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Reclaiming Christmas: How to hold on to what's important amid the holiday season chaos

FARGO -- It's easy to lose sight of what's important amid the craziness of the busy holiday season.

Between the party planning, gift shopping and cookie baking, we often forget what matters most and why we celebrate Christmas in the first place.

But if you follow this advice from four local experts, maybe you'll be able to cut through the chaos and "reclaim" Christmas.

Reclaiming your wallet

Year after year, financial counselor Duane Emmel tells clients to "build memories, not debt."

Credit cards may be convenient, but they'll cost you more in the long run unless you can pay them off right away.

"All of a sudden, you have $1,500 on a credit card, and it's all because of holiday spending," said Emmel of The Village Family Service Center in Fargo.

Instead of charging presents, set aside a small amount each month, shop throughout the year, put a cap on your spending or draw names.

No matter how you place limitations on your gifting, make a shopping list that fits within your budget and stick to it.

Emmel said some of the best gifts cost little to nothing anyway, so get creative and think about what really will be meaningful to your loved ones.

Offer to shovel your grandparents' walkway, babysit your sister's kids or take your nephew bowling. Create a CD or DVD of family photos or video clips.

"That's more of a gift of giving ourselves," Emmel said.

It's not just gifts that raise costs in November and December; it's cards, decorations, food, treats, tickets and travel.

"When you're making a Christmas spending plan, you have to take into account all those things that you're going to spend money on because they're additional to your normal day-to-day expenses," he said.

Turn the focus away from giving and getting by organizing volunteer activities like buying gifts for a giving tree or bell ringing for the Salvation Army.

"There's a lot of people who aren't going to be given anything, and by involving the whole family in this process, I think we appreciate more what we do have," Emmel said.

Reclaiming your waistline

Amy Hieb, Essentia Health dietitian, counsels clients to enjoy the holidays but to be aware of their choices.

For example, you can eat lighter the day of a party, but don't skip meals in order to pig out later.

"Some people will eat some fruit before they go so they're not full," she said.

Once there, set some guidelines for yourself, like, "I can fill my plate once," or "I'll stop at two glasses of wine."

"People tend to want to consume alcohol at these parties, and they forget how many calories may be in them," Hieb said.

Instead of downing eggnog, have something light, like a spritzer or sparkling water.

Fill up on appetizers, especially picks from fruit and veggie trays, before the typically heavier entrees are served.

Hieb advises removing yourself from the food and drink areas and helping the host pass out dishes, refill beverages or clean up afterward.

"Sometimes, people will stay close to food so if they have an awkward moment or moment of silence, they'll eat or drink something. Then they tend to over-consume calories that way," she said.

When it comes time for dessert, allow yourself a treat but monitor your portion sizes.

"I definitely don't think you should deprive yourself," Hieb said.

The host also can help minimize holiday weight gain by offering healthier alternatives and making substitutions, like low-sodium chicken broth instead of butter in mashed potatoes or whole-wheat flour instead of white flour in chocolate chip cookies.

"They're probably not even going to notice the difference. If you tell them, they're like, 'Oh my gosh!'" Hieb said.

In baking, use less sugar, or replace it with an artificial or alternative sweetener like Splenda, Truvia or applesauce.

"Usually, you can cut the sugar by a third in the recipe, or even in half in a recipe, and still get a sweet product," she said.

Don't push the leftovers, either. If a guest politely declines your Saran-wrapped plate of pie, accept it.

"Healthy eating during the holidays can come from both the host and the guest," Hieb said.

Reclaiming your relationships

As December nears, talk to your loved ones about how you want to celebrate Christmas, and stick to what's best for you, no matter how many invites you receive.

"We have this idea that if we don't do this, if we don't take that time, or if we don't get these gifts, we're going to let people down or the holidays won't be enjoyable," said Rachel Blumhardt, counselor at The Village Family Service Center.

Make use of modern technology to stay connected with out-of-town family and friends, even if it's with a simple "Happy holidays!" text message.

"Even if grandparents are far away, they still can be part of family traditions. With Skype, they can watch the grandkids open Christmas presents," Blumhardt said.

If there are problems within the family, Christmas dinner isn't the time to hash them out.

Beforehand, ask to meet with the person you're in conflict with to see if you can find some common ground, or at the very least, agree to be civil toward each other during festivities.

"We have those expectations of ourselves and others that everyone should get along, everything should be perfect, and sometimes that's not necessarily realistic," Blumhardt said.

Having a "game plan" for how you might handle a potentially uncomfortable situation or hurtful comment can help ease anxiety.

"You can't control someone else's behaviors and what they're going to say and do, but you can definitely control your own," she said.

If this is your first Christmas without a particular family member -- because of a breakup, a divorce or a death -- acknowledge that it's going to be different and that it may be difficult.

Blumhardt counsels clients facing such a change to be patient with themselves and others and to keep their support network close.

"If you need extra support, get it," she said, adding the holidays are her busiest time of year as a therapist.

If this is your first Christmas with a new partner, spouse or baby, discuss what would make it most meaningful.

"If you're clear about what your expectations are, and they're clear about what their expectations are, I think you're a lot more likely to meet everyone's needs," Blumhardt said.

As any counselor will tell you, open communication is key, especially during the holidays.

Reclaiming your faith

Tiffany Sundeen, pastor at Fargo's Olivet Lutheran Church, preaches giving your presence, not presents, for Christmas.

"The greatest gift for anyone at any age is presence," she said.

Like financial counselor Emmel, Sundeen teaches that memories last longer than material gifts.

When she asks her three children, "Do you remember what we gave you last year?" she said nine times out of 10, they can't tell her.

But setting aside time to do something together leaves a lasting impression. It says, "You matter enough that I want to spend time with you."

"I believe, as human beings, we need to give of our hearts. I think that only expands the love inside us," Sundeen said.

She said keeping Christmas simple follows the teachings of Jesus.

"Jesus did not take gobs and gobs of money and buy stuff to give. Jesus gave examples of living simply and stories that we continue to remember," she said.

That's not to say you can't enjoy gift giving.

"I believe God wants us to have that joy of giving but recognize that it's when we give from the heart that it means the most," she said.

Sundeen keeps faith at the center of the season in her own family with regular worship and devotions.

"We make a plan, and we stick to it, and we choose our priorities well before the ads come out, because it's tempting," she said.