Stress and the Holidays

The holidays can be a really stressful time for a number of reasons. Shorter days with less sunlight, plus colder temperatures, beckon us to spend more time indoors in hibernation mode. Some people (including myself) experience Seasonal Affective Disorder as a result of the reduced exposure to natural light. Farm crops tend to be less abundant, as the land enters into a cycle of restoration and preparation for the spring.

Yet, in the midst of nature’s attempts for us to slow down, our busy lifestyles encourage us to hurry up and rush to the next holiday gathering, school event, or year-end work deadline. When my mother was still around (before her illness), she found the December holiday season to be the busiest time of the year due to school choir concerts, Christmas services at church, and parties (including ones where she was hired to provide music).

When I was in school, on top of all those other activities, I also had to turn in term papers, take final exams, and perform for music juries. I considered myself lucky when I managed not to become sick with a cold or other seasonal illness during this time of the year.

Then there were the expectations that I buy or make gifts for family and friends, as well as send out holiday greeting cards. Between the parties and the shopping, I usually ended up feeling frazzled by the time that I reached New Year’s Eve. Over time, I found that I preferred to spend New Year’s Eve at home, just to have a break from all of the activity. Yes, I’m an introvert.

Amidst all of this stress, it might be difficult to remember to practice self-care and enjoy some quiet time. Or perhaps worse, there can be a frustration when we want to take that time for ourselves but feel like we can’t.

This year, I’m taking a completely different approach. I’ll be spending the holidays in a meditative retreat. Rather than rushing from event to event, I’m going to slow down in a way that my mind and body craves. I’m curious to see what this experience teaches me and what emerges from the process of rebelling against the societal pressure to speed up right when nature is encouraging us to slow down.

Not everyone has the luxury of retreating from the holiday busy-ness, though. In fact, work, school, and family obligations can make this nearly impossible. There are still some basic things we can do to take care of ourselves during the holiday season, while going on with our otherwise busy lives.

Here are some tips to survive and thrive during this season:

  1. Working out or getting some kind of daily movement activity can keep us from putting on holiday pounds.
  2. Eating nutritionally balanced meals can give us energy and keep us functioning at our peak.
  3. Getting adequate sleep can help fight off seasonal colds.
  4. Saying no, rather than agreeing to participate in every single social obligation, can give us a sense of empowerment when it feels like we have no control over what’s happening in our lives.
  5. Choosing not to engage in lengthy political debates with relatives who have different viewpoints can keep us from getting angry or frustrated when we could instead be enjoying time with family.
  6. Practicing yoga can increase our flexibility when our bodies might be otherwise hunched over at a desk working on end-of-year deadlines.
  7. Writing in a gratitude journal can remind us of the many things that we’re thankful for.
  8. Making art or music can nurture our creative passions when we’re feeling stifled.
  9. Setting aside time for loved ones can help us to reconnect when we’re feeling isolated.
  10. Cutting back on gift-giving can reduce financial stress, resist the hyper-consumerism of our culture, and help the environment, too.
  11. Taking 15 minutes a day to meditate can clear our heads and keep us grounded when we’re feeling overwhelmed by a rush of activity. For me personally, this is my most important self-care practice during stressful times.

Even if you can’t do all of these things, perhaps it would be helpful to choose just three of them to focus on during this season. And if nothing else, closing one’s eyes and taking three deep breaths can be a centering practice to bring us back into the present moment when the mind is racing with thoughts about everything that needs to get done.

If all else fails, I remind myself that whatever I’m experiencing will eventually pass, or at least change. A few moments of focused breathing is usually enough to make a difference in my mood, and when I’m at my best, I find that I can actually appreciate the holiday stress.

Reconciling the Holidays

I originally intended to write this blog for Thanksgiving, but that didn’t happen. Rather than wait another year, I’m going forward with it now and extending the ideas to include other holidays and observances as well.

One thing I’ve struggled with over the years is how to celebrate holidays that are meaningful for my own family upbringing while staying mindful and respectful of those whose experiences are different. I want to honor my cultural traditions, but I’m also aware that the very events I’m celebrating can be painful for those who have been marginalized, discriminated against, and abused by the predominant cultural powers-that-be. 

Ironically, those who have the most cultural privilege can at times be the ones speaking out the loudest about how they are somehow being oppressed. Take the “War on Christmas” for example. Christmas is everywhere, almost all year round, and yet when religious minorities ask for public representation and inclusion, it’s somehow turned into an assault by the “secular left” that allegedly wants to turn our nation into a bunch of godless heathens

A couple of days ago, I stumbled upon an article that points out an important but inconvenient truth: Christians (including those who feel they are being oppressed and victimized when some person innocently says “Happy Holidays”) have had a lot to do with the secularization of the Christmas season. 

Think about what Thanksgiving used to be like. It was a day for family to gather together, try not to argue for several hours, eat a big meal, and maybe watch some football. But due to ever-increasing consumer demands to get a jumpstart on seeking out stuff that we don’t really need, retail stores have started opening on Thanksgiving in order to stretch out Black Friday like a belly that’s had too much turkey and dressing. 

Reports about this year’s “Black Thursday” frenzy were disheartening. In one Texas store, a man actually pulled out a gun. Even if he perceived it as self-defense, innocent others could have been killed if he’d actually fired the weapon.

This is a far cry from the nativity story in which Jesus was born not in a luxurious home with a big-screen TV and gaming console but in a place that sounds more like a homeless encampment. So if we’re going to talk about a War on Christmas, let’s look at ourselves before pointing fingers at others. We are our own worst enemies when it comes to consumerism and the secularization of holidays. 

All of that aside, I am excited when someone wishes me a “Happy Chanukah” or a “Festivus for the Rest of Us.” I don’t take it as an insult or a means for others to impose their spiritual practices onto me, but rather, as a reminder that not everyone is exactly like me. And that’s a good thing. Trust me on that one.

Furthermore, I could technically choose to get offended if someone wishes me a Merry Christmas before December 25th. After all, we’re currently in the season of Advent, a time of anticipation. How dare we pretend like Christmas is already here when, from a spiritual standpoint, we should be practicing rituals of solemn preparation. “Happy Holidays” is indeed appropriate right now because it’s not yet Christmas. We might also do well to reflect upon the way that the word “holiday” derives from “holy day.” 

Rather than alienate those around me by demanding that they adhere to my interpretation of various holidays, I find that it’s more beneficial to celebrate with others regardless of the different ways that we choose to do so. If I’m at an event and a friend tells me that another tradition is personally significant, I’d like to honor that tradition. I enjoy learning about other cultures. It’s fun and often deepens my understanding of my own heritage. This year I attended a party for the Muslim festival Eid. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be celebrating after a month of fasting during Ramadan, and food tasted better than it would have otherwise.

That brings me back to Thanksgiving. You see, not everyone experiences Thanksgiving as a positive day. Some find it painful because it brings up memories of dysfunctional family dynamics, while others can recall specific sad experiences. I almost lost my mother on Thanksgiving in 2007, and while I could go on to celebrate the fact that I was able to resuscitate her, I spent the remaining holidays during her lifetime worrying that another crisis would occur on a supposedly festive day and haunt me for years to come.

Then there are those who see Thanksgiving as an annual reminder that their own cultural heritage is not being respected or valued. Indigenous peoples are subjected to comments that basically send a message of “Native Americans should just accept that we [of European heritage] won.” “Deal with it.” “They should be more like us.” Rarely are those actual words uttered, but the implicit attitude is still present, sometimes preceded by “I’m not a racist, but…” (Note: When someone feels the need to qualify a statement in that way, it indicates at least a slight awareness that the following remarks might indeed be racially insensitive.) 

For a long time, a part of me felt guilty for continuing to celebrate holidays that caused pain for friends (and complete strangers) whom I love. But as I’ve continued to mull on this notion of cultural privilege, I’ve found that guilt doesn’t serve me well. It causes me to respond not from a place of sensitivity but one of obligation. And that’s not where I ultimately want to be. Yes, I do feel certain obligations toward others, but those duties are consciously and freely chosen.

I still celebrate Thanksgiving with my family but try to do so in a mindful and humble way. I don’t sit down at the dinner table and launch into a rant about oppression, but I might mention it at other times if it feels appropriate and non-confrontational. I’m not always successful in my efforts to be graceful in how I frame discussions, but I’ll keep working on it.

And yes, I’ll celebrate Christmas. I might even do a little shopping, although I’m trying to make more gifts myself and spend my money at locally owned small businesses instead of corporate mega-stores where employees are coerced and intimidated into working for minimum wage on holidays.

I think that the secret to observing holidays in an intentional way is to recognize the “both/and” places in between instead of automatically dividing the world into “this-or-that.” I can celebrate Christmas and yet still pay tribute to other religious and cultural traditions. There is room for all of us, if we are willing to make the effort. It’s worth the effort. Love is not finite, and when we expand our horizons, we’ll find that the holy-days can be a time to honor the many traditions that people observe in this world.

At the end of this, if anyone is thinking, “That would be great but only if people would stop trying to destroy Christmas,” I have one request. Please stop making yourself a victim. The only way you are going to lose Christmas is if you personally choose to focus on the consumerism of the holiday season and ignore the spiritual aspects of this time of the year, when the days are shorter, the nights are longer, and we have more hours to contemplate our relationship with the world around us. Let’s honor the miracle of an impoverished baby born in a stable (no crib for a bed) who went on to share a message of love and humility. That’s what Christmas should be about, and that love is worth sharing with others in whatever guise it appears. 

Happy Chanukah! 
Festivus for the Rest of Us!
Merry Christmas!
Happy Kwanzaa!
Seasons Greetings!
Peace on Earth!