IT was the night before Christmas, and Clement C. Moore was delusional. Apparently acquainted with too much brandied eggnog, he fantasized that “Mama in her kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled down for a long winter’s nap.”

Yeah, right.

What mother has time for even a short nap, let alone a good night’s sleep, between Thanksgiving and the New Year? Mama in her kerchief was probably in the bedroom only to change the sheets during the eight minutes the sugar cookies were baking before she wrapped 47 gifts while composing holiday haiku for 150 cards that should have been signed, stamped and delivered to the post office a week ago.

The reality: It’s the most wonderful time of the year if you’re 7. If you’re female and 37, give or take a decade or two, it’s the most harried time of the year. Because — sorry, St. Nick — despite that brief visit from the elf, in most homes, it’s the mom who creates this wondrous experience we call “the holidays” for everyone else to enjoy.

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And it is – forgive the language but we’re stressed — a hell of a lot of work, dumped ceremoniously atop lives that are already alarmingly overscheduled the other 11 months of the year. You’d think there would be a thriving market for Christmas planners – skilled professionals, who, like wedding planners, could be hired to swoop in and orchestrate it all: photo cards, mantel swags, figgy puddings. But there isn’t. Truth is, most of us wouldn’t want to delegate our holidays. We like doing this stuff. At least some of it. When we’re not so pressed for time.

Intelligent women ascend attic stairs to retrieve a box of ornaments and descend mysteriously consumed with a monstrous urge to Do It All, and perfectly. A working mom who would never consider sewing her children’s Halloween costumes or baking muffins for the PTO may spend every weekend in December making eight varieties of cookies and embossing holiday cards with her in-laws’ family seal, stressing herself out so that she overeats, overspends and contracts the flu on Christmas Eve.

Can this Santa be saved?

Of course, says Abby Seixas, a Boston psychotherapist who coaches women on restoring peace and order through practicing “presence” in their lives. In her book, “Finding the Deep River Within,” Seixas encourages women to tap into their inner wells of wisdom that are only accessible through quiet contemplation. There’s no time in the year that this practice is more important.

The American Psychological Association’s survey on holiday stress found that more than half of American women report heightened anxiety at this time of year. We’re most stressed over our perceived lack of time and money. We’re also anxious about gifts that we buy… and those we receive.

“It’s so easy to get caught up in other people’s priorities, or the culture’s priorities, that this becomes absolutely key, especially at this time of the year,” Seixas said.

“Even women who do usually take time for themselves find it’s interrupted at this time because our routines are changed. But this is the time, more than ever, to find a way to take a walk by yourself, or sit by yourself.”

Seixas, whose family celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah, said that when the holidays get harried, she makes the effort to sit in the darkened living room by herself each night, after everyone else has gone to bed. There, in the silence, she can contemplate the beauty of the Christmas tree, “drop down” to her deep river of wisdom, and reconnect with herself.

Of course there’s even more to be said for preventing holiday stress in the first place. Stress, at any time of the year, derives from the gap between how you think life should be, and how it actually is. “When expectations are really high, there’s more stress,” Seixas said.

And expectations are never higher than in December. The holidays — be they Christmas or Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or the most pagan observance of the winter solstice – hold meaning beyond their spiritual roots. They are a celebration of home and hearth, the high holy days of all things domestic, the crown jewel of family life. With stakes like these, even the most sensible among us can get a little silly.

I, for example, confess to once spending the better part of November stripping wallpaper off the walls of a living room – in a rental house — because the garish floral print would have clashed with the Christmas tree. A friend spent months learning to play the piano because she wanted to be able to play Christmas carols in December. Our expectations – of a beautifully decorated house, of a happy family gathered around a piano – added unnecessary stress to our lives. Other sources: holiday foods that we insist on baking ourselves, when store-bought can be just as good (and, in some cases, better); rituals that have ceased to bring pleasure, but are endured for the sake of tradition; time-robbing hunts for “perfect” gifts for people we hardly know; obsessive cleaning and overzealous decorating (plaid lampshades for Christmas – enough said).

“I always get the urge to clean out my closets around Christmas, which is insane,” said Liisa Jackson, who has both a job and a 4-year-old, in the suburbs of Boston.

Jackson, a nurse and medical reserve coordinator, confesses to spending inordinate amounts of time on homemade gifts, such as jewelry boxes, liquor and soap. “One time I decided to knit my father a plaid sweater. It took me 28 hours,” she said. She also once made a quilt in two days — 32 hours total – as a gift for a close friend.

Like many women, Seixas spent hours agonizing over holiday cards. A calligrapher, she felt the need to create the perfect card, hand lettered, so that beyond extending greetings, it represented her calligraphy business. When her book ( came out, she – necessarily — learned to let go.

Maria Gracia, of Watertown, WI., would tell Seixas to delegate. Gracia, a professional organizer and publisher of the website, said women need to squelch the need to do everything themselves.

“Getting help from spouses and kids is not only encouraged, but it may even be a source of joy for the other family members,” Gracia said. “It really should be a family effort. Isn’t that what the holiday season is all about in the first place?”

Gracia, mother of a 3-year-old, said her own weakness is committing to too many events and activities. One way to combat chronic yes-ing, is to delay your response when someone asks you to do something. “Never say yes immediately. Go home and mull it over first,” she said.

She also recommends that women write the word “Enjoy” on a sticky note and stick it to your bathroom mirror. This will help you develop a pleasure litmus test – if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it.

Karen Scruggs, a paralegal and mother of four in Columbia, S.C., didn’t enjoy rushing from one home to another on Christmas Day in an effort to please everyone. So she stopped – and the world kept turning.

“We go to see family members before and after Christmas, but on the 25th itself, we are home. It cuts out a lot of stress,” she said.

The American Psychological Association recommends the usual stress relievers for coping with holiday anxiety: Identify and avoid stressors, seek support, exercise, get enough sleep, eat healthily.

Humor, Seixas advises, can also get us through the next few weeks. Funny holiday songs, such as “The 12 Pains of Christmas,” or movies like “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and “A Christmas Story,” remind us of the comic potential in every scorched turkey. It’s hard to be stressed when you’re laughing.

And, when all else fails, embrace the holiday horror.

In her book, Seixas writes of the Japanese practice of wabi-sabi, the mindset that celebrates imperfection and transience. Think of Burl Ives singing “Have a Wabi-Sabi Christmas” and find joy in your imperfect tree, your neurotic relatives, the cards that will be postmarked Jan. 12.

Then go take that long winter’s nap.


Tips to slow down, stress less and salvage some joy from your holidays

1. Go through your to-do list and cross off everything that does not bring you joy.

2. Two words: Gift bags!

3. Consider an electricity-free Christmas Eve. Follow Abby Seixas’s lead and spend Christmas Eve in a house lit by candles and warmed by fire.

4. Avail yourself of churches. Many leave their doors open all day for prayer and contemplation, and five minutes of quiet in a beautiful setting can restore your holiday spirit.

5. Turn off the cell phone and the computer for a couple of hours.

6. Call a cleaning service and schedule a visit on Dec. 23 or 26. Let someone else worry about the flour on the floor.

7. Call a hair salon and schedule a shampoo and blow-dry for your kids on Dec. 24. (French braids are great for girls.) When it’s time for church or for company, you won’t have to rush to get them presentable.

8. Babysitters! They are not a luxury; they are a necessity. Give yourself permission to use them. Remember the words of author Terry Willits: “We are the thermostats for our homes. We set the temperature. A joyful woman makes a joyful home. A stressed-out woman makes a stressed-out home.”

9. Schedule peace. Write in down time on your calendar—and don’t let anyone or anything intrude.

10. Avail yourself of bakeries.

11. Buy all teachers on your list the same thing.

12. Drink less coffee and more peppermint tea.

13. Make a playlist of funny Christmas songs on your iPod.