For many people, the holiday season is filled with amazing wonder and happy thoughts. They seem to dance around in perpetual joy, filled with good thoughts and smiles while “visions of sugar plums dance in their heads.” For the rest of us, it can be a struggle to figure out how we're going to shoehorn even more activities into our already crammed schedules while squeezing more from our screaming budgets. The holidays can be so filled with added stress, in fact, that it is quite common for it to be a season full of suicide and heart attacks. It is unfortunate, indeed, that a season that was once synonymous with gratitude and giving has become one of stress and strife.
What has made us think that we need to keep upping the ante when it comes to the holidays? Is it really that we are so discontent with the way our life is going that we need 12 more gadgets to distract us? Or is it perhaps that it has become a habit that we're unsure how to break? I would propose that it is, and that it is a habit that needs to be broken deliberately and with clear intention.
I am not advocating that we stop exchanging Christmas gifts, following holiday traditions, or eating together, but I am advocating that we give gifts and celebrate traditions with more attentiveness. Being intentional and attentive about what we are doing will bring more meaning to the traditions that we hold with.
You may not be able to implement all of these ideas this year, and that is okay, perhaps preferable. Maybe make small changes over a course of years. Wise advice was given to me by a good friend many years ago. She said, “keep cutting back until there is peace in your house.” This advice can be applied to many things, but the first aspect of the holiday season that can benefit from it is your schedule. Schedules can, understandably, become somewhat unmanageable during this season. So discuss with your family the things that make the season what they want it to be. If they can't imagine it without going to the “Nutcracker” ballet, then put that as a priority. If they can't imagine it without a certain candlelight service, put that in first place. Whittle your holiday activities down to the things that are most important to your family, and then stop. Breathe. Do you notice how free your calendar is? Enjoy it. This gives you room to wiggle. If you want to add a spontaneous activity, you now have the room to do so, but be careful. Our culture is so used to being distracted, that we have forgotten how to wait in anticipation. Looking forward to something is a large part of what makes any holiday special. If you are so distracted by doing other things, the anticipation quickly dissipates.
Another way we can cut back is in material items. Give gifts, to be sure, but cut back on the amount. Does every child really need 10 gifts? Or even 7? Think about the number of gifts that are given during the season and reduce it, if possible. Think about giving experiences or lessons instead of material items. Some material gifts are fine, just do not make it the central focus of the holiday. If it is, then more pressure is created each year to outdo last year's gift.
Find ways to make giving more central to your celebration. Giving can actually be a very fun part of the season. Give to charities you love, give to people in need, give to someone that you think deserves a little extra, give to a cause you've never given to. It doesn't have to be monetary giving, either. Many places are looking for donations of time (soup kitchens or meals on wheels), strength (elderly people needing help), material items for re-sale (veteran's thrift stores), warm clothing (salvation army), food (food pantries) or craft supplies (local pre-schools or daycare centers).
Create traditions that have nothing to do with gifts. Who knows if there will be seasons when gift giving won't be a possibility. With debt rising as it is in the US, it could happen. Do you have any other traditions that will set apart the season as special? Many people do advent calendars and readings. Some people read aloud a special book like, “The Christmas Carol” during the season. Some folks go out to cut and hang up balsam branches around their homes. Make sure that you have traditions that are not centered on material items so that you'll always be able to celebrate, no matter the financial situation that you find yourself in.
Finally, be sure that you leave blank, open space in your life. Whether it's your calendar, your gift budget, or in your heart. Look around you as you go about your days during this season especially. Seek to alleviate the suffering of someone else with a kind word. Because you've left white space, you'll have time. Because you've been careful, you won't have compassion fatigue. You'll have plenty of energy to genuinely help someone who could use encouragement to remember the important things. And your friends, your family, your neighbors? They'll feel grateful because you're giving them permission to leave white space too!