” ‘Tis the season to be jolly.” – from Deck the Halls, by John Thomas, 1862
Remember this time of year when you were a child? Shortly after Thanksgiving you realized that Christmas was the next thing that your family would be making a big deal out of. Maybe it was because your grade school teacher changed the decorations on the classroom bulletin board from pilgrims and pumpkins to Santa Claus and holly. You sang carols in school, TV commercials showed you objects of your desire – batteries not included – and you compiled a wish list that you hoped you’d receive because, after all, you really weren’t that bad over the past year. At some point your extended family got together, you got to go wild with a lot of cousins you saw four or five times a year, the adults in your tribe were a little more tolerant than usual, and you had a great time. What happend to those thrilling days of yesteryear, and why does the holiday season make so many adults feel sad, depressed, and alienated?
For a while, the holiday season remained a great time of year. When you’re a young adult, it is a time when your high school friends return home from college, the military, or where ever they’ve been since you saw them last. You’d meet them for a few drinks- which always turned out to be a lot more than a few- update them on the goings on in your life, with a few slight exaggerations, and have a great time. Somewhere during your walk of life however, you began a career, got married and started a family, and the meaning of the season changed. You became obligated to do a lot of things that you never envisioned when you were that little kid whose biggest holiday disappointment was that somebody forgot to buy batteries. It all starts innocently enough with visits to your boyfriend or girlfriend’s parents that turned into an obligation to spend some the holidays with your in-laws. That becomes a tradition and before you know it you’re obligated, year after year, to a routine that you really don’t look forward to any longer. You find yourself buying presents for a lot of acquaintances and feel guilty if these acquaintances have bought you something more expensive than you got them.
I don’t know how you feel reading this, but as I write this I’m finding myself getting depressed just thinking about all this. What happened wide-eyed joy that the holiday season once gave us? Too many people succumb to the commercialization of Christmas, get on that holiday roller coaster of doing everything for everyone else, and rationalize what they are doing. They have some cliché such as, “Well, holidays are for children anyway,” and bear with the overwhelm, chaos, and eventual depression that the season brings. Is it possible that an adult can enjoy the season and actually emerge on January 2 rested and ready for a new year?
Yes Virginia, there is a sanity clause. There are a number of things that a grown-up can do to make this season not only bearable, but enjoyable, meaningful, and something you look forward to. Here’s some simple suggestions:
1. Lower your expectations. Most of us go into the holiday season way too optimistic about how the season is going to go down. We have images in our minds, thoughts, and expectations that are frequently way too optimistic. We tend to visualize, imagine, and anticipate feelings that are unrealistic. We often focus on how things are supposed to be during the season. This is a set up a let down. Don’t decide in advance how you’re going to feel. Being mindful of what’s going on moment to moment and accepting feelings as they are, rather than how you think they should be, makes for less disappointment. Be flexible and remind yourself that you’ll just have to wait and see how things go.
2. Accept what experience tells you is going to happen. Yeah, your mother-in-law is going to give you one of those sloppy hugs that you receive once a year from her, you’ll have to eat some of your sister-in-law’s famous onion dip that you’re not too crazy about, one of the younger family members is bound to have a significant other that their parents aren’t too thrilled with, and it’s not Christmas if there isn’t some younger kid that’s crying and whining a bit because it’s well past their bedtime. So what? If you know these things are going to happen every year, why be disappointed when they do happen? Go with the flow and make a conscious decision to enjoy yourself.
3. Be aware of where you focus your attention. There are a lot of negative things that a person can focus on that can completely ruin the whole season for them. You could focus on the commercialism, the political correctness, and the religious and cultural arguments surrounding the season. You could also get caught up in the ghosts of Christmas past by recalling other Christmas seasons and dwelling on the pain, suffering, and loss of loved ones that are no longer here to share it with you. Allow people to have what ever beliefs they choose. Don’t be competitive over whether or not it’s a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, or a Festivus for the Rest of Us. Remind yourself that it’s all good and don’t let your ego try to control the way that other people feel about the season.
While at family gatherings, office parties, or running around your local mall shopping looking for that must have item, try to focus on some positives. Noticing the joy the season brings children, enjoying a cup of cocoa with a loved one, or watching the look in the eyes of happy loved one can help remind you of what the season is all about. And before you harshly judge that whining five-year-old, or that teenage nephew with the bizarre haircut, remind yourself that you were once in the their shoes.
4. Try not to be a people pleaser. Simply do the best you can for the important people in your life. Remember that you can’t be perfect, the season can’t be perfect, and you are doing the best you can. Don’t feel guilty about including yourself on the list of people you are trying to make happy this season.
5. Accept the loss of loved ones who are no longer here to share the celebration. Deaths of important people in our lives tend to be more painful over the holidays, as we remember our times with them during this season of family and friends. Try to find some spiritual way to honor them and keep them close to your heart in a meaningful way. The spirit of the holidays is shared experience with family, friends, and loved ones. This is probably what Charles Dickens meant in his novel A Christmas Carol when Scrooge said he would “keep the spirit of Christmas in his heart throughout the year.” Loved ones who are gone would want you to enjoy the season. Remember them fondly and enjoy the season.
6. Don’t forget to take care of your own physical and emotional needs during this season. Keep your wellness plan in place, eat sensibly, don’t skimp on exercise, mindfulness, or your own spirituality. This is the season for you as well as everyone else in your life. Don’t feel guilty about this. Without a solid sense of self you won’t be much use to anyone else regardless of what time of year it is.
“God rest ye merry, gentlemen. Let nothing you dismay.” – author unknown
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