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Whatever Happened to Comfort and Joy?
Assessing Your Holidays
Take heart: Finding more joy in this season is possible.
Try this: Decide you will be open to ways to slow down.
"I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord."
In the fall, beautiful magazines and catalogues begin piling up at our house. They entice me—and they frustrate me. They show beautifully prepared holiday meals and gorgeous packages underneath elaborate trees with attractive people in elegant party clothes.
I begin to get antsy and feel as if my Thanksgiving table surely will not measure up, and my dressing will probably be dry. I start fretting that my house is not decorated adequately for Christmas. I wonder if I should trade the easy-to-cook cookies for the more elaborate ones with icing designs in multiple colors. The possibilities of the season begin to seem more like demands than opportunities.
For the past few years, I have gathered groups in early November to talk about the upcoming holiday season and to explore ways to enjoy this time of year more fully—or maybe just to enjoy it at all. These are lively, creative discussions with a rather sober thread running through them. The refrain sounds a little bit like, "Stop the holidays, I want to get off."
Discussions on this topic usually break into two sides—folks who love the holidays but are overwhelmed by them, and those who truly dread the holidays. Yes, I said "dread." On very rare occasions I run into someone who has a calm, fairly peaceful approach to the time of year from mid-November into January. This is usually a person who has simplified Christmas, choosing a minimalist approach that comes close to pretending that the holiday does not exist.
Somehow we have given up the simple pleasures and meaningful moments of this special season, trading them for more time shopping and other actions that wear us out and even tear us down. We snap at the children because we have spent too much time and money trying to find toys to make them happy. They have more stuff in their playroom and less of us. We yearn for the spiritual side of Thanksgiving and Christmas, but that seems elusive. With too much to do, we skip church, neglecting the lessons of the season for an early dash to the mall.
Little joys disappear amidst concerns of how we'll pay the credit card bills in January, how we'll juggle family gatherings and office parties and church services, how we'll get the house cleaned and decorated before company comes, and whether we need to give the next-door neighbor or the fill-in-the-blank a gift. (You know the drill: What if they give us something and we don't have anything for them?)
During holiday discussions, I am often reminded of Dr. Seuss's infamous Grinch who stole Christmas: he is a mean guy with no tenderness and lots of anger issues. Sometimes I have been known to feel that way, too, and I have encountered others who make the Grinch look like a saint. "I turn into Ebenezer Scrooge if I'm stressed," says an executive I know. Another friend told me: "I am really a whiny person, especially when I'm tired." An office neighbor says he is "the biggest humbug in my entire family" because he so dislikes "the deadening crush of Christmas commercialism."
Learning to Make Needed Changes
But it does not have to be like that. No matter how crazy the season seems to have become, we can make needed changes to enjoy the holidays and not dread them.
What happened, I wonder, to the comfort and joy we sing about in Christmas carols? Why do we, who have so much in so many areas of our lives, not feel more thankfulness?
No matter how crazy the season seems to have become, we can make needed changes to enjoy the holidays and not dread them.
Listening to other people and examining my own life, I have discovered certain themes:
1. The holidays that make up this season have lost their individuality, blending together into one long blur.
We might once have sat down to our Thanksgiving dinner with little more on our minds than how many pieces of pumpkin pie we could eat. Christmas plans would start a few days or even a couple of weeks later. Not anymore. Now, the Thanksgiving Day newspaper is filled with advertisements, begging us to plot a plan of attack for the best deals. Many Christmas decorations have been up for weeks.
This means that we enter November with a marathon in front of us—but with a sprint mentality. Before the season even gets started, it begins to seem overwhelming. This robs joy from individual occasions. Instead of a breathe-in, breathe-out rhythm that marks a measured approach to each occasion, we have a breathless feeling that says it is going to get worse before it gets better.
We need to take it a step at a time and celebrate special occasions for their specific meanings.
2. By the time Thanksgiving arrives, we realize the year is slipping by. We have been through a bit more than three hundred days and have about fifty or so left. Instead of seeing the fresh start ahead, we feel the calendar vise squeezing us.
Not only are we facing the big feed for Thanksgiving, but also we are facing a growing to-do list for Christmas. And somewhere inside we realize that all the things we were going to get done this year might not happen. The twenty pounds probably isn't going to dissolve over the next few weeks. The savings account is not going to look full and robust. Projects at work must be completed post-haste if they are to be finished this year. Time tension increases.
3. Old-fashioned though it may sound, we are swamped by the ways of the world. It is difficult to step back and assess the way we are living.
I am reminded yet again of the powerful words of Romans 12:2: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will." We are holiday conformists, despite our best intentions. We need transforming—perhaps even crave it—but we conform instead. We feel the need to buy gifts that match, dollar for dollar, those we think we will be given. We rush around trying to do it all—clean, decorate, shop, entertain, be entertained, send cards, and cook. People we have been meaning to visit all year are suddenly a necessity on the calendar.
4. Many of us put unrealistic expectations on ourselves and others during the holidays. Whatever we do, we feel it does not meet the high standards we have imposed on ourselves. Nothing is quite good enough; no amount of effort can match the glossy image we have in our mind.
As one retreat attendee said: "I've discovered a great tendency to depression during the holidays.... I think when we continually rev up the holiday machine, adding more and more to it, we build up our expectations for the holiday celebration to a level that we can't possibly achieve. There's an inevitable letdown when the day falls short of our hopes. I've seen this same tendency in other family members and friends." Compounding this tendency, when we feel blue we often experience shame or guilt, when perhaps we need to work through the sadness with a trusted friend, pastor, or other professional.
Instead of choosing certain priorities and focusing on them, we try to do it all. To quote one of my husband's favorite phrases: "Can't be done."
5. All of us are different. What is vital to you at this time of year may be much less important to someone else.
Some of my relatives love to get up early the Friday after Thanksgiving to stand in a dark parking lot waiting for a store to open. I want to be nowhere near a crowded parking lot on the day after Thanksgiving if at all possible. My good friend makes great fudge and homemade pecan pies for gifts. Don't ask me to do that, please. I send scads of Christmas cards with lengthy personal notes each year. Many of the people I know have given up on cards altogether.
In all of these cases, neither way is right or wrong, but clashes over such issues can open the door to tension. Compromise is required, but the more we hurry and worry, the harder it is to accommodate someone else's holiday wishes.
6. The holidays involve our families in the best ways—and the worst.
Individuals who discuss the season with me always bring up their families. Sometimes it is the in-laws or a stepparent or stepchild who is difficult or who marches to a different beat. Often it is the kaleidoscope of scheduling, trying to figure out who goes where when. For many blended families this is a special challenge, with former spouses added to the holiday equation.
Holidays with the family can also bring special joys. Some people savor time with family, planning fun events. As Karen R. says: "The day after Thanksgiving, I, along with my two sisters, Susy and Sherry, go on what we call our 'Sister Trip.'"
7. Christmas and Thanksgiving still hold many happy memories and moments for people, despite the discomfort they sometimes bring.
Most of the people I encounter want to find a better way to live and long to savor the season. Nearly all of them have something they look forward to or enjoy the most, and they want to find ways to renew their joy. My college friend Annette, a single mom and an elementary school counselor, offers a delightful sampling of this: "I like the cool weather, love the decorations and food. I like seeing people I do not always see. I like the parties, dinners, services, and celebrations. I like special times of year that cause us to reflect on different parts of our relationships with the Lord and with each other. I like the way people are more fun and festive. I like the way the season causes most people to do more for others. I like all the opportunities to minister to people during this time of year. I like hearing about what people are doing and where they are going. I like that I get to spend time with children during this time of year, because holidays are more special, fun, and exciting when you experience them at child level."
Do you see yourself in any of these themes? Are there areas that you need to tackle now?
Excavate the Possibilities of the Holidays
The possibilities of the holidays—from Thanksgiving on through Advent, Christmas, New Year's, and into the Christian celebration of Epiphany—often get buried. Perhaps this is a good time for you to consider ways to dig out those possibilities. Perhaps it is time to find ways that work for you to turn the hassles to happiness.
As Terri, a Methodist pastor in Florida, says: "I love people and being with people. I love moments that bring others joy, like decorating cookies with children or seeing someone open a big surprise present. Christmas Eve services are a nine-hour marathon that I wouldn't trade for the world. The simplicity of a little candle multiplied by the glow of all the faces is mystery and wonder. I love it."
Or as Brenda, a friend from childhood, says: "Now that my kids are adults, I put up a few things that I enjoy and go to a Christmas Eve service—very simple things. When friends ask how my holiday was, I answer, 'Quiet'—and am secretly thankful."
Nephew Jeff enjoys "the hustle and bustle of this time of year" and looks for ways to help those in need: "Give, give, and give. Help someone monetarily, physically, or spiritually. The feeling is great and habit-forming."
By starting with Thanksgiving and moving through the coming weeks intentionally, you can indeed hurry less and worry less during Christmastime. You can emerge in the New Year with a renewed spirit, ready to start fresh with a smile on your face. I propose that all of us try to live with gratitude through these holidays, awaiting the arrival of the Christ Child, anticipating Epiphany and the New Year ahead. This approach can help you set goals for your life and shape the life you long for.
My longtime co-worker Diana, a prayerful woman with a wise spirit, puts it into perspective: "Jesus came so that we can find rest, peace, and joy in him. It does not bring honor and glory to him when we wear ourselves out and become laden with chores, guilt, and debt, all for the sake of 'celebrating his birth.' I believe if we give the burden of the holidays to him, we will grow in our relationship with him."
Simple Tips from Friends
Is there a particular tradition you do not like doing? Consider not doing it.
"I used to dread doing Christmas cards, so I quit doing them years ago."
"I've already gotten rid of the tradition of getting colleagues gifts in favor of giving to local nonprofits. I participate more in office parties and bring food items for everyone to enjoy."
Make time to be with people you love.
"Breaks to meet friends for lunch or dinner or just to visit really help me put things in perspective."
Allow yourself to get rid of unrealistic expectations and demands.
"Make a conscious effort not to allow the retail world to dictate to you what the holidays are all about and what will make you happy. Turn the TV off, read more, listen to more music, and keep Jesus at the forefront. He often gets uninvited to his own birthday party."CHAPTER 2
Creating a New Way of Celebrating
Steps to Change Hassles to Happiness
Take heart: Renewed focus can help you slow down.
Try this: Imagine what your less hurried, less worried holidays will look like.
God gives vision. It doesn't come from a desire to do something good, or something worthwhile. Vision is a gift of the Creator.
—Rob Weber, Visual Leadership
My husband and I frequently go to a lake in rural north Louisiana. One of my favorite sights there is the snowy egret, a tall and slender white bird with a very skinny neck. This bird stalks slowly at the water's edge, keenly watching for a fish for lunch. The bird's intensity is extreme, his focus unwavering. He stares and stares and stares and—zap! Lunch is served as he catches a fish and gulps it down.
First we decide what we want our holidays to looklike. Then we figure out how-to make them look like that.
The egret's attention to what he wants and the steady approach to get it is effective. So it can be with our approach to the holidays. First we decide what we want our holidays to look like. Then we figure out how to make them look like that.
Remember this: First the what, then the how.
I find that I am most likely to flounder when I do not have a clear picture of what I really want. I observe this frequently with my clients, too. It is difficult to go for what you want if you do not know what that is.
Your Joy Goal
For this extraordinary season, start by taking a few minutes to think about what you really want. Let us explore some steps that can help you select what I call your "Joy Goal." Begin to imagine—with confidence—that you can experience what you want most from the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. Whisper a prayer, asking God for a new vision for these days.
To get started, try using an exercise that I suggested in my book Hurry Less, Worry Less: 10 Strategies for Living the Life You Long For.
1. List words that you would like to describe your life from Thanksgiving into the New Year. These words become minigoals and provide a focus for the entire season. They constitute a short, easy answer to the "what" question.
Remember our friend the egret? Following his example, keep your eye on the words you've selected and make decisions that support those words. Try to avoid being drawn off course.
If one of your words is joyful, you will choose activities that are fun for you and your family and avoid, where possible, those that bring you stress.
If your words are calm or restful, you may turn down an invitation or two or three. You do not have to go to every party, potluck supper, or carol sing that you are invited to. Most people understand that everyone is busy during this time of year and cannot make every event.
If you choose debt-free, shop accordingly. Buy smaller presents; do not pull out the plastic without great forethought.
If you choose spiritual, as many people do, make sure you attend the special Advent series at church and set aside time each day for personal devotions. The power of quiet time can be energizing as you head into busy days.
One friend and client chose breathe. Each time she found herself fretting or frenzied, she remembered that word and took a deep breath. Quickly she found herself relaxing and feeling less exhausted.
Excerpted from Hurry Less, Worry Less at Christmas by Judy Christie. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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