Stress Less: It's Christmas time. There's no need to be afraid.

The economy is in the shitter, unemployment is skyrocketing, and it turns out that there are just nine days left until Christmas, which means there are only eight shopping days, provided you're willing to run through the mall with Governor Ahnold and all the other panicked people on Christmas Eve. It is entirely understandable if you just want the whole damn season to be over. If you haven't totally lost the holiday spirit (or dumped it all in your egg nog), I'm here today with a few tricks to make the holidays not just bearable, but joyous and wonderful.

When I was a kid, this was my favorite time of year. Like most kids, I was always hopeful that I'd get that year's version of an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time, but the presents were only one small part of the magic of the season. I truly loved watching my neighborhood transform into a heavily decorated winter wonderland, complete with animated snowmen and millions of twinkle lights. I loved hearing the ubiquitous music, watching the Yule Log and Rankin/Bass specials on television, performing in the annual school pageant for my parents, and visiting dear relatives we only saw on special occasions.

Part of the joy of childhood is believing that it will never end. As I got older, however, the inevitable Santa revelation [SPOILER ALERT: Santa is the fifth Cylon] was nothing compared to the shock of learning that all that holiday magic I took for granted didn't just happen on its own. A lot of work goes into this month-long orgy of holiday cheer, and as I became responsible for conjuring the same magic for my own children, the joy of the season began to compete with, and even vanish behind, the crushing holiday stress.

I tried my best just to suck it up and deal with the stress, to make sure my kids enjoyed the magic of the season. But I was so busy creating the magic, I ended up resenting the whole goddamned season. Christmas became an obligation, and not the least bit magical.

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I wallowed in my solitary holiday misery for several years. I didn't realize until a few days before my son Nolan performed in his final elementary school holiday program that I'd wasted time I could never get back. There were certainly moments of joy, but I had been so focused on mundane details that I had let them slip right by me, unnoticed. I'd let the stress of Mother Culture's expectations overwhelm me. My New Year's resolution that year was to reclaim the joy and wonder I had when I was a child so that, in addition to creating the mystery for my kids, I could experience it with them.

The first thing I had to do was take stock of what Christmas and the holiday season meant to me. I started by looking back on the things I loved as a child. Though I remembered my first bike,  the WWF Sling 'Em Fling 'Em Wrestling Ring, and the US 1 Fire Alert Electric Trucking from Tyco, it was the music, the decorations, and the visits with friends and family that meant the most to me, long after the toys had been sold off at garage sales and the clothes outgrown.

I spent a lot of time discussing this with my wife. Much like the Grinch, I concluded that the joy of the holidays can't be bought in a store. Christmas, to me, isn't a religious or commercial event; it's an excuse to surround myself with the people I love, strengthening our ties and writing the stories we'll tell each other for years to come.

It took a couple of Christmases to get it right, but I've figured out a few ways to make the holidays less stressful and more joyful for all of us.

The Little Christmas

As fate would have it, the same year I made my resolution, we ran into some very tough financial times. My wife and I decided that we would give each other cards only, make gifts for our friends and family, and get a very small number of gifts for our kids. We told our boys, who were around 8 and 10 at the time, that we were doing something called "Little Christmas" that year. We didn't go into a lot of details, but we explained that we were going to work together to make gifts for others, and we'd only get a couple of special things for each other. It worked out wonderfully for all of us; the kids were really selective in what they wanted to get me and Anne, which was surprisingly fun for them, and we got to spend a lot of time making gifts together for our friends and family. When Christmas morning arrived, there weren't many gifts, but there was a lot of gratitude and joy.

Memories, Not Stuff

Long after our financial crisis passed, we kept doing "Little Christmas." It was so successful, we took it to its logical conclusion a few years later: instead of giving each other gifts, we took a family vacation to the Grand Canyon. The memories we have from that trip endure, many in convenient photographic form. I couldn't tell you a single gift I got that year, but for the rest of my life I'll remember standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, shaking like a leaf in the 15-degree air, watching the sun rise with my boys. Last year, Anne took Ryan to see Van Halen and I took Nolan to sit behind the penalty box at a Kings game. My wife and I took each other out to dinner . . . in Santa Barbara.

Christmas of Misfit Toys

Of all the things we've done to restore happiness and joy to the holidays, this is the holiday tradition I love the most. We have a lot of friends who don't have family close by, and so don't have anywhere to go for the holidays. A few years ago, we opened our doors to all of them, and invited them in for the Christmas of Misfit Toys. It was absolutely wonderful to fill our home with people we loved. You can't choose your family, but you can choose your friends, and for one night, they were one and the same around our dining room table.

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For the last few years, we've combined all of these ideas. Our goal is to make the holidays about people and memories that make us happy, instead of stressing out over a bunch of material stuff. Feel free to claim some, all, or none of our traditions as your own.

Before I settle down for a long winter's nap, I want to mention one thing specifically for the parents reading this. Go to your kids' holiday pageants, and cherish every moment when you're there. Take the morning off from work, call in sick, but do whatever it takes to attend. Arrive early, so you're not fighting with other parents for a spot against the back wall. Turn off your cell phone (and don't just put it on vibrate so you can check your e-mail during the Hanukkah song -- off means OFF). Embrace the time you're there. You only get a few of these moments, and one day you'll look at December on the calendar and realize that, like a set of keys dropped into a river of molten lava, they're gone, man.

Wil Wheaton wishes you and yours all the joy of the season, whatever you may celebrate, and hopes you each get a pony. Subscribe to this column's RSS feed here.


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