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By: Karen Caton-Brunings

It's the most wonderful time of the year. The perfect meal, smiling family members gathering, Pinterest decorations, loads of presents under the tree, a crackling fire, laughter filling the air. Can you see it? Yup. I see it in my mind, but I have yet to see it happen in my real life. And it's not that I haven't tried. Every year without fail, I do everything I can to create the perfect holiday, Normal Rockwell, unrealistic, postcard bullshit image.

However, my holidays usually play out like a combination of Christmas Vacation, Die Hard, and A Christmas Story. It doesn't matter how Pinterest perfect my table looks or how much I blow through my holiday budget; at some point, I end up feeling like a 13-year-old girl trying to please everyone but herself. There is inevitably some tension, awkwardness, and disappointment. The holidays trigger us and tap into deeply ingrained stories like our origin, money, and body stories.

We navigate some heavy stuff during the holidays. The anxiety of creating unrealistic perfection and over-the-top experiences combined with family tensions, divorce, loss, and now, a global pandemic can make it feel like the most stressful time of the year. It brings up the emotions that (thanks, Norman) we're not supposed to feel or see during the holidays. We work our butts off to hide them, leaving us feeling like Hans Gruber, ready to kick some ass. As a result, our holiday feels less-than-perfect, often leaving us feeling less than, too.

We don't want holidays to be awkward or uncomfortable, but they are. What if we just let them be a little weird? What if a bit of tension, disappointment, and awkwardness were just okay? Uncle Joe is going to talk politics and make everyone uncomfortable. Your mother-in-law may say something about your parenting that makes your blood boil. Your nephew might proclaim he's a vegetarian as you set the ham on the table. Your new holiday budget might result in fewer gifts this year. Costco. You may even buy an entire holiday meal pre-made from Costco. Someone may shoot their eye out. Isn't all that awkwardness what makes those holiday movies so brilliant?

Because we try so hard to create holiday perfection, we miss the chance to see the real magic and the beauty of an imperfect gathering. Like the year my grandmother with dementia held my baby for the first time. Or last year when my daughter walked into the kitchen and burst into tears of gratitude to see my ex-husband, arm around my shoulder. The anxiety and awkwardness are actually part of the deal. They make way for the special moments if you let them.

The holidays are an incredible opportunity to do things differently and find the magic in the glittery-covered mess. I wish I could say "do these five things," and your holidays will be free you from holiday stress. But, of course, if I did, it would be bullshit. We are all different and have unique holiday and life triggers and stressors. But you can keep a few things in mind during the most wonderful time of the year.

Be realistic: It's been a hell of a ride the past few years. We're all a little raw, and our nerves are exposed. Don't expect Norman. Expect Uncle Eddie. This is especially true this year. We are all showing up with a few more cracks in the new gathering era. Celebrate how clumsy we all can be when we get together.

Acknowledge your feelings and feel them all: It isn't supposed to be perfect; it's supposed to be real. Your life and your holidays can contain the word AND. Good and bad. Magical and batshit crazy. Peaceful and loud as hell. You're human with a kaleidoscope of emotions to share, show and feel every day.

Don't bite off more than you can chew: Financially, emotionally, energetically. You can say no, even during the holidays. So can everyone else. You don't have to buy presents for everyone in your family, even if others choose to. You can leave a little early or stay late. You can spend the afternoon or the weekend. You can set boundaries for yourself. It's okay if it ruffles a few feathers.

Take care of yourself: Keep your healthy habits intact. The holidays are not the time to put your mental and physical health last on the list of must-dos. You're asking everyone what they need right now. Why not ask yourself? Need rest? Then rest. Tend to be lonely and sad during the holidays? Then gather with friends, even if it's for a quick walk or coffee. Need someone else to host? Ask. A surefire way to feel like crap during the holiday season is to say yes when you mean no. We rather say yes and suffer by our design than say no and suffer the pain of being judged by family and friends. You are your own best expert. Take care of yourself. Everyone will be okay.

No matter how hard you try, you can't control holiday joy: I know my control freaks are cringing. Try as you might, you can't cook, buy or create the perfect holiday for anyone but yourself. Last year, on Thanksgiving, I did the unthinkable. I didn't want to host a 20+ person dinner, which I have done for over 20 years. I called everyone and told them I would be spending Thanksgiving at Disneyland, eating churros and turkey legs with my two daughters. There was some disappointment and sadness. I can handle that as long as I'm not abandoning myself. We had a blast, and everyone survived feeling uncomfortable. What do you really want from the holidays? Ask yourself. Refer to the above list. Then create an authentic, messy, ridiculously imperfectly perfect holiday season for yourself.

It is the most wonderfully awkward time of the year. Let yourself be both Hans and Ralphie, and it won't be the most stressful. Yippee-Ki-Yay Motherfucker.

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