Every year I am surprised by the number of people who dread Christmas and wish they could skip it altogether. What disturbs me is that these aren’t Scrooges who hate kindness and generosity; no, the mass hysteria of the country’s biggest shopping holiday generates in otherwise decent folks overwhelming sensations of chaos, weariness and financial burden. Christmas can’t be enjoyable if it’s a huge hassle, a frantic rush or a spending frenzy that leaves you feeling like you’ve been run over by The Polar Express. I can say whole-heartedly that I love Christmas (trees, lights, movies, music, cookies and pretty much everything else). I’ll bet you can recall a time when you had similar feelings, so it breaks my heart to see Christmas becoming the source of such bitterness and ba-humbug. I’m also fed up with rhetorical “peace on earth” utterances crammed between hectic trips to the local mall. If you are one of these “Christmas Crazies,” don’t bother singing carols or sending cards espousing peace, love or joy – you won’t achieve the attitude by parroting the words. Peace is not a pipe dream, nor is it merely the absence of war; it is an internal state of calm and contentment that can be neither dominated nor diminished by external events. What most people experience between Halloween and New Year’s Day is the exact opposite of peace, and the word loses meaning when used disingenuously. Everyone wishes everyone else peace, but nobody ever seems to find it. This, my friends, is a real tragedy.
In the interest of fairness, I will disclose here that I do not have children. Some readers will now tune me out because they imagine that without their whining rugrats, they too could spend Christmas eve listening to Bing Crosby and sipping spiked eggnog by the fire. Though I will concede that kids are a major factor in merriment meltdown, it is materialism that poses the main threat to Christmas spirit. A serene season is feasible with or without munchkins because true peace is impervious to bribes and begging. I have as many friends and family members as the average American and yet I remain unfazed by the pressures to shop, spend, buy, wrap, stress, give, return and ultimately collapse in a heap pleading with St. Nick for a large bottle of valium and a two-week extension. People can point to lots of reasons the Christmas holidays are for them so vexing, but don’t blame it on the kids, the in-laws or anyone else, because 99% of your pain is self-inflicted. Hey, look at the bright side: 99% OF YOUR PAIN IS SELF-INFLICTED!! That’s right, you brought it upon yourself and only you can make it go away. In terms of commercialism, all Christmas Crazies fall somewhere into the following two categories:
1) You are too kind. For you, it is truly more enjoyable to give than to receive, and your holidays would be empty without the privilege of surprising people with presents. This doesn’t initially sound like a negative, but it can be downright dangerous at Christmastime. You are generous and like to give nice things, not out of compulsion but from a sincere desire to please your family and friends. Perhaps you have a special soft spot when it comes to buying gifts for your children, and no one would begrudge you that joy in moderation. However, your benevolent heart must coordinate with your brain! You need a realistic limit on the amount of time and money that you are comfortably able to spend without breaking your back or the bank. The suggestions provided in the forthcoming posts may make it possible for you to have your fruitcake and eat it, too.
2) You are a pushover. Not that you don’t enjoy brightening people’s Christmas with nice gifts, but your head is spinning because you lack the gumption to say “no.” Have your children ever gotten the old “if all your friends jumped off a bridge…” response? It’s time to practice what you preach. There is no “minimum gifting” law requiring you to buy a certain number of items for a certain number of recipients with a certain amount of money. Your social status and self-worth are neither secured nor destroyed by what you purchase for whom for how much. Friends, co-workers and relatives will get gads of gifts (no doubt from schmucks who haven’t read this blog), and contrary to what retailers would suggest, your children will survive without receiving any of the items they request. You may encounter some pouting from young and old alike, but this results from your having bought enough junk each year to render both Tommy and Grandma preferred stockholders in Amazon.com. It won’t happen overnight, but your children will come to accept and appreciate whatever type of holiday celebration you provide. By example, you can lead even your peers to turn their Christmas season right side-up because secretly, they too are seeking an “out” clause. Part of you longs for the freedom to enjoy simple family traditions, doing as much or as little as makes you truly happy and leaves you with no regrets come January. So either (A) break the cycle of pandering to peers and pygmies and being bossed about by Big Box stores or (B) continue chasing the shallow, temporal “peace” that comes and goes in the instant after taxing your credit cards and your sanity to the limit.
Aside from materialism, the other cause of holiday anxiety attacks is your own extended family. If one side of yours lives across the country, consider this a blessing at Christmas since you aren’t physically capable of spending quality time in both places – and therefore have a good excuse not to. Most of you probably live within 50 to 200 miles of two sets of in-laws who are both vying for time with you and the grandkids on Christmas day, and who may fully expect you spread yourself paper thin to accommodate them. This dilemma is equally difficult for the overly kind and the pushovers because emotions run high and feelings get hurt in a flash. The best policy (though it requires guts) is to have a heart-to-heart with all relatives well in advance of Christmas. Remind them that many people want you to visit and you are trying to be fair and reasonable in your planning. Gently inform them that guilt-trips are unkind, unwelcome and with any such attempt, that relative will forfeit a visit entirely. (Forgive me for sounding harsh, but I detest manipulative family members.) You know how it feels to cave under those demands until you snap and risk saying things you can’t take back? Comparatively, informing Grandma up front sounds like a walk in the park. Now repeat this to yourself until it sticks: I cannot be everywhere at once, over-scheduling leads to exhaustion, and guilt-trips by family members will not be tolerated.
To get started, you will need the following: self-control, common sense, creativity, a strict budget, some advanced planning, your heart not on your sleeve and your tail not between your legs. Focus on what Christmas should be for your family, setting healthy boundaries to maintain the season’s purity. Think outside the gift box and create your own unique holiday traditions that will evoke envious sighs from those who observe them. Refuse to allow peer pressure and advertising indoctrination to fill you with dread. If you’re ready to make a change, stay tuned! Over the next few weeks, I’ll offer 12 ideas to help jumpstart your own Christmas revolution. Be sure to share your clever ideas so others might be inspired. Let’s reclaim the true peace and joy of Christmas, making it less of a nightmare and more like a Norman Rockwell painting. Simplify and discover that Christmas indeed has a magic all its own.