Christmas stories abound with ghosts and angels whose intervention in human's affairs leads to the discovery of the holiday's true meaning.
Think of "A Christmas Carol" or "It's a Wonderful Life."
But Carrie Atkins said her real-life discovery of the reason for the season was not so heavenly. Still, the result is the same -- she appreciates friends and family instead of stressing over materialism during the holidays.
For years, Mrs. Atkins, 39, of Port Vue, was a diehard Black Friday shopper who suffered through the stress of crowds and traffic -- and then the bills that piled up at the start of each new year.
But a three-month span in 2006 -- in which Mrs. Atkins was diagnosed with cancer, her 6-year-old daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy, and her husband was injured in a car accident -- forever altered her view of the holidays and of life in general.
"I realized my family and my time with them was more precious than spending and spending time in line," she said.
Today, the family is doing fine, but the lessons from 2006 continue to guide Mrs. Atkins, her husband Kevin and daughter Emily through a joyous, stress-free holiday season.
"I chip away all year at buying gifts to avoid the traffic and congestion and the big bills ... and I still get the good deals," Mrs. Atkins said. "My whole family realizes now that it is about family and tradition and not material things."
Like Mrs. Atkins, Jim Wilson, 61, plans ahead, which he said is a real "stress buster." He saves to give monetary gifts to his 12 nieces and nephews.
In addition to sticking to a proven routine, Mr. Wilson, of Bethel Park, said he harbors no unrealistic expectations of the holidays, which the experts say is another source of tension.
"If the weather is bad, I stay in and don't stress," he said.
Tony Mannarino, a psychologist and director of the Center for Traumatic Stress at Allegheny General of the West Penn Allegheny Health System, called the root cause of holiday stress "too much to fit in too small a time."
The activities people try to cram into a few weeks, he said, include shopping, baking, cleaning, visiting, entertaining and more. And then there is dealing with finances.
"Everyone gets so booked up with ... getting together with family and friends and shopping for the holidays that they get overextended with less time for sleep and other relaxation," Mr. Mannarino said.
High expectations often result in holiday blues, he said. And that is especially true for those already feeling low because of job loss or illness.
His advice? Find time for relaxation, revise expectations and seek professional help if you are feeling down for a long time.
Jessie Goicoechea, director of the psychology clinic at Duquesne University, said holiday stress is very common and acknowledging it works wonders.
"People look at decorations in stores, hear songs on the radio and feel a lot of pressure to be happy during the holidays," she said. "But the ... pressure to be happy and upbeat when there may be good reasons not to be is also a source of stress."
"The holiday season is often a time people become acutely aware of losses, and we should find space to acknowledge that we miss a deceased loved one or the kids in a separated family," she said.
Elizabeth Mazur, associate professor of psychology at Penn State Greater Allegheny, McKeesport, recommends making lists during the year to get ready for the holidays.
"It is easier to pick up a gift during the year when you see something," she said. "But don't forget about [the gifts]. Make another list detailing what you bought; this saves lots of shopping and dealing with traffic."
Ms. Mazur also recommends that "you break things you need to do into smaller tasks that makes them more manageable and gives you a sense of accomplishment as you check stuff off your list."
Jayne Sweet, 57, of Madison, pointed out that the endless series of holiday demands is overwhelming.
"But I look at each individual holiday event as an opportunity to spread a little Christmas joy," she said.
Ms. Sweet put up 22 Christmas trees in her house the past weekend and plans to put up more.
"You make a decision that you are going to love it," she said of her secret to a rewarding holiday season.
Adrian Crouch, 23, of Port Vue is also focused on a happy and healthy holiday season.
"I don't let the main focus be what I should cook, bake or take to a party," she said.
"If you begin the day with healthy choices, you'll be more motivated to do the same for each subsequent meal," she said of those notoriously fattening holiday feasts.
And what about those holiday gatherings?
"Focus on the people around you and enjoy them. Proudly wear those eyesore lipstick imprints on your cheeks," she said.
Charles F. Reynolds III, professor of geriatric psychiatry and director of the UPMC/Pitt Aging Institute, said "the spirit of the holidays is of sharing and giving. If you focus on giving of yourself to others in the spirit of the holidays, you will feel an enormous sense of joy," he said.
Stress, Dr. Reynolds said, is of our own making.
"If we remember how fortunate we are to be alive, and in a position to give to others, living with gratitude is fundamentally incompatible with being swamped by stress," he said. It is also important to maintain routines and structures, like a healthy exercise regimen, he said.
"People tend to eat and drink more and gain weight, which can diminish a sense of well-being. Remembering it is a season of giving and healthy ways can go a long way in diminishing stress," Dr. Reynolds advised.
Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.