Christmas is stressful time, and when things go wrong, they can go terribly wrong.

Christmas may have warm and fuzzy associations of tinsel, carols and family, but for those who put it all together, it can mean a month of frenetic running around, planning, shopping, cooking and, not least, socialising with family, friends and colleagues.

It’s exhausting. Some people have set themselves up with so many commitments and so much expense over the festive season that it will be defined far more by stress than happy memories.

For many a worn-out wife and mother, Christmas Day itself is a marathon behind the stove, starting right after packing away the empty wrappings while husband and children busy themselves with their spoils. Or it may be a day full of those nearest and dearest, but who all have different needs and agendas, as well as temperaments.

But does it have to always go according to “tradition” and an unquestioning pattern?

Life coach Kate Emmerson, who spoke on the topic “Navigating the festive season” at a recent workshop in Rosebank by Beyond the Dress, suggests that it’s time to think differently about Christmas, and avoid it “crashing into your space” like it usually does.

“Most of us don’t take time out over this period, and get caught up in family obligations and guilty feelings about having to attend events,” says Emmerson. “Rather than go barrelling into it this time, try to simplify things.

“Get the family together as soon as possible and decide on gifts to be exchanged. Put a monetary cap on the spending, or decide to make gifts for each other,” she suggests.

Some sensible people have entered into no-gifts pacts within their families, except for those for the children and between spouses.

Emmerson suggests too that silence and solitude are precious, and that instead of saying yes to everything, you might consider taking a day or two to yourself “with no cellphone, email or obligation”.

“You might even consider taking a solitary holiday, or sleep on your own somewhere for a few nights. It will give you clarity of intention going into the new year,” she says.

For most of us, however, that’s not an option, and we have to go to the lunches or parties, get on with the extended family or adapt to a full household that isn’t ours.

The most stressful scenario for many is having to spend time with the in-laws, enduring a week or two of entrenched family dynamics that might involve constant spats.

Cape Town life coach Shelley Lewin says the trick to surviving this is threefold.

Firstly, adjust your expectations. “Living in the hope that this year everyone will get along is only going to make the disappointment more heartfelt. Aim for polite and courteous behaviour – anything more than that will be a bonus.”

Secondly, maintain your dignity. “Be a gracious hostess and treat everyone with respect. Flying off the handle only makes things worse in the aftermath. And watch the alcohol – it’s a powerful instigator of arguments.”

Thirdly, choose your battles. “Occasions will crop up that can potentially explode. In each case, weigh up how much the issue means to you and whether it’s worth upsetting everyone.

“Remember the holiday is temporary. Stay focused on the goal, which is to get through it as peacefully as possible,” says Lewin, who adds that it’s often best to just zip it. “Sometimes it’s knowing what not to say that keeps the peace.”

A close second to the stress of spending time with your own family would be going on holiday with another family, or having another family stay over.

Dr Justin Kennedy, a Cape Town research academic who specialises in the field of stress, says that one of the reasons the festive season is so stressful is because “it’s a time when dysfunctional communities come together to pretend everything is OK”, when in fact it tends to highlight interpersonal problems, the lack of a partner or spouse or the absence of someone close who died or moved away.

He recommends that when you feel overwhelmed, take a deep breath, lift your shoulders towards your ears as you inhale. “Repeat this five times. It’ll break your body’s stress cycle and give you time to self reflect”.

It’s important to compromise in these situations, he says, so everyone’s needs and wants are fairly negotiated. If you need to, take some time out.

“Also, try to live in the moment. Stop thinking of what could have or should have been, or what lies ahead. Really be on holiday, take the time to relax and engage fully with those around you,” he suggests.

Don’t be a marty, says Lewin. “Let go of some of the responsibilities, or share them with the other adults in the family. When you have friends over, ask them to bring one dish each as a contribution to the meal. And not every meal has to be a lavish affair – simplify it to, say, a tapas or cheese and wine.”

The answer to gift exchange is to plan and shop well ahead. If you haven’t already done so, Lewin suggests getting creative, like baking a batch of Christmas cookies or buying an gift experience online. “Just remember, it is the thought that counts.”

So here’s to happy, relaxed holidays for all.

HOW TO ENJOY the holidays

* Sizzle yourself. Do whatever is necessary to put a sizzle in your step, be it a night of salsa dancing or a trip to the theatre. You can reward yourself for the year with simple pleasures too – getting a massage or pedicure or reading a favourite book in bed.

* Be vigilant with “me”. No one can give you energy nor take it away. Engage your soul in pleasurable activities and take control of the way you feel.

* Clutter crunch. Nothing frees up mental space quite like clearing that clutter. So commit to three things to “clutter clear” in one day: get that admin up to date, that pile lurking at your front door, or target that closet. Just three things a day will immediately unleash new energy for all those festivities.

* “Yes please”. Navigate festivities with support. Learn to ask for help rather than begrudging everyone after doing it all yourself.

* SOS. Simple Outweighs Stress – simplify your day rather than going the stressful route. This boils down to planning, saying “no” and being brave. This is your festive season and you’re the only one responsible for getting what you need from it.

Supplied by Kate Emmerson

How I’m navigating the festive season

* My life changed for the better five years ago when I told everybody that, quite simpy, I don’t do Christmas. I can be persuaded to show up for a Christmas lunch if it’s with friends or family, in which case I will take a little something for the hostess which I would do anyway . My friends mostly say “What a relief” or “Good for you”. – Caroline.

* Now that my son is an adult, he usually gets a small present from me and the balance of R1 000 in money, bearing in mind that he’s still a student and needs clothing. I give the domestic worker and gardener bonuses. Otherwise, I discourage others from giving me anything, because it all really just collects dust, and if anyone’s feeling generous I tell them to give to a charity. – Mo

* My parents were beholden to the traditional routine of Christmas, which was all about family and big spreads. Since I had my daughter, the emphasis on just us and the real reason for Christmas. It’s a quiet, stress-free day and I’m quite happy with that. – Sandile

* I trawl the Saturday markets and the local supermarket for special, small items that I can wrap about three to a person. So I’d get a cake of soap, a packet of biscuits, a slab of chocolate and a key ring, perhaps valued at R30 tops. My sister relishes a gardening magazine and or a nursery voucher. – Lindi

* We are making a lot of our gifts, some of them from recycled materials. We are also buying from small, independent shops. – Sue.

* I’m going to gather some fun and memorable photos and make an online photo album for friends and family of my shared times with them. – Karin.

* I shop for the kids at second-hand bookstores. Parkview Library sells books on Saturday mornings. I also buy indigenous tree/fruit tree seedlings from a nursery and give them to friends with gardens. – Ketiwe.

* I like to give a memories box as a gift. You get a box, decorate it and write memories you have about the person, each memory on a separate piece of fancy paper rolled up and tied with small ribbon. – Colleen.

* Each person in our family only has to buy one other family member a gift. That way you get one gift and you only have to buy one. – Taryn. - The Star