Every year, usually around the middle of October, I start to anticipate the holiday season. My family celebrates Christmas, and I have been known to listen to Christmas music before November 1st (living in a climate that just suffered a snowstorm on Halloween makes this practice seem a bit less outrageous). I look forward to all the sights, sounds, and experiences only found this time of year. During this pre-holiday lull (one might even call it the “calm before the storm”), I typically imagine myself finished with all the “holiday requirements” by early December. My vision includes presents purchased and wrapped, decorations coordinated and displayed, events chosen and booked, and greeting cards ordered and sent. Once all these tasks are taken care of, I see myself sipping hot chocolate and eating homemade cookies in front of a roaring fire, experiencing the type of inner tranquility and feelings of goodwill we hope are more attainable this time of year. Then, around the middle of November, I realize I will once again fall short of this idyllic image. My “to-do” list keeps growing, and the reality of day-to-day life prevents me from accomplishing everything in the early time-frame I would prefer. More than one Christmas Eve in the past few years, I have stayed up past Santa’s bedtime, wrapping presents, and tiptoeing down the stairs to place them under the tree. No matter whether we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or another holiday, it is all too tempting to get swept up in the seasonal tornado and lose sight of what is most important to us, only to emerge at the start of the New Year feeling as though peace on earth passed us over again.
Part of our holiday stress comes from feelings that we must take advantage of every aspect of the holiday season. During the holiday “pre-season,” advertisements appear for magical sounding symphonies, plays, and musicals to help get us in the spirit, and many other special events not available to us at other times. We imagine ourselves going from holiday shows to light displays to craft fairs to dinners and parties, yet both our mental and actual budget may allow us to only follow through on a few of these. It becomes even more important to decide what will bring us the most enjoyment and focus our energy in that direction. Many times, catching a holiday special on television, reading a holiday-themed book, or baking special treats for others may bring us a simple but profound joy, and we can pass on some of the events that deplete our limited energy, time, and money.
Many of us have childhood memories which shape our holiday expectations. We may put pressure on ourselves to replicate certain traditions, only to experience sadness when we do not have the same feelings we did in our younger years. A sense of melancholy also comes when we miss our loved ones no longer with us. Messages abound during the holiday season urging us to make everything merry and bright, and inside we may struggle as we think about those we have lost. To this day, I have memories of my mom and her efforts to make the holidays special. She absolutely loved this time of year, when she would fill stockings with simple but meaningful gifts, insist on a real tree, play Christmas music while she cooked, and revel in the times her family was together. I can still picture the look on her face, which seemed to say all was right with the world, when I returned home for holiday break after being away for several months in college. To this day, I think about her when I hear “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on the radio. I know that without some of the treasured people in my life, this time of year so focused on family and spending time together will always hold that small element of loss amidst the festivities. I cannot replicate the exact feelings of being with my parents over the holidays. I can, however, recognize the gifts they gave me in the form of early cherished memories and give myself permission to enjoy the new traditions I start with my current family.
Retailers would have us believe that finding the perfect gift for others is the key to holiday happiness. It is true that a thoughtful gift, chosen based on what we know a person likes, is a source of gladness for both giver and recipient (family, if you are reading this: think warm cozy sweatshirts and warm winter boots 😉). Over the years, however, it can become increasingly difficult to think of new things to give others who already have everything they need, and much of what they want. Many families acknowledge that giving back to others truly in need unlocks much more jubilation than receiving additional material items. Our family joins many others who donate toys or clothing to organizations supporting children who otherwise have nothing to open during this season. Although we cannot see these children open the gifts, we can certainly imagine the excitement and wonder they feel as they receive something wrapped especially for them. One neighbor family we know collects donations from family members, chooses a local charity, and donates money in the family’s name. Others spend their holiday or part of the season helping homeless folks with food, warm clothes, or shelter. Recognizing that others struggle with many of the basic needs we often take for granted gives us a new appreciation for that working stove even if it produces slightly burned cookies, or the tree that looked perfect in the lot but is crooked when placed in that heated and comfortable living room.
We may not be able to achieve peace on earth this holiday season; we may not even be able to achieve peace in our own household. There are, however, a few ways to improve our chances of experiencing more peaceful moments this time of year. We can prioritize and schedule a few holiday activities we really take pleasure in so that we avoid arriving at the New Year having missed our favorite holiday movie or concert. We can understand that the holidays do not erase family loss or conflict, and we may need to find the courage to acknowledge our sadness and take extra care of ourselves in the midst of a season advertising constant joy. We can plan to volunteer and help those encountering economic hardship; this leads not only to a greater appreciation of our own resources, but also makes a crucial difference in the lives of those who need it. Hold on tight: the express train that is the holiday season is about to come barreling through your front door. This year, fill it with simple pleasures that matter most to you, reach out to others who need a helping hand, and be ready for the New Year with a more peaceful heart.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.