This season that’s supposed to be filled with joy is also (for some) full of pressures and stressors: The pursuit of the perfect gift; preparations for holiday guests; the desire to give our children everything they want—and trying to do it all without breaking the bank.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the commercialism of the holidays while losing sight of the joy—to find yourself stressed instead of singing, rushed instead of relaxed, and too steeped in the gimmes to enjoy giving.
However, it is possible to give and receive and find real joy during this season without falling prey to the potential pitfalls. Although none are fool-proof, there are a few things I try to do (and I do some better than others) to stay focused on what really matters to me: my family, my friends, my faith, not taking anything I have for granted, and giving more generously.
Begin with gratitude. And fortunately, Christmas is preceded by a holiday that’s all about appreciation. Thanksgiving can be a launching pad for a holiday season that’s focused more on love, togetherness, gratitude and family.
I look for opportunities to be grateful. Each day I offer a gratitude prayer, I try to think of three to five things I’m thankful for. And I resist the urge to ask for more—unless it’s for someone other than myself. There are no rules to what makes it on the gratitude list. Today, for instance, I’m grateful for quality time with my family—sharing a meal and going to the movies. I’m grateful for how a group trip I’m planning is coming together. I’m also grateful for my health, for the dance class I took on Saturday, and for having a husband who is generous, kind, and funny.
I also skip the shopping and sales when I can. Gather up clothes, toys, appliances or anything you can donate to a shelter or someone in need. Do whatever you can to pare down your excesses instead of adding to them. Perhaps you don’t have money or resources to donate. Can you spend time with someone who might be lonely at this time of year? Try visiting a local nursing home or assisted care facility. Call a friend or family member you’ve been meaning to catch up with forever. See if there’s a blood drive in your neighborhood and literally save a life.
If you have kids, they can get involved as well. Instead of making a wish list of things they want, they can gather clothes, books, and toys to give away or even choose something new to buy for someone less fortunate. Find a local charity that puts together gifts for children in need or in hospitals and make it a project you and your children do together. Older kids can pick an act of service to do for a neighbor—raking the lawn, walking the dog, cleaning the car. It’s not so much about what gets done or given; it’s more about changing your mental posture from one of wanting more to one of wanting to give more.
Another way to have a happier holiday season is to, whenever possible, avoid comparison and competition, because it often leads to jealousy, and envy is an enemy of joy. Don’t worry about the size of your tree or how your house is decorated compared to your neighbors’. Don’t try to impress or outdo the celebrations of your friends and family members. In fact, hopefully you don’t feel obligated to do anything. Instead, do those things that will be utter joy for you. Remember, there is nothing that you must do for the holidays. There are plenty of holiday traditions, conventions, and expectations, but no laws. If you’re only decorating, cooking, hosting, or shopping because you don’t want to disappoint others, then stop, breathe, and take it down a notch. Gifts should not be given out of a sense of obligation, but rather a genuine desire and joy.
Another way I try to prevent getting swept up in the commercial wave is to avoid ads. There are so many things we wouldn’t want if no one told us to want them, so I try to avoid picking up any new desires for the holidays by steering clear of advertisements whenever possible.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to Christmas gifts, but the larger a family gets, the more gift giving can become overwhelming (and expensive). I like what my in-laws do: First, they agree on a gift cost limit that is comfortable for everyone. Names are then drawn from a hat, and everyone is only responsible for one gift. It’s a family Secret Santa. We’ve also been known to throw in a few prank gifts here and there, which makes the gift opening ceremony quite entertaining.
Some families may choose to do away with store-bought gifts in lieu of letters, quality time, or something handmade. Again, it’s less about what you do or give and more about how you do or give it. Every individual and family can find the balance that’s right for them so that giving isn’t a chore or (worse) a financial burden.
Because, at the end of the day, the holiday season is meant to be an opportunity for joy, reverence, reflection, and celebration. So whether your house honors Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza, I encourage you to look for ways to focus less on material things and more on those invaluable things like love, gratitude, and generosity. It will take some effort and intentionality, but the reward will be a happier holiday season for you and your family.