following things in mind can help create more civil conversations:

  • Remember that what you believe makes perfect sense to you, but other people have reasons for why they believe the way they do. Instead of shutting them down, ask questions to help you better understand why they believe the way they do. You may still walk away from the conversation shaking your head, but having a reasonable conversation may lead to better understanding on both sides of the fence. Many of these issues are not cut and dry; they are often deep and complicated.
  • Your words are like a construction site; they can either build people up or tear them down. You have the opportunity to be respectful and gracious regardless of the topic at hand. When children in the room watch you navigate a complicated conversation in a respectful way, you are teaching them. Whether you believe they are paying attention or not, they are more than likely taking in your words and your every move.
  • Speaking respectfully makes a difference. If you demean, degrade and disrespect the person you are speaking with and then walk away from the relationship, they will have one less person in their life who has a different perspective that could elicit thought-provoking conversations.
  • Self-control is key. We are all in charge of our own emotions, actions and behaviors. Even when people are disrespectful toward us, we can choose to respond in kind or to do something different. It absolutely takes two to tango, but it only takes one person to change the dance. If you refuse to escalate and meet like behavior with like behavior, it becomes a different kind of conversation.

In the end, we must figure out how to live civilly with people who don’t think exactly like us. Thinking about those conversations ahead of time can help you handle those difficult topics with confidence.

Click here to read the entire article, which was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on November 11, 2018.

 ***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

Thanks to online shopping, my purchases were virtually complete. I asked my family what they wanted, and then I bought a few perfect presents (within my budget, of course).

But after the shopping was complete, I needed to plan how we’d spend Christmas break together.

For. Two. Whole. Weeks.

I didn’t want to waste precious time in front of a screen or do pointless things, so I decided to think ahead. After all, failing to plan is planning to fail, right?

Believe it or not, I do actually get excited about breaks.

I look forward to all the breaks from school and homework, for all of us. It’s a welcome relief from an all-too-often insane schedule, and we need the rest. But if I am honest, I’m usually a little too happy when school starts back.

But, when school’s in, we’re so busy that we don’t truly enjoy each other. And I realize it’s not fun to be around a mom (or wife) who is constantly barking orders to hurry up, get in the car, clean your room, help me with dinner, fold the laundry, etc.

So, I decided our Christmas break this year was going to be different.

Thankfully, my office was officially closed while my kids were home. So, it was up to me to make the gift of time with my family really count.

Instead of trying to guess what my family wanted, I decided to ask — the same way I asked about their Christmas list.

“What would you like to do with me during your Christmas vacation? Make a list of everything, and we’ll try to make it happen.”

It didn’t take long for me to find out what they wanted. In fact, I really already knew. It’s probably the same thing your family wants: UNDISTRACTED TIME.

Whether you officially have “time off” or not, whether it’s a holiday or not, you can still make all their wishes come true in some way. Find out how to spend the time you DO have with the ones you love — then make the most of it.

Just in case you’re wondering exactly what my kids desired from me during our break, here’s a sample of what we did over Christmas vacation:

My youngest child did my makeup (and hair). We read and sang together, shopped, and enjoyed cocoa and marshmallows by the fire. We created delicious food in the kitchen, played games and worked puzzles. We went ice skating and got coffee and doughnuts. And there was still be plenty of time to watch movies and sleep in.

This year, I’m going to make memories and intentionally enjoy my family. I have a feeling we could get used to these “things” that are not really “things.”

I can’t wait. And who knows? I just might be a little sad when the kids go back to school.

The countdown to Spring Break begins…

Thanksgiving a month early?? But why??? Well. My oldest son is now a college freshman… and the cost of travel (as well as his school schedule) made it impossible for us to celebrate Thanksgiving on the traditional 4th Thursday of November.

I’ve taught families through our parenting classes at First Things First for almost 10 years now, which means I’ve talked to thousands of people about the importance of creating new family traditions. This year, I actually had to put my money where my mouth was. I cleaned and shopped like it was nobody’s business, about a month ahead of everyone else! I may have spent a little more on food items, but I didn’t have to deal with the crowded conditions of grocery stores.

The weekend of our early celebration was also my Big Guy’s first visit home since we took him to college in NYC. I should have remembered that “the best-laid plans of Mice and Men go astray” because I was anxiously anticipating his arrival and, of course, his plane was delayed 2 hours.

I was looking forward to spending time with him and attending the regular Friday night football game at his alma mater. He reminded me that he wanted to play with the band for old times’ sake, so I had to take him to practice an hour and a half before the game. I saw him for a bit his first night home, from afar.

The next morning, I made plans for us to have a big breakfast and for me to send all my fellas (husband and 3 boys) off to experience the Vol Walk and Homecoming at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Well, remember that best-laid plans statement I mentioned earlier? Big Guy had a paper due on Saturday by 6PM, so there was no opportunity for male bonding. And I spent the entire day cleaning and prepping the meal for Sunday – which included turkey and all the traditional Southern fixings.

Finally, the morning of our big Thanksgiving celebration arrived. Friends and family filled our home and we had A BALL. We talked, laughed and enjoyed each other’s company. When it was over, I was mega-tired, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

I still celebrated Thanksgiving with my whole family.

One year, Jayne Griffin looked at her calendar and realized she didn’t have a free weekend until after January 1st. She was hosting the family Thanksgiving meal and taking her grandbaby to see Santa. Then there was the staff party at her house, her husband’s office party and another Christmas gathering. Plus, she planned a trip to see friends and committed to working two of the weekends.

While commitments are great, it’s easy to stress about what to do when you have little downtime. And the most likely person to experience the brunt of that stress? The husband.

“For many years I refused to start planning too far ahead of time for the holidays because I felt like I was giving in to the commercialism of it all,” says Griffin. “So I would end up doing things at the last minute when I was already exhausted. If my husband wasn’t doing what I thought he should be doing to help out, things could escalate pretty quickly between the two of us.”

While everybody’s “to-do list” may look a bit different, most probably have one thing in common – it’s the big fight. It’s not the one on television, but the one between you and your spouse as a result of poor planning, running at breakneck speed and communicating in shorthand.

“For too long I put off the secular in order to enjoy the sacred, but I actually ended up squelching the joy of the sacred and the secular celebration, and it definitely took a toll on my marriage,” says Griffin. “Over many years of marriage I think I have finally learned that I can plan ahead without giving into the commercialization of the holiday.”

Now, the Griffins sit down and discuss the schedule for November and December. Together they decide how they want things to go. They highlight the especially crazy times that would require extra finesse to keep the lines of communication open and attack problems instead of each other.

“I am not dreading the holidays,” Griffin says. “In previous years I would wait until the week of a party to plan my menu. I now spend a couple of hours making my plan including menus for various parties, my gift list and other miscellaneous items. I have already purchased some gifts and I don’t get overwhelmed thinking about what’s left on my list. I am amazed at how different I feel. And, most importantly I am not at odds with my husband!”

These tips can help you conquer the holidays. They can also help you enjoy them and keep your marriage healthy at the same time:

  • Consider fine-tuning your communication and conflict management skills by taking a marriage enrichment class. That can help prevent you from making mountains out of molehills.
  • Keep your attitude in check.
  • Plan out the next seven weeks together so the chaotic pace doesn’t blindside you.
  • Make decisions based on what is best for your family.
  • Remember, you do have control over how you choose to spend your holidays.

Be mindful of the things that hinder your joy and put unnecessary strain on your marriage. They don’t make for very happy holidays.

 ***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

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Christie and Jim celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday with both of their families. Just before the meal, Jim began to tell Christie how thankful he was for her and what he appreciated about her. A bit embarrassed, she asked him if he realized he was talking to her in front of their entire family. With a smile on his face, he responded, “Yes.”

After a few more moments of sharing, Jim asked Christie to marry him. She said yes, and everyone applauded.

According to WeddingWire, almost 33 percent of marriage proposals occur between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

“There is something special about celebrating the big moment with family and friends who are gathered together during this special time,” says Dr. Greg Smalley, co-author of Before You Plan Your Wedding…Plan Your Marriage. “However, the memories of the ‘moment’ are often shoved to the backseat as many of these couples hurriedly launch into planning for a June wedding. Since they only have six months to get ready, they spend all their time planning for the ‘day’ instead of doing things that will help them stay married for a lifetime.”

Smalley contends that many couples mistakenly think they have all the answers for marital bliss. Then they find out they were wrong.

“We see so many couples who clearly want to have successful marriages,” Smalley says. “The good news is most of them can be successful as long as they get the right knowledge and skills. Research shows that couples who succeed gain the knowledge they need before they settle into destructive patterns that often lead to divorce.”

According to Dr. David Olson, studies indicate that 80 percent of couples who participate in premarital preparation report higher marital satisfaction. Additionally, studies show that couples who participate in premarital preparation are 31 percent less likely to divorce.

“Most newlywed couples are clueless that they are getting ready to face enormous adjustments like managing expectations, dealing with disagreement and disappointment, household issues, financial decisions, intimacy in their relationship, in-laws, how to spend free time, personality differences, re-orienting old friendships and more,” Smalley says. “The key to successfully navigating these adjustments is: A) attacking the problem and not each other, and B) feeling emotionally safe with your spouse.”

People who feel emotionally safe in their marriage are much more likely to reveal their deepest thoughts, feelings and desires because they know their partner will still love, accept and value them. When couples can share at this level, they’re much more likely to get to the heart of issues and work through them. Interestingly, communicating at this level actually increases marital intimacy. Couples learn these skills through premarital preparation.

“You can have a ‘perfect’ wedding day and a safe marriage relationship. It just takes some additional effort,” Smalley shares. “Building a safe relationship is key to a strong foundation for your marriage. Ideally, your marriage should feel like the safest place on earth.”

Are you planning for the day, or are you planning for a lifetime?

For more information on becoming a Newlywed, get our E-Book: “10 Things Every Newlywed Needs to Know” Download Here 

‘Twas four days before Christmas when all through the house, no one was stirring, not even your spouse. Stockings were hung by the chimney with care. What should you get her? Buyer beware!

Your wife all nestled snug in your bed while visions of diamonds danced in her head. The dog had his bone in front of the fire while you shopped online before you retired. So many choices. What do you see? “A blender, a vacuum or something for me!”

On Christmas morn, you’ll awake to a clatter and spring from your bed to see what’s the matter. When what to your wondering eyes will appear, your wife with a look that is very clear…

We’ve all heard horror stories of gift-giving gone bad. One newlywed, recalling the look on her mother’s face when she received an appliance for Christmas, told her husband if she could use it in the kitchen or for cleaning the house, it did not qualify as a Christmas present.

Believe it or not, she is not alone. Most women say if it’s practical, it isn’t something that should be given as a gift.

December 25 will be here before you know it, but it’s not too late for you to find a great gift.

Remember, men and women think differently.

When choosing a gift for your mate, consider how she will interpret the meaning behind your gift. When in doubt, ask one of her friends or don’t run the risk. What men often don’t understand about gift buying is this: Women see the creativity, effort and gift itself as a direct reflection of how much her husband loves her. Men see a gift as a gift.

Whether you think it makes sense or not, there is a lot riding on gifts in general. So if you aren’t planning on taking up residence on the family room couch, you might want to take your gift buying seriously.

Be a good understudy to your wife. Listen carefully to what she says. Pay attention to the things she enjoys and the way she spends her time. Does she like to cook, garden, sew, read, run, knit, go to the movies or ride bikes? You might even ask her for a list of things she would like for Christmas. With a little investigative work, you can uncover some helpful hints to guide you in your gift-buying.

When some women were asked what they would like for Christmas from their husbands, here’s what they said:

  • Buy a gift certificate for a massage, manicure or pedicure.
  • Make plans to take the children out for the evening, allowing your wife to stay at home in peace and quiet.
  • Purchase a gift certificate to her favorite restaurant for a date night.
  • Plan a romantic getaway and take care of all the details. Give her hints about where she will be going and what she needs to bring for your getaway.

In case you are still struggling a bit, here are some more helpful hints:

  • Purchase some of her favorite “go-to” items like special lotion, fragrance, candles, books, tea, and/or coffee.
  • Plan a surprise date night to see a play or concert. (Don’t forget to line up the babysitter. It’s not a real date if the person receiving the gift has to do the work to make it happen.)
  • Do you have a crafty skill like woodworking or making stained glass? She might enjoy something you made specifically with her in mind.
  • If finances are an issue, believe it or not, a handwritten letter expressing your love for her and how she makes your life rich is a priceless gift.
  • Throw practical out the window. This is the time you give something that you know your wife would never purchase for herself.
  • Take her on a window shopping date and pay attention to what catches her eye.

If all else fails and you are still at a loss, ask her to accompany you on a shopping spree to find the perfect gift.

If you already have her gift, you could start having a little fun now and leave clues in unusual places where you know she will find them. Creating anticipation can make the gift seem even more special.

So…with a gleam in your eye and a plan in your head, you know that you have nothing to dread. Your wife will proclaim with a smile shining bright, “Merry Christmas, honey. You got it just right!”