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  • Writer's pictureDawn Ward

How to Manage Expectations When the Holidays are Hard

Updated: Apr 21

woman holding packages
“My soul, wait silently for God alone, For my expectation is from Him. He only is my rock and my salvation; He is my defense; I shall not be moved. In God is my salvation and my glory; The rock of my strength, And my refuge, is in God. Trust in Him at all times, you people; Pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us. Selah.” Psalms 62:5-8 NKJV

What do your expectations look like for this holiday season? For most people, the holidays usher in feelings of anticipation, hope, and good cheer. For those of us who celebrate the birth of Jesus, this season is a time of rejoicing. Our Savior is born. Hope eternal is birthed in our hearts. What better reason to celebrate?


Still, despite all the goodness and anticipation this season brings, it also brings with it expectations of what the holidays should look like. Christmas is a season of togetherness when we set aside our busy lives to spend time with one another. We expect it to be a joyous occasion, but during the difficult times in our lives, it carries with it the risk of disappointment.


For those who are struggling this year, your expectation may feel more like wishful thinking. This year may have brought unforeseen stresses that negatively affected you and your family. If you are unemployed or have experienced a recent job loss, this holiday will be especially difficult. For others, the illness or death of a loved one may have stolen the joy of the season, replacing it with unexpected and overwhelming grief. Grief never gets any easier with each passing holiday. Instead, the empty chair at the table sits as a constant reminder of our loved one's absence.


Our expectations for our holidays can be reasonable or unreasonable. One thing is certain. We need to learn to manage our expectations by expecting the unexpected, or at least understanding that things don’t always go according to our plans. I have found over the many Christmases I have spent on this planet that no two are alike. From spending the day in the E.R. with sick little ones to putting out a holiday dinner that would make Martha Stewart green with envy (not really), and everything in between, I have experienced them all. A few have felt like they came straight out of a Hallmark movie. Some have looked like a scene from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Most have been just plain stressful.


These verses remind us that the Lord alone should be our only expectation. He does not let us down. He does not skip out on the holiday feast. He is the one steady we can count on this Christmas season. He will not leave us disappointed, like the family member who failed to call or come by. He will not crush our spirits with unkind words hurtfully spoken around the holiday dinner table. He will be our peace in the middle of unexpected family drama.


Because Jesus cares about us, we can pour our hearts out before him. We can tell him our hopes and dreams for the holidays. We can ask him to manage our expectations. And if we end up being disappointed, we can run to Him for comfort and healing. Here are ways that I have learned to manage my expectations during the holidays.

Be Content In the Face of Unmet Holiday Expectations

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:12-13 NIV
hand holding bag of gifts

As we look at managing our expectations during the holidays, it’s easy to come off sounding like I have it all figured out. That is not the case at all. I have struggled with some devastating circumstances and losses during the holidays. Learning to set reasonable expectations for how they will play out, while still enjoying the season, has been a bit of a challenge.


Paul the Apostle had a positive outlook even in the face of hardship. He suffered tremendously because of his work spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. Beatings, prison, persecution. Still, he could state emphatically that he was content.


But Paul didn’t say that contentment came to him easily. He said that he had “learned” the secret to being content. What secret? The secret of his contentment during good time and bad came from the strength God gave him. Instead of setting his sights on what he didn’t have, he kept them on his eternal treasures, the gifts that matter most.


“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8 NIV

The secret to staying content during the holidays is learning to be content every day. Here are some practical suggestions that might help.


Are you short on money? God knows your needs. Ask him to provide and help you stretch your pennies. Don’t let advertisers pull you in and make purchases you can’t afford. Be creative.


Are you tired and overwhelmed? Slow down. Say “no” to unnecessary demands on your schedule. Let God restore you. Spend quality time with the people that matter. Keep it simple.


Are you frustrated and depressed? Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep. See a doctor for any health problems you’ve been ignoring. What or who are you focusing on? If it’s one person that is keeping you worried and upset, try sharing your attention with other people who matter and bring joy to your life.


Contentment begins by accepting the things we cannot change and make the necessary changes to those we can. Then we leave the rest to God .


Be Hopeful When Holiday Expectations Disappoint

 “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Romans 5:4-6 NIV

Let’s face it. Some people are really suffering this year. The holidays aren’t looking very bright for them. No matter what trial we are facing in our lives, staying hopeful gets harder the longer the battle goes on. In these verses, we read that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope. It is a chain reaction in suffering. Why? Because God’s love is at work in our hearts.

The enemy wants to convince us that we should give up. Perhaps, the problem isn’t with what we are hoping for, but who or what our hope is in. We are often tempted to hope in our relationships, our government, our bank accounts, or in our careers. All are guaranteed to let us down sometimes. When we put our hope in the Lord, we move beyond our circumstances and disappointments. Our stamina for our trials grows, as does our character.

“but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint.” Isaiah 40:31 NIV

Hoping in the Lord means transferring our burdens to him. As he begins to transform our hearts and minds, we will begin to think, speak, and act like children of hope.


Be Joyful in Jesus Who Exceeds Our Expectations

“I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” John 15:11 NIV

Dogs looking out window with Christmas wreath

Being joyful when the holidays are stressful or painful can seem impossible. If your child, spouse, or family member is hurting or struggling, it may even feel hypocritical. I mean, how are we supposed to be happy when they are in turmoil?


You have heard the old saying, “Misery loves company,” and let’s be honest, it does. How quickly a perfectly cheerful day is ruined by a few minutes spent with a sourpuss. But this joy is not merely being happy because things are going our way. It is a gift from Jesus to us as believers.


The Greek word used for joyful in this verse is chara, which means “cheerfulness that is calm delight.” It comes from the root word chairo, meaning, “to be full of cheer that is calmly happy or well off.”


The underlying feeling with this kind of joy is a sense of calm delight, a sense of well-being. It is a feeling of being satisfied right where we are at this moment. This was the secret to Jesus’ joy. He was always satisfied. He wasn’t walking around with a feeling of impending doom, even knowing what lay ahead for him. He felt joy because he trusted in His Father, not in his circumstances. His joy overpowered his darkest circumstances.


“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 NKJV

Jesus continually encouraged his followers to be joyful and of good cheer. He pretty much came up with the saying, “Don’t worry. Be happy!” When faced with a crisis, my happiness usually flies right out the window. If you are like me, I could use some of this calm joy to carry me through the season.


Let’s not miss the secret to being joyful when life is hard, which is most of the time. Jesus never told us to make up some positive, self-motivational mantra to keep us happy. He didn’t tell us to stand in front of the mirror each morning, plaster a smile on our faces, and repeat the words “I am joyful” ten times.


Conjuring up the kind of joy Jesus is talking about here would be impossible to do on our own. It does not come from possessing a positive mindset. When we experience deep grief and loss, our minds hurt. Our thoughts are consumed. There is no mind over matter. We are in survival mode.


So how do we have the kind of joy that can calmly and optimistically face our most painful life events? Prior to the promise of joy in verse 11, Jesus gave his disciples this command. “Remain in me and I in you” (John 15:4). Here, Jesus teaches He is the vine, and we are the branches. He is the source and sustainer of our very lives. Our secret weapon for being joyful is remaining in Jesus and his remaining in us.


“You have made known to me the ways of life; You will make me full of joy in Your presence." Acts 2:28 NKJV

Without Him, we can do nothing, not even be joyful. With him, we can be joyful always. Jesus gives us hope when our circumstances are burying us, when we are overwhelmed, and feel over-powered by them. He brings light into the dimmest moments and darkest valleys as we remain in him.


When we live in an attitude of gratitude, joy is our natural response. We may not always feel thankful, but there is always something to be grateful for. And in everything, every moment, every event, we are called to be people of gratitude.


“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” I Thessalonians 5:16-18 NKJV
Chalkboard with words, "O Come Let Us Adore Him"

As we praise him in all circumstances, stay in constant communication with him, and are grateful in all things, we will be overwhelmingly joyful. We will be filled with a peace that passes all understanding.  


Learning how to manage our expectations during the holiday season means we will come to accept that things may not always be going our way and people may not always behave the way we had hoped, but with Jesus we have joy. And that is the true meaning of the season.


Merry Christmas. May Jesus reign in your hearts, and may you have joy unspeakable.


Dear Lord Jesus, Messiah, Savior of the World.
We praise you and thank you for your gift of eternal life. We are overwhelmed by your love for us. As we move into this Christmas holiday season, we know that life doesn’t always go as expected. We ask you to prepare our hearts and minds for whatever comes our way. Lord, we fix our eyes on you, not on our circumstances. We desire to walk in an attitude of calm joy, peace, and gratitude. May we be children who trust in you as we anticipate the beauty and wonder that Christmas brings.
In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.



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