'Tis the season for gifts and giving, comfort and joy, peace on earth, and goodwill to all.
Yet, despite the glad tidings of the season, there are many among us who feel less than merry or downright blue during the holidays. Emotional responses to personal challenges are often intensified during this time of increased cultural pressures to be of good cheer. The inability to be with loved ones—be they deceased, afar, or estranged—can infuse the holidays with discomforting sadness and grief. Holiday consumption, impulsive spending, dietary overindulgence, un(der)employment woes, and financial hardships can create anxiety, worry, and dread.
Moreover, many of us may endure stressful travel conditions to arrive at childhood homes beset with family dynamics and expectations (unchecked assumptions, unresolved conflicts, unsolicited opinions) that may not fully embrace our current selves. Past surroundings prime behavioral patterns from earlier times. Furnishings, heirlooms, and scents often trigger residual responses and ways of being.
Sometimes, falling into familiar patterns in familiar places surrounded by familiar faces can be comforting. But if these familiar patterns of who we once were conflict with who we’ve become, it can be challenging to stay grounded in who we are and embrace the broad spectrum of identity in ourselves and others.
Likewise, the absence of familiar patterns, places, and faces can also be disorienting and challenging. Endless rounds of “remember when” for folks who were never there can try the patience of even the most good-natured guests. However inclusive the hosts are, unfamiliar traditions, family dynamics, and interpersonal styles can be awkward and alienating for those uninitiated. Then, there are the personal questions about things like dating, marrying, and breeding that, however well-intended, may transgress the bounds of personal comfort.
Even good memories and bright futures can get in the way of enjoying the moment. Especially for those whose calendars mark January 1st as the New Year, the holidays are poised at the annual thresh-hold between past and future often prompting reflection on years past and anticipation of the year to come. It is common to find ourselves flooded by memories and hopes that actually prevent us from being here now.
Given all of this, how do we increase the likelihood of greater peace on earth (or at least, our little patch) and goodwill to all (or at least those in our presence) during the holidays?
Be present and savor the moment.
Many years ago, my mother’s little New England town celebrated its 200th birthday with a fireworks display that pretty much ruined my appreciation for fireworks for many years to come. For years afterward, I was disappointed by fireworks that simply didn’t compare to the spectacular fireworks of that magical summer night in New England. Waxing nostalgic for the fireworks of yore and yonder, I failed to appreciate the beauty in the here and now.
My lack of appreciation was probably exacerbated by my growing awareness of noise pollution, fire hazards, and animal welfare, but the point is that comparing what is to what was or what could be sometimes hinders our ability to appreciate what is. Wishing our present to be anything other than it is pretty much guarantees suffering rather than savoring the moment.
This holiday, pay attention to what's happening now and find something to love about this moment. See, hear, taste, smell, feel the moment. Play "I Spy" with an eye for love. I promise, it makes the moment lighter, brighter, and sometimes, even memorably magical.
Let go of expectations and say thank you.
"...Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naïve pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to you to be old and stupidly saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as hip and pompous as you...
The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.
One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.
Say thank you."
Cheryl Strayed aka Dear Sugar
It is the quality of our presence that distinguishes the moments that we squander from those we give and receive as gifts. When we surrender our expectations for the moment, we free ourselves to experience and appreciate ourselves and each other as we are in the moment as it is.
Let go of expectations. Respond with gratitude to whatever gifts the present offers.
Release your self and others from obligations.
Feeling pressured to host or attend gatherings? Anxious about purchasing gifts? Overwhelmed at the thought of sending cards? Just say "no" with love. Let the to-do list go. Ta-da! It's ok. The people who matter will completely understand and love you anyway. The people who matter who don't understand will get over it and love you anyway.
As someone who has chosen to opt out of much of the holiday hoopla, I know how challenging it can be to fail to fulfill customary holiday obligations. Yet, I've found that limiting my participation to meaningful expressions and occasions has contributed immensely to my own health and well-being during the holidays, as well as deepening the authenticity of my relationships with loved ones. Respecting others' traditions while honoring oneself enough to refrain from participating in those aspects of traditions that offend one's soul can be tricky, but it's well worth the effort.
Plus, the gracious acceptance of others' preferences and limitations when it comes to participating in various aspects of holiday culture is usually greatly appreciated. As much as we may love to share our favorite holiday traditions with those we love, when they choose to do other things, it's an opportunity to support others in choices that honor their greatest health and well-being.
Give with heart.
So many people confuse giving with buying. I hear it all the time. "I have to go get a gift for so-and-so." In the midst of all the holiday gift-giving, please remember that presents are a terrible substitute for presence. Although material gifts are often thoughtful expressions of our love and affection, our presence means so much more than presents to the people who love us. People who really love us do not want us to jeopardize our personal well-being or financial health to conform to familial or cultural norms.
So buy gifts if you have the means and inspiration. Sometimes, the perfect gift presents itself in material form. However, if shopping feels obligatory rather than celebratory, there are so many other meaningful ways to give from the heart, which are often lost in the commercialization of the holidays.
Lend a hand. Babysit or pet-sit. Bake a delicious treat. Write a letter, poem, story, or song. Share a poem, story, or song. Wash the dishes. Offer a massage. Make time for an online or in-person chat. Forgive someone. Donate to a favorite charity. Invite someone who doesn't want to be alone to something you're hosting or attending. Weed a friend's garden. Share a yoga session (or ten) with a friend.
Sometimes, the perfect gift involves saving money and spending time. Homemade is not just for Martha Stewart crafters, urban hipsters, and homesteading hippies. Particularly in today's economy, more people from all walks of life are waking up to the fact that the path to conspicuous contentment is not through conspicuous consumption.
One of the sweetest gifts that I have ever received was from a group of girlfriends who took it upon themselves to weed my front garden while I was away for a month. I was dreading my return to a bed of weeds, so when I arrived home to find my garden so carefully tended, it was such a wonderful surprise. I was (and still am) overwhelmed with gratitude for their heartfelt, thoughtful gift.
Ultimately, giving is really about caring enough to let someone else know that you care, and thoughtfully, heart-fully sharing whatever you have to give.
Create a “holiday hotline” for yourself (or offer to be one for someone else).
If you suspect that you will have a tough time during the holidays, ask trusted family members and/or friends if they would be willing to make themselves available to you for a specified amount of time should you desperately need to chat. Sometimes, just knowing that someone’s there for you—that you have someone to call (Skype, text, etc.) who will be there for you can make all the difference.
And of course, if you know of someone that might appreciate a holiday hotline, offer to be one.
Laugh and/or cry. Feel how you feel.
It's ok to feel how you feel. Although most of us prefer laughter to tears, crying can be very healing, releasing pent-up tension and emotion. If you feel like a good cry, grab your snot-rag (and/or a good mate) and let the tears flow. Then, follow up with a comedy chaser—something that makes you grin and giggle. Or just grab a good mate and find something so silly that you laugh until you cry.
Go OM for the holidays.
It's tempting to forgo our practice amidst the holiday cheer or holiday blues, but whatever mood prevails, it is often during our busiest times that we need our practice the most. Yoga helps us stay balanced, centered, and grounded, supporting our greater health and well-being, so we can greet the holidays with greater peace of mind.
So go ahead and practice a Sun Salutation or two. Breathe. Move. Hum. Chant. Meditate. Take a break to tune in to yourself. Step back for some heaven-sent perspective. Give yourself the gift of a little refreshing silence and solitude.
Get some fresh air.
Oh, the weather outside is frightful, and the fire is so delightful... But seriously, enough with the mulled spices and pine-scented candles. Go outside and get some fresh air. It's mood-elevating, immune-boosting, and invigorating.
And it's a great way to clear your mind and reconnect with your self or others.
Share the love.
Life is short. Give your love freely, deeply, and often. Tell the people you love that you love them. Show the people that you love that you love them. Be kind. Be compassionate. Be understanding. Give your attention, your affection, your support.
Give love. Share your heart. It's the best gift that you can give, and it never goes out of style.
Wishing you and yours oodles of luminous love and light!