Making The Holidays Magical

I am a working mom and the holidays are stressful. Do you have any suggestions for ways to make the holidays special and not too out of control? I want my kids to have a great time, and I’m not very creative, so I’d appreciate any ideas you can give me. My husband’s work schedule is even worse than mine, so he doesn’t have a lot of time either.

Dr. Greene’s Answer:

The holidays are here again already! Scenes from this time of year form many of my most vivid memories from childhood. The remaining days of this season will fly by ever so quickly. Take a moment to decide what few holiday activities you definitely don’t want to miss in the rush of the season. And when holiday magic does happen, don’t be tricked into rushing on by! Making holidays magical is one gift we can all give our children with a little forethought and planning.

Holidays with kids can be the most wonderful and the most exhausting time of the year. The key to making this a magical time is planning ahead.

(Note: Many of our readers may not celebrate Christmas, but the general principles outlined below can be applied to any holiday. The specific activities will, of course, be different, but that is what gives us rich cultural diversity.)

Tips for Making Holidays Magical

Make a list of all the things you would love to do this holiday season. Go ahead and dream big. (Since you mentioned that you were short on ideas, I’ve included some possibilities for your list). Now, prioritize. If you could only do one thing, what would it be? Then if you could do one more thing, what would that be? Keep asking this question until you’ve gotten through the entire list. Have your husband do the same thing. Next, sit down with your husband (preferably after the kids are in bed) and compare your lists. You may find that there is something very important to your husband that you didn’t even consider. Be sure you try to look at things from your kids’ perspective as well. Maybe the thing a seven-year-old wants to do is see real snow (especially if you are from a warm-weather state like California), while a five-year-old may be delighted by a family trip to the movies.

Now, taking all this into consideration, decide together how you will spend the limited time you have during this busy season. You will probably need to eliminate several things at the bottom of your list. You may decide that the most important thing for your family is a big feast on Christmas Day. Since most of the work involved must be done later in the month, your family will probably have time to do some other things earlier in the month. If you have more time than your husband does, you may be able to do some of the preparation for family activities, or you and the kids may do some things without him. Be sure to add at least one activity just for you and your husband, even if it is brief — get a sitter and do something special as a couple.

Putting together a dream list and prioritizing it is very important. One of the reasons we often feel overwhelmed by the season is that we try to do everything — everything doesn’t make the holiday special, but a few things can, if they are chosen carefully.

Dream List for Making Holidays Magical

  • Have professional family photos taken. Frame them and include them in the holiday decorations.
  • Decorate the house with lots of evergreen so that the house smells like a forest.
  • Decorate the house with moving holiday displays.
  • Drive to a Christmas tree farm out in the country and cut a tree.
  • Play Christmas music while we decorate the tree, and when we are done, have everyone stand around it holding hands, and sing “Oh, Christmas Tree”!
  • String lights all over the outside of our house.
  • Shop for presents for everyone on our gift list.
  • Make wrapping paper and wrap each gift.
  • Have a crockpot of spiced apple cider going all month long, so we can enjoy a steaming mug whenever we are in the mood — plus it makes the house smell like cinnamon and cloves all the time.
  • Send Christmas cards to friends and family that we won’t have an opportunity to see during the holidays.
  • Throw a Christmas party.
  • Bake homemade cookies to give to our friends and neighbors.
  • Make homemade pulled candy to give to special people.
  • Make a gingerbread house.
  • Go to a big city and look at the store windows.
  • Have the kids’ pictures taken sitting on Santa’s lap.
  • Find a neighborhood that has lots of lights and go for a drive after dark (in our pajamas and bathrobes!).
  • Take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage.
  • Have high tea in a fancy hotel.
  • See live productions of “A Christmas Carol” and “The Nutcracker”.
  • Organize a group for caroling in our neighborhood.
  • Build a snow-person (or even a snow-family) all dressed in holiday attire.
  • Get a family photo taken with our snow-family.
  • Read the Christmas story aloud in front of a bonfire.
  • Go ice skating at an outdoor rink.
  • Spend time with our extended families for holiday feasts.
  • Go to a football game.
  • Take a picture of the kids in front of the Christmas tree on Christmas morning.

As I’m sure you have guessed, this list is a dream! With our busy schedules, there is no way we could do all of this in one holiday season. The important thing is to prioritize your list. With list in hand, here are some things we’ve found to make it all work:

  • No matter how much you plan ahead, things will go wrong. So be ready to let things go — especially the things that are near the bottom of your list.
  • It is especially important to have fixed, relatively early bedtimes for the kids during this busy season. They need the consistent sleep, and parents need a few extra hours each week. Everyone will be happier if you follow this tip!
  • Create annual traditions. Kids love to have things to look forward to. Maybe your family has decided to build a snowman in front of your house each year on Christmas Eve, or perhaps it’s watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” on TV. In years to come your children will talk about, and look forward to, those traditions in ways you can’t imagine (unless you had traditions growing up as a child).
  • Consider your children’s developmental levels when making holiday plans. Having a Christmas tree with pretty balls on it is asking for trouble with toddlers, especially if the tree is at floor level. If you have a climber, then putting things just out of his or her little reach isn’t smart either. You can do it, but you may spend most of the season saying, “NO!” This doesn’t make anyone happy.
  • Pay careful attention to what your kids are dreaming of for gifts. Two years ago my second son told Santa that the only thing he wanted for Christmas was Donkey Kong Country 2. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen until the week before Christmas, when every copy of the game was sold out in our area (does this sound strangely like a movie plot?). Well, you guessed it, I wound up driving to a small town two hours away (four hours round trip) to get the last copy of the game to be had. Since my son knew the game was out of stock everywhere, he felt especially loved by the gift, and it was well worth the drive — but this year I’m keeping my ear to the ground early! By the way, I’m sure parents started the tradition of getting kids to write letters to Santa just so they could find out what their children wanted.
  • Include the kids whenever you can in your holiday preparation. Kids love art projects, so get them to make your holiday cards and decorate wrapping paper. Coloring can be very fun, or with some supervision, they can sponge paint snow flakes, Christmas trees, and other holiday symbols onto brown craft paper for an inexpensive yet festive look.
  • Kids also love to get involved in the kitchen. Instead of making a complicated candy recipe (that even a talented cook has trouble getting just right and encourages over indulgence), choose a simple, healthier alternative. I like melting a high-quality dark chocolate (such as Green and Black, Dagoba, or Endangered Species) in a double boiler. When it is in a creamy state, help your little one dip about one third of a slice of dried apple into the chocolate mixture. Lay the chocolate-covered apples onto a sheet of waxed paper to cool. For extra fun, sprinkle chopped organic walnuts or pecans on to the apples while they are still warm. This recipe is very easy, healthy, and delicious!
  • While pretty packages make a house look festive, some young children can’t seem to resist the temptation to peek. Waiting until the last minute to put gifts out can save energy (re-wrapping Grandma’s and Auntie’s gifts) and make Christmas morning even more special — it’s no wonder Santa arrives just before time to open the packages!

Now here is the most important thing I have to say — holiday magic can’t be forced. It comes at the most unexpected times and in the most unimagined ways. One year I experienced it when we stumbled on to the public lighting ceremony of a Menorah; another year it happened when the entire family joined hands to pray around the Christmas table. One year I experienced the magic of Christmas while I sat alone in the cold waiting for a tow truck. Whenever that moment happens for you, stop and enjoy it. The same principle holds true for your children — the magic of the season may happen for them in the middle of a busy mall when they see a Christmas display, or when you plug in the lights on your tree for the first or the last time of the season, or when they open that special gift from you. If you are able to see a special sparkle in your child’s eyes it means something has just come alive. Drop your plans. Christmas is happening in that moment — don’t miss it.

Sample Priority List

Here is our working list for this year. We may only make it to item 10, but at least we will do the things that are really important to our family first.

  1. Spend time with our extended families for holiday feasts. — This is something that we wouldn’t miss!
  2. Have professional family photos taken. — If you’ve read much of what I’ve written, you’ll know that I’m a firm believer in the power of photographs to make lasting memories.
  3. Take a picture of the kids in front of the Christmas tree on Christmas morning. — We do this as a tradition each year. It’s fun to look back from year to year to see how much all the kids in the extended family have grown!
  4. Read the Christmas story aloud in front of a bonfire. — It can be found in Luke Chapter 2.
  5. Have the kids’ pictures taken sitting on Santa’s lap. — It’s amazing what you will learn if you listen to what the kids tell Santa!
  6. Go ice skating at an outdoor rink. — Though my toddler isn’t up to this yet, I’m really looking forward to taking my older kids.
  7. Decorate the house with lots of evergreens — I really love the smell.
  8. Decorate the house with moving holiday displays. — If you have a busy toddler this year, you might want to skip a tree and use a combination of table-top moving displays and evergreens to make your house feel special.
  9. Shop for presents from a gift list. — We are narrowing down the list this year, not only for time’s sake, but because our budget dictates.
  10. Wrap gifts. — We are going to have as many of the gifts wrapped as possible, but wrapping only a few special gifts each year can be part of the holiday celebration.
  11. Have a crockpot of spiced apple-cider going at special times during the month, like when we are decorating the house or wrapping gifts.
  12. Send Christmas cards to a limited number of friends and family that we won’t have an opportunity to see during the holidays.
  13. Make homemade treats to take to a few special people. — It is our family’s tradition to take a special mint-brownie recipe to three very special groups of people each year on Christmas Day.
  14. Go to a big city and look at the store windows. — We can do this as part of our holiday shopping.
  15. Have high tea in a fancy hotel. — We can also do this during a shopping trip, if we plan ahead.
  16. Find a neighborhood that has lots of lights and go for a drive after dark — This doesn’t take much time and the kids really love it!!!
  17. Go to a football game (and have a cup of hot chocolate). — Go Niners!


Dr. Alan Greene

Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.

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