How do you feel as you anticipate the holiday season? Are you looking forward to it, expecting to grin and bear it, or a little of both? Most of us intend to observe the holidays with joy. Yet the holiday season can easily become overloaded with busyness, stress, hassle, chaos, late nights, and early mornings. Too much-ness shoves aside the space and time we hope to set aside for peace on earth and in our homes.
It’s complicated, isn’t it? During the holiday season, in addition to lights and music, decorations and celebrations, you might also face grief over departed loved ones or sadness about not being able to gather with those who live far away. When you do gather, you might find yourself in conversation with difficult people on volatile topics. One glance at your gift list could trigger a tidal wave of financial stress. Crowded parking lots and even more crowded malls, too many people jostling bodies and packages, can make one feel claustrophobic. When you’re tired, resisting temptations – read: all those sweets dropped off in the breakroom – seems impossible. You might feel roped into too much time with others or not enough time with people who light up your heart … including yourself. Expectations bruise easily in this season of high expectations. Also, depending on where you live, you could also suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly abbreviated SAD).
The holidays certainly come packaged with challenges, and yet opportunities for joy are also tucked inside the ribbons and wrapping. How do we balance work and rest, challenge and celebration, during this season? After years of doing my best and fumble-fa-la-la-ing along the way, I’ve come up with some questions to help us Marie Kondo our holiday activities and spark joy.
What is non-negotiable?
Mark off certain dates on the calendar now if you haven’t already. You can’t skip Lily’s school concert or the white elephant exchange party for work, for example. You will also want to prioritize events that fill your soul, such as church services, the local Live Nativity, or service projects. Have a conversation with your family to hear their thoughts on non-negotiables as well. Our family has a standing tradition of unwrapping pajamas on Christmas Eve and our kids would be so disappointed if this year we gave them socks instead. You also wouldn’t want to surprise your Christmas Day guests by serving a store-bought smoked ham instead of the turkey they’ve come to expect.
What can be negotiated?
You receive three party invitations for the same weekend – how do you maintain peace with too many good options? Drop in at one party on your way to another, or schedule a walk-and-talk with one of the hostesses to enjoy time together without the party crowd. Or just say no and reach out after the holidays; reasonable people understand that no one can do everything. Additionally, with family buy-in you could create a gifting plan, or cook fewer side dishes at holiday meals, or prepare informal meals instead of fancy ones.
Throughout my childhood, my dad was a captain with Pan American Airlines. Flying internationally meant he was gone for weeks at a time, often over holidays. You can’t change the date of the holiday, but you can change when you observe the holiday. My family regularly shifted our celebrations in order to enjoy them together. Though I can tell you we did this, I don’t recall ever feeling sad about having to wait – and it’s not like children are known for their patience (certainly not this child). It was always a good day when Dad came home, and even better when Dad came home and we celebrated Thanksgiving or Christmas.
What can be edited?
You want to decorate, but do you need to display each and every decoration you’ve accumulated? During a recent rainstorm, a small branch fell from our pine tree; the same week my son used our green glass votive cups for a Scouting event; I put the branch and votives together on our fireplace mantel, and by early November I may already be on my way to simplified holiday decorating.
You want to send cards, but could you send to a shorter list? You want to give gifts, but fewer gifts can suffice. Or consider a gift-in-kind such as a donation to charity in your mom’s name, and then give Mom a card with information about the charity and what your gift will support.
What can you do ahead?
Like Santa, make your lists and check them twice, and then break them into manageable parts. What’s on your holiday menus? Can you ask guests to bring a salad, stuffing, or cranberry sauce? What could you buy now and stick in the freezer to simplify week-of preparations, like green beans, peas, or cranberries? Set dates for when you’d like to have shopping, wrapping, and mailing done, and set aside a few minutes daily to make progress.
How can you be more mindful?
Prioritize healthy routines, like keeping a normal wake/sleep rhythm, eating your veggies, and getting exercise. A daily 20-minute walk can make a huge difference in your physical and mental health; even better if you pray as you walk. Drink a big glass of water and eat a healthy snack before going out. And give yourself another 20-minute break each day – even four 5-minute breaks will help – to sit quietly, seek beauty in your surroundings, write or draw your feelings, read something thoughtful (like the Bible), and breathe deeply.
What can you subtract?
Saying no is A-Okay! Anything that didn’t make your non-negotiables list isn’t as important as allowing space to enjoy the things that are essential. Also, make a commitment to stay honest with yourself: something that seems non-negotiable today might not be in the moment, especially if it comes at the cost of your joy. If you feel overwhelmed, be willing to ask yourself what you need.
What adds joy?
Obviously your answers to each of these questions will be personal for you, your family, and your circumstances. However, this question tops them all. In my life, I need daily intentional time to pray and process my thoughts and feelings; morning walks around the neighborhood with my three dogs and, if he’s available, my husband; and regular quality time making memories with my family, especially if we’re talking and laughing through whatever we’re doing.
Those are my joy-filled non-negotiables. Which means I’ll try to add holiday events as they support my ongoing priorities, like an evening family stroll to view Christmas lights in our neighborhood, or inviting family to join me in the kitchen or in the process of stuffing and stamping cards. It has been our annual practice to light Advent candles on Sunday evenings as we reflect on a Scripture passage together, but we may shift to another day/time of the week to accommodate schedules.
Taking time to consider your holiday plans before you find yourself in the thick of things can help you avoid overload and increase your joy in this season. Blessings to you, friends, and I wish you a joyful holiday season!
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