I always been a fairly last minute shopper, and relentless Christmas enthusiast. For me, I believe the two things are somewhat related. I enjoy carolers in the mall dressed in Victorian velvet cloaks and top hats, and the palpable excitement that builds a few days before the holidays. As fat snowflakes float above, illuminated by a streetlamp on a dark December evening, I feel the nostalgic sense of holidays past flood through me.
And yet, as a mom of two with seven nieces and nephews, I have had to adjust my desire for spontaneity with a bit of planning in order to grow into the role of creating Christmas magic for my own children. It’s a tall order. And of course, I have incredible appreciation for the traditions and ambiance my own mother created in our home, complete with crafty tree decorations, boughs on the hearth, cookie baking from heirloom family recipes, and the whole nine yards. With no fire place or mantle, and the sole parent within the ethos of the Christmas tradition, in a vegetarian family at that, I know what I create will not be exactly like the holidays of my childhood. But perhaps this is the key – blending planning and spontaneity, new traditions and old, to drop into that same Christmas spirit in a slightly new way with my children.
When expectation and busy-ness arise, notice the tendency to shift into avoidance. Bah Humbug! In my first few years with my daughter, I did avoid stepping into the role of holiday parent. I spend the first Christmas with baby at my parent’s place, leaving our own home tree-less and dark for the week. Over the next years of her pre-school life, I spent winters in India. We didn’t mention the holiday much to our daughter, and celebrated with ice cream sundaes at a Rajput palace terrace one year. With an 18 month-old and out of the country, it is as simple as that, “Oh, it’s Christmas day, let’s have a sundae!” The year my daughter turned three, and I was in late pregnancy, due on the solstice, I had no choice but to shift into an earlier preparation for the holidays at home in Canada. I went out to buy a few simple decorations and lights for a tree, and asked my sister for two of our simplest tried and true cookie recipes. At 39, it was going to be my first full-blown Christmas in my own home. Would I be able to maintain my enthusiasm for the holidays, while finally having to do some of the real work?
I have! I’m five years in, and still leaning into the holidays. How can we get back to a gentle savouring of the holidays, knowing that there is an increased busyness, increased expectation, and frankly, expense? I chalk it up to mindful appreciation balanced with keeping it simple. This is a blend of a top-down approach complete with perspective shifts and check-ins, and a bottom-up approach with practical strategies for relieving stress. To me these both implicate and inspire each other.
Let’s start with the practical.
Who had not admired the prepared family member who started squirrelling away holiday gifts in July? Yes, starting early definitely decreases the hassle of having to decide upon, purchase and wrap presents at the very last minute when the malls are at their most crowded, certain items will be sold out and you have other things to do to get ready to celebrate. But without foregoing the fun and spontaneity of holiday browsing and shopping during the actual holidays, you can still relieve the inconvenience and panic of super-last-minute shopping. Put pen to paper today and identify those for whom you need/want to buy gifts, brainstorm gift ideas and when and where you’ll find time to get them.
As I mentioned, I have seven nieces and nephews. Without doubt, part of the stress of the holidays is the extra expense. As we’re already into December, and if you’re reading this, you are likely not a planner by nature, so it is too late to talk budgeting. That said, there may still be time for a strategy my siblings and I have found really helpful: gifting to nieces and nephews in rotation. Let’s face it, after gifts from parents, grandparents and the Jolly Old Elf, a present from one aunt rather than two is not going to be missed by the kids. But the savings to you in time and money are significant.
If mall fever is the thing that causes you the most stress over the holidays, and you feel disconnected from the box store experience, or question their ethics, shop locally and make it convenient too. Shopping in local, independent stores often provides a neighbourly experience and on a human scale. Last year, I bought most of my gifts from an independent children’s bookstore. Not only was there cider at the door of the wooden storefront, but they featured books by local authors, and I was able to shop at leisure in a cozy environment and get good advice from someone who truly cared about children’s literature.
I know, if you have relatives who live a distance, shopping locally and shipping the presents just doubles the cost (or takes value away from the kids) and is a last-minute gifter’s nightmare. But I have found a solution that has given me a lot of pleasure over the years. Rather than clicking automatically onto an Internet retailer, I call a boutique in the town where my relatives live. When I make a call to Woodbury Mountain Toys, I feel the slower pace of life carry over the phone line; I picture the cheerful, painted wooden houses peeking out of the green-top mountains as I read out my sister’s address. The shop keeper says she thinks she knows my sister. When I hang up, I feel the warmth of a holiday interaction and my shopping for the Vermont cousins is done!
With this, I feel myself leaning into the holidays already! And yet, I’m aware that these practical solutions in and of themselves are not a fix-all. In fact, I can see that they would only minimally change things without the ultimate dropping into the experience which is the essence of mindful living. Truthfully, my list-making, July shopping relatives are not less stressed or more enjoying of the season. This is what turned me into a last minute shopper in the first place – my insistence that holiday magic comes from being lit up, and super present to the moment.
One of the hallmarks of mindfulness is being with what is. As the energy of the holidays ramps up to a frenzy, what does this mean in terms of mindfulness. Putting ourselves on notice to drop into the spirit of abiding presence even more this season.
Whenever you feel the tension of to-doing, or a resistance to increased holiday traffic or extra engagements, take a few minutes to come back to the breath, and just be in the body. Busy-ness creates a heady feeling that life is spinning out of control. Just stop and give yourself a few minutes of nurturance amid the chaos every hour if you can. During those few minutes, take your mind completely off-line of worry or complaint. Be with the sensations of the body and with the enjoyment of the feeling of the breath as it moves through the body. I know you know this. Just give yourself the gift of a three-minute breathing break several times a day.
Savour (even when there’s aversion)
On your way home from work, school, the shops in the evening, slow your pace slightly, look around, and notice perhaps the crispness of the air, the sound of the crystals in the flakes of snow as they fall, or if you’re not in a place that is this quiet, perhaps the view of the fluffy flakes illuminated by a street lamp.
Notice any seasonal decorations, natural or artificial, specific to one culture, or universal. Notice any aversion toward a certain type of decoration or what may appear to you to be excessive or over-the-top, and try even for a moment to see it in another way, saving the environmental pointers for another time, or turn it into service by writing a blog post on how to celebrate with less of a footprint). For us in the northern hemisphere, the colourful lights are a symbol of warmth and illumination in the darkening days approaching the winter solstice. The large air-puffed Frosty the Snowman on a neighbouring lawn could remind you of the lightness of how children play in the snow.
If you find yourself railing against carols in the mall so early in December, notice that, and just listen to the sound of it without labeling or describing. Listen to the notes and the harmonies. If this comes up because you don’t even celebrate Christmas, notice all of the carols which relate to snow, being together, bringing nature in or celebrating the greens of the season, spruce trees, holly and cedar wreaths. (If you’re from a warmer clime surrounded by carols about snow, sorry, that’s a whole other level of de-contextualization to deal with!)
Enjoy the smells and sounds and tastes of the season, get nostalgic if that’s what comes up. Let it all in!
Even if you haven’t celebrated actively for many years, try leaning into the holiday season by choosing a few activities that make celebrating meaningful to you, and planning to make time to enjoy them. Here are a few suggestions for resuscitating a meaningful season.
- Baking is therapeutic – the sense of mastery in actually making cookies or tarts, the nurturing smell of sweets in the oven!
- Attend a children’s holiday concert at a school. I love the multi-faith winter concerts that preschools and primary schools often put on. Even if you don’t have children, find out if you can join friends or relatives for a school event. They might not think to ask you or consider you would be interested.
- If you are interested in Christmas culturally or just enjoy the lighting of the candles though don’t consider yourself religious, this is a great time of year to actually go to church, no questions asked. Churches expect to have one-timers to their services on Christmas Eve, or for the carol services hosted earlier in December also. Find out what is happening in your area, and consider singing along with a choir for free (or by donation) in a local church. For people on a tight budget, this is a way you can go to what in many cases will be a very polished performance by a choir without buying tickets to a concert venue. And singing really does make you feel better. Collective singing and chanting have been proven to release oxytocin, the bonding, feel-good hormone.
- Consider heading out to a community tree-lighting ceremony, or other winter festival.
- If you’re without family for the holidays, you might want to find ways to volunteer with an organization to help others and have fun doing it, whether it is distributing food baskets, helping to prepare or serve a community dinner or joining a group to sing at a retirement residence. It is a perfect time of year to join a group or to volunteer at a meaningful one-time event.
There are so many satisfying ways that communities come together over the holidays. If your mind turns to complaining about the consumerism or commercialization of the season, direct it instead toward finding ways you can get involved with an activity you can really get behind. Ho Ho Ho!