De-Stress Your December

Prevention Magazine . December, 2004
Simple ways to deepen the meaning of the season.

I admit it. I was once as grouchy as Scrooge about the winter holidays. Even as my husband and I assembled bikes for the kids in the wee hours of Christmas morning (and yes, we were inevitably a few bolts short), I fretted over whether we were conveying the true spirit of the season or just training superconsumers. I dreaded the annual shopping and eating free-for-all that left us thinner in the wallet, fatter in the thighs, and exhausted from all the effort. By the time New Year’s Day finally rolled around each year, I was a basket case. Where was the sacred aspect? I wondered.

Of course, I wasn’t alone in my frazzled state. The holidays can be incredibly stressful for everyone, especially when we’re focused on the externals rather than the true meaning of the holy days and their promise of peace and renewal.

Over the years, my extended and blended Jewish/Christian family has gradually made the holidays more meaningful. We still give presents to the children, but we quit exchanging gifts among adults. Instead, each of us chooses a charity and gives money in the names of family and friends. I wish that I’d wised up sooner.

When my two boys were small, I would have had them make two Christmas/Hanukkah lists: one noting things they wanted for themselves, the other of things they wanted to give to less-fortunate children. It would have been a great time to get out the globe and think about life in other cultures as we made plans to fulfill their charity wish list.

But we did have some lively conversations and rituals that honored Judaism, Christianity, and the winter solstice. I remember how Hanukkah came alive one year after we lit the menorah and said the prayers. We started talking about miracles. The Hanukkah miracle was that a single, small pot of oil burned for eight nights instead of just one. But the true Hanukkah miracle, we decided after a surprisingly deep and touching conversation, is about a whole lot more than oil. It’s about remembering the mysterious force of grace that operates continuously in every life. Each of us talked about a time when grace touched us with help or healing. Small kids are so full of wonder and curiosity that a simple invitation to reflect on their lives often unleashes a torrent of excited stories, insights, and questions. This is the stuff that the best holiday memories are made of.

When Christmas came around that year, our discussions continued. What if the birth of the Christ child was also about the birth of love and newness in our own lives? We’d just moved to a different town that year, so we reflected on all the blessings that had entered our lives. That led to a great exchange about letting go of the old to make room for the new.

All the December holidays commemorate light in some way. And whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the winter solstice, or all of the above, you can take the occasion to clean out the old and make room for the birth of the new within you. It’s easy to talk about letting your own inner light shine, but it’s hard to feel that light glowing if your life is crammed with mental or physical clutter. To that end, I do a simple ritual every year that does wonders for clearing my inner space: I clean off my desk. Don’t laugh—it really works.

The process usually takes two half days, so I put them on my calendar. On the first half day, I go through the dusty piles of neglected responsibilities, culling all the letters, faxes, manuscripts, videos, CDs, books, and e-mails that I know I’m not going to get around to, despite my good intentions. The few items that are still important go into an immediate to-do pile. On the following half day of the Great Desk-Clearing Ritual, I attack the pile with vigor. When it has been vanquished, I write notes to a handful of people who have made a difference in my life during the year.

Finally, I think about my personal vision for the future and distill it into a mission statement for the year to come. I leave my desk clean on New Year’s Eve, except for the mission statement. This year, I’ll finish the ritual by reading it to my fiancé, Gordie; my three closest buddies; my wonderful staff, Luzie and Kathleen; and the kids. After all, they’re the ones who’ll likely hold my feet to the fire so that I follow through and complete the tasks that my heart knows I was put here to accomplish.

I recommend this ritual for its heart- and soul-clearing effects. Here are four additional suggestions to transform your holidays into holy days.

Create a charity box. This is a spot where everyone in the family drops loose change at the end of each day. At some point during the holidays—a perfect time would be when you exchange presents—decide what cause you’ll donate the money to next December.

Have a party with spiritual pizzazz. Invite 5 to 10 people and ask them to bring festive food and drink. Give each person a turn to speak without interruption about the lessons they’ve learned in the past year. Then take a few minutes to write down old habits that each of you is ready to let go of, and burn the collected papers in a fireplace if you have one, or in another safe place.

Give out love coupons. Create them by hand from colored paper, or even design them on the computer. They can be good for stories and trips to the zoo for kids; home-cooked, romantic candlelit dinners (or more amorous activities) for spouses; walks in special places with friends. Foot rubs, back rubs, concerts, chores…the possible delights are endless.

Take a retreat day 2 or 3 weeks before the holidays. This means time alone to reflect, walk in nature, do some spiritual reading or writing, and be silent. It may seem crazy when there’s so much to do, but a centered, peaceful you is the best gift you can give to your family this—or any—holiday season.


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