Christmas Stress: For A Peaceful Holiday

Christmas is Coming!

Somehow summer came and went in the blink of an eye. Here in the great Pacific Northwest the skies have gone grey, the temperature has dropped, and the rains have returned. Which also means the start of Christmas stress (or holiday stress in general). While the press of holidays in the long dark of winter offers a welcome change from bad weather it also brings with it a lot of stress.

Holiday Stress

For some of us the stress starts with the run-up to Halloween parties. But for just about everyone in the West things get churning around Thanksgiving and drive right on through to Christmas (or Hanukah, or Winter Solstice). With that the stress begins to ramp up. I don’t know about you all but the Halloween stuff showed up in my local stores in August and before it was even gone they were putting up Christmas decorations.

For me the piling of holidays on top of each other makes them feel rushed and forced. I find myself digging in my heels and wanting to slow down time. But inevitably that just means I’m scrambling in the last few days before the holiday to get done all the things I put off in my stubbornness.

But you may be feeling stressed because you lost someone you loved this year. Death and grief make Christmas and other joyful holidays that much hard. If that is your struggle I invite you to click through to my article that deals with Christmas grief directly.

What Matters Most

So as with many things in my life, when the craziness of the holiday rush starts to creep in I go back to what matters most. The vast majority of what causes us holiday stress isn’t actually necessary. Does that seem strange? Think about your core values. I doubt any of them have much at all to do with sending Christmas cards, or buying gifts, or company parties. But they probably do have a great deal to do with the relationships you value most, your health (body and spirit), and leaving a better world for those who come after you.

As is so often the case, if we know our values we can make better choices (otherwise known as boundary setting) based on those values. We won’t be swayed by every guilt inducing ad, or the neighbor’s bragging. No matter what holiday you celebrate there is a meaning behind it. That meaning, and our own values can help to bring peace to your life during this time of the year.

Identifying What Matters

Does it seem strange to suggest that you can have a holiday season free of stress and angst? It’s pretty counter cultural. Our whole culture is built around getting us riled up and reacting off our emotions. I find myself shaking my head in bemusement every year as the “holiday vs Christmas” debate once again ramps up. I suspect folks who are very canny marketers are behind it. How much money is made off those who get themselves all wrapped up in being mad at the color of a Starbucks cup, or what the clerk at their favorite store says during checkout? I suspect it’s quite a lot.

Gold snowflakes and ribbon on a white background

But it doesn’t have to be that way. No one but you can remove the meaning from your religious celebrations. No one but you can make choices that reflect your values. And no matter what the rest of the world does, you have the power to instill your life with meaning.

An Invitation to Christmas Peace

You came here because Christmas is stressful, and you would like it to be less so. I have good news, Christmas does not have to be stressful. But the fix isn’t going to be a worksheet, or a planning form. The fix doesn’t involve buying a book, or some new doodad. What is needed is some inner work, some good boundaries, and setting realistic expectations.

If you’re up for that, read on.

Begin With Meaning

If we let advertising and cultural trends run our holidays they will remain stressful, anxiety producing wrecks. Your family’s holiday is big business for big business. Whole sections of the retail market bank their year on holiday sales. But that was their choice, you are in no way beholden to prop up unsustainable economic models at the expense of your sanity!

Empty holidays, like empty calories aren’t good for us.  Christmas isn’t about presents, or food, or decorations. Those things are not bad in themselves, but when they are the only reason we do something they tend to lead us down paths of debt, comparison, and never ending desires for more. Far too many of us are going through the motions of meaningless holidays because we’ve always done it that way.

Just because something is tradition, doesn’t mean it’s good for us, or that we have to keep doing it.

Advent, Christmas and Why They Matter

So let’s get honest about what Christmas really is. Christmas is the second most sacred festival of the Christian year. Christmas is a twelve day season (not a day) that begins with the feast of the Nativity at sundown on December 24th and marches right along to the feast of Epiphany on Jan 6th. This twelve day long festival (12 is an important number for Jews and Christians) celebrates the strange idea that a powerful deity was willing to become a limited, vulnerable human being. But more than that, the person in whom divinity sanctified humanity wasn’t a wealthy, powerful, successful person: but one who was poor, possibly homeless, and born to an unwed mother. He went on to be rejected by the “good people,” and executed as an enemy of the state.

That is what Christmas is about. (Which is probably why it doesn’t much appearance in car commercials.)

Christmas is preceded  by the church season of Advent.

Advent is a time of preparation (spiritual preparation mostly). (I’ve written about the history of how Christmas and Advent came to be, and suggestions on keeping Advent as a spiritual practice.) Advent is an odd time that celebrates something that has already happened (the sanctification of human life by the incarnation) and something that hasn’t happened yet, that is the fulfillment of the dream God has for the world. Again, it doesn’t make for great commercials.

Out of focus shot of white Christmas lights

Communication: Avoid Trips to Abilene

A lot of holiday stress is because we don’t communicate. Our Christmas traditions are often trips to Abilene. 

In case you’ve never heard of a trip to Abilene here goes: there once was a couple who drove to an hour into Abilene every Sunday afternoon for shopping and dinner. They did this for years. One member of the couple had always hated these trips, loathed the drive and the shopping and hated the same damn restaurant every damn week. But she went every week because she knew her husband loved it. Finally, after years of marriage she put her foot down, her spouse could go without her, she was done. At which point her stunned spouse said that he hated those trips too he’d been doing them because he thought she loved them.

And that my friends is a trip to Abilene. Don’t take trips to Abilene (nothing against Abilene). Communicate.

Those Christmas traditions you hate, that cause you huge amounts of stress? You might discover you aren’t the only one. You might discover they aren’t necessary at all. Your whole family/friends group might heave a huge sigh of relief this year. But you have to communicate honestly.

Here’s an example. As clergy Christmas is a big work time for me. Honestly I’m exhausted by the time I finish Christmas day services. The idea of cooking a big fancy meal on Christmas day made me even more exhausted and depressed. And here’s the thing: I don’t even like those sort of formal meals that much. Once a year on Thanksgiving is more than enough for me.

When I finally admitted that my husband and our family heaved a huge sigh, they didn’t like those meals either. Now? We and our best couple friends spend the afternoon in the kitchen while the guys cook a big Indian curry feast and I don’t peal a single potato. It is heaven.

Ground In Your Values

The single best advice I have to reduce holiday stress is similar to what I would tell you to do in your everyday life: ground what you choose to do in your values instead of just going with the flow. And there’s good reason for that.

What you believe in matters. If I believe in simplicity of life, generosity toward those in need, and relationships above all else then a holiday where the main focus is spending huge amounts of money on gifts (for people who don’t really need anything), overindulging in food (by those of us who really don’t need more), and spending “forced” time with people just because they are family (not actually those I am close to) is going to be extremely stressful. Honestly it’s going to be miserable.

If you aren’t familiar with values based living I’ve got a guide that will walk you through figuring out what matters most in your life. It is a great place to start reducing holiday stress.

sparkling gold ornament on Christmas tree

Sticking to your Guns: of Grandparents & “tradition”

Perhaps the hardest part about living based on your values is social pressure. There’s a whole lot of pressure to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them. I’ve written about it before but I knew a couple who completely changed their Christmas tradition based on their values and what the religious holiday actually meant.

It wasn’t popular at first, especially with their parents (their children’s grandparents)! Because they were acting out of their deeply held values they were able to articulate why they were changing their behavior to their parents, and stick to their guns. And that makes all the difference. Within a few years the new (and less stressful) way of doing things had become tradition and that was that.

Change can be uncomfortable, but discomfort isn’t a sign we’re doing something wrong. Often discomfort is a sign we’re finally moving toward health. The real test of discomfort is in the why. Are we uncomfortable because we’re breaking apart an old and engrained system that while unhealthy was familiar? If so, keep going, you are on the right track.

Grace (for yourself and others)

Can you name the meaning of your holiday practices? If someone asked you right now what it is you celebrate and how your celebrations reflect what you deeply believe could you answer them? Today your assignment is simple (but not so simple). Light a candle, sit quietly, and delve into meaning. Write out, in your own words, the meaning of your holiday and it’s traditions. Find the why buried in the chaos and stress.

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