Are you looking ahead to the holiday season with anxiety as well as enthusiasm? Do countless hours of preparation sometimes leave you too stressed and tired to enjoy the actual celebrating? Are you disappointed that the true meaning of the holidays often gets lost in commercialism?

Many people express these and similar concerns, but with a little simple planning, there are ways to decrease your holiday stress. The following are a few ideas to help you create truly happy holidays.

Lighten up – TV shows and magazine covers may feature lavishly-decorated homes, elaborate homemade gifts and complicated gourmet dishes, but does that mean you have to do the same? Stop and remember that those amazing displays are the result of a staff of specialists, not a normal family.

Avoid the perfectionism trap. Select a few preparations for the holidays that you genuinely enjoy. Love making cookies? Then keep that on your schedule. Exhausted and cranky from trying to hang outdoor lights? Then don’t! The spirit of the holidays should be joyful, not nerve-wracked.

Spread the joy – Are holiday tasks shared at your house? If you’re doing all the preparation, you’re also having all the fun, and after a while it can stop seeming like fun. Let the kids participate. If they hang ornaments unevenly, or fold the napkins a new way, that’s okay. The idea is for everyone to share in the holiday excitement. Even little ones can stick stamps on greeting cards.

The Sunday comics or rolls of craft paper colored with crayons and markers make some of the most memorable gift-wrap. When your youngsters express their artistic talents, you’ll all enjoy collecting the compliments. Include the kids and you’ll find many ways to share the fun.

Avoid excessive gifting – The true spirit of giving – a heartfelt enjoyment – is easily tarnished by overspending. If you find yourself worried over holiday budgets and maxed out credit cards, you’re adding unneeded stress to an already stressful time.

Make things easier, and more affordable, by spreading out your holiday buying – look for gifts throughout the year that family and friends will like. You can also lighten the economic stress by talking with those you love about affordable gifts and setting dollar limits on presents. Avoid the January credit card shock by limiting your gift buying to items you pay for in cash. Affordable gifts can still be wonderful.

Were your most meaningful past gifts the most expensive ones, or those chosen out of thoughtfulness? A special book, a taste treat bringing back childhood memories, a photo of happy times in an inexpensive frame – these make treasured presents. Giving something personal is truly giving from the heart.

Preserve the true meaning of the holidays – What do the holidays really mean to you? For some, the central purpose is religious or spiritual. For others, showing appreciation for friends and family, sharing with those less fortunate, or reevaluating future goals play a major part in the celebrations. Focus on those activities that bring the most meaning for you.

To prevent the kids from focusing only on toys, include them in spiritual and charitable activities. This is a great time for youngsters to learn the importance of helping others. Along with building their character, you’ll be building a storehouse of treasured memories.

Keep expectations realistic – The hope and anticipation we often feel at the holidays can blind us to some simple truths. People aren’t going to undergo significant personality changes just because the holidays are here. If your relatives usually drink too much, argue or fuss, this time of the year will be no exception.

Loving our relatives doesn’t mean we have to let them drive us crazy. When entertaining, limit family conflict by limiting the guest list. Make visits short if longer ones always seem to lead to conflict. Many families have non-alcoholic celebrations (it’s your house – you can have a no-drinking rule as easily as a no-smoking one). You can also separate warring factions by inviting them to different events throughout the season. Remember, the holidays are meant to be a celebration of peace and goodwill.

Take from the past those traditions you want to continue, and develop new traditions that reflect your personal values. As with so many things, the holidays are what we make them. With some thoughtful planning, you’ll find yourself happy with the memories you create.

– Toni A.P. Brown, M.S., LMFT (This column is provided by the American Counseling Association.)