The most wonderful time of the year can also be the most stressful. Each year, it’s the same: too much to do and not enough time to do it.

I love offering glad tidings and receiving good cheer. But don’t get me started on the well-meaning overspending and joyful overeating that leaves me starting the new year already overwhelmed.

This year, I decided not to wait until January to live my best life. Instead of scrambling through December and trying to refocus later, I’m going to get grounded now.

So I talked to experts about how to actually have a happier holiday.

Think about what you want your holiday to be

“You have to create a plan” says Lisa Bien, host of Your Best Life with Lisa, a motivational, self-help talk show that airs on Temple TV. “You can’t be all things to everyone. What do you want your holiday to look like?” That doesn’t mean you stop doing nice things for people, but make sure you’re doing what keeps you on your game. That could mean finding time to catch up with friends or making time to write in your journal.

Choose the mocktail

The extra glass of red might make your mind foggy at inopportune times. (Do you really need that $320 cashmere sweater on sale?) Consider making some beverages nonalcoholic. “This season I’ve gotten more requests to include a virgin cocktail in my mix," says Jerzy Gonzalez-Arroyo, a Washington Township-based mixologist. Try this: Some of Gonzalez-Arroyo’s favorites include a virgin Mojito prepared with Sprite Zero, seltzer, and a twist of lime, and the virgin whiskey sour made with sour mix, seltzer and maraschino cherries. But Gonzalez-Arroyo’s go-to is nonalcoholic sangria: a mix of any fruit juice — make sure it’s low sugar — and an assortment of fruit. Top it off with cinnamon. Bonus: you may not feel the need to have a dry January.

Try these virgin cocktails. From left: Mock-Mopolitan, Faux-Jito, and a Skinny Sangria, shaken and stirred by Washington Township-based mixologist Jerzey Gonzalez-Arroyo.
Alex Miller
Try these virgin cocktails. From left: Mock-Mopolitan, Faux-Jito, and a Skinny Sangria, shaken and stirred by Washington Township-based mixologist Jerzey Gonzalez-Arroyo.

Make a budget you can stick to

Make a budget before you start shopping. Here’s how: Tally up your December bills and figure out how much discretionary income you actually have, says Albert Heaton, a financial adviser at Well Advised Wealth. That will tell you what you can comfortably spend on gifts and holiday cheer. But it’s also important, Heaton says, to plan for the unexpected, like that spontaneous dinner with out-of-town friends and relatives. Resist the urge to overspend; it will save you from panic later. “You won’t be unpleasantly surprised when the bills come in January,” Heaton says.

Light a candle

Tedious chores (late-night wrapping, anyone?) can also be an opportunity for self-care. Burn a candle, says Jordan Beletz, owner of Center City’s Wax & Wine, because aromatherapy can help you relax and focus. “Lavender alleviates stress. Rosemary serves as a pick-me up and cinnamon not only improves concentration, but it smells like mulled wine," Beltez says. And some of today’s popular scents — sugar cookies, fireside embers, or evergreen — are seasonally appropriate. They can remind you of Christmases past, while keeping you in the moment, so you can remember why you’re doing this all in the first place.

How do candles help us stay mindful during the holiday? This peppermint candle reminds us of childhood and candy canes, says Jordan Beletz, owner of Wax & Wine, but don't discount its aromatherapy benefits. Peppermint can provide a sense of calm.
Destiny Simmons
How do candles help us stay mindful during the holiday? This peppermint candle reminds us of childhood and candy canes, says Jordan Beletz, owner of Wax & Wine, but don't discount its aromatherapy benefits. Peppermint can provide a sense of calm.

Put your phone down

Scrolling our social media feeds is a recipe for comparing yourself to others. Bien suggests trying a social media-free holiday. “You don’t have to post everything,” Bien says. "Not only does it create anxiety, it stops you from living in the moment. If the urge to scroll is too much, create phone-free zones during dinner or when people are opening presents. In other words: don’t cheapen the experience by trolling for likes.

Resist the urge to scroll.
Dreamstime / MCT
Resist the urge to scroll.

Let yourself splurge on self-care

It’s easy to feel guilty spending money on yourself when you’re supposed to be shopping for loved ones. But we become better givers when our own cup is full. Taking time out for a float or massage or manicure forces us to slow down and breathe for a minute. Massages reduce stress hormone cortisol, lower blood pressure, and increase circulation, says Shari Simmons, massage therapist at Rizzieri Salon & Spa. “And if you’ve been shopping all day, a 50-minute massage can soothe tired and aching muscles.” Build a bit of self-care into your budget.

Shari Simmons, massage therapist at Rizzieri Salon & Spa, gives a client a head massage. Massages may reduce cortisol -- the stress hormone -- and help soothe aching back and leg muscles during pre-Christmas shopping marathons.
Alex Miller
Shari Simmons, massage therapist at Rizzieri Salon & Spa, gives a client a head massage. Massages may reduce cortisol -- the stress hormone -- and help soothe aching back and leg muscles during pre-Christmas shopping marathons.

Say thanks

This year, compose a handwritten note thanking your friends for being in your life, says local wellness expert and author of Happy Together, Suzann Pileggi Pawelski. Not only will that help you remember how meaningful these relationships are, it also means you’re taking a quiet, contemplative moment for yourself in what is otherwise a busy and harried season. Also, Pawelski suggests: Instead of having a divisive conversation about politics, invite dinner guests to express thanks. And the holidays can be an optimal time to start a gratitude journal said “The more you are thankful for, the better you feel,” Pawelski says. “Why wait til the new year to start that?”

Make time to meditate

You think you don’t have time, especially in the morning when you’re trying to get ready for a day of holiday errands. But that’s when you actually need to close your eyes and take a breath, says Dr. Michael Baime, director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness. “The time when you actually have the time to do all these things is never,” Baime says. And, if you’ve never meditated before, no worries. All you need is one moment to connect with the steadiness of your breath. “Meditation doesn’t have to be exotic or complicated. It’s a way to quiet the mind, soften the noise; there is no right way to do it.” It can also be good for your health. Those who meditate report a better mood and more energy, according to Baime, who’s also a medical doctor. Not into meditating? Get to a yoga class instead.

Yoga and meditation can help keep you balanced this holiday season.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Yoga and meditation can help keep you balanced this holiday season.

Get physical

“Exercise makes endorphins, and endorphins make us happy,” says Sydni Arnett, a trainer at Barry’s, Center City’s high-intensity boutique fitness studio. “So whether you are helping your grandmother cook, embarking on early Black Friday shopping, or dealing with the one uncle who had to bring up politics, the highs from exercising will help you get through it.” You don’t have to engage in Barry’s brand of kick-butt fitness to get the benefits. “Bundle up and take a hike with the family and reward yourself with hot cocoa after," Arnett says. Plus, you won’t beat yourself up about that extra piece of sweet potato pie.

"Exercise makes endorphins and endorphins make us happy," says Sydni Arnett, a trainer at Barry's, a Center City high-intensity boutique fitness studio. That means whether you are Black Friday shopping or dealing with the uncle who has to talk politics, you can do so with a smile.
Barry's
"Exercise makes endorphins and endorphins make us happy," says Sydni Arnett, a trainer at Barry's, a Center City high-intensity boutique fitness studio. That means whether you are Black Friday shopping or dealing with the uncle who has to talk politics, you can do so with a smile.

Be flexible

Just because you always have dinner at Grandma’s and then visit Aunt Sheila, it doesn’t mean you have to do it this year. It’s OK to break with tradition. Maybe your sister wants to take over cooking duties to give Grandma a break. Perhaps your teenagers would rather go to the movies with their friends instead of traipsing to Aunt Sheila’s. Following the same routines creates obligations and expectations. “There is no joy in being rigid,” Bien says. “The traditions you are trying to hold onto shouldn’t matter more than the people you love now."