Advent is defined as the season of expectant waiting.
Boy, do we Americans suck at that.
I’m not just referring to us Christians who should be anticipating the celebration of the birth of Christ. I’m talking about all of us who celebrate the secular traditions of Christmas.
We take that which is supposed to be a joyous occasion and muck it all up beyond recognition until the joy is overwhelmed with stress, unmet expectations, spending money we don’t have, trying to impress people who don’t care, and abusing our bodies with overindulgence and lack of sleep.
Whether you are excited about Baby Jesus or not, we have an unquenchable capacity for excess that leaves us feeling disappointed, depressed, underappreciated, overweight, anxious, and exhausted. Our memories are just short enough that 11 months later, we are excited to do it wrong all over again.
And here you are, right in the middle of it. You might think this article is a couple of weeks too late. Where was this advice when we were cleaning the remaining meat off the turkey carcass at the end of November?
But here’s the thing about us humans: we wouldn’t have read this article a few weeks ago.
We need to be knee-deep in anything before we will accept that thing’s existence. When the stockings were still packed away neatly in the basement, we didn’t think we needed advice about navigating the holidays. Only when the clock seems to be working against us, we’ve let our belt out one notch, and we have foggy memories from the office Christmas party that we’d regret if only we could remember what we did—only then are we ready to admit how ridiculous our behavior truly is every December. Until we can’t breathe, we don’t even think about the importance of air.
So now this topic is relevant as the holidays suffocate us yet again.
I think the pressure and angst of the holidays bothers me more than many people because I’ve got a huge helping of Clark W. Griswold in me. There are so many things about Christmas that I truly love, so it is doubly disappointing when stress and grandiosity get in my way of happy holidays.
My expectations of joy and merriment are unrealistic, so I set myself up for failure to an exponential degree. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. I’ve had many a December end in a calamitous thud.
The Christmas tree is the perfect symbol of the holiday. My family and I trudge into the snow of the Colorado mountain woods, National Forest Service tree cutting permit in hand, to select the best of the scraggly, naturally imperfect evergreens growing crookedly. That’s evergreen, as in, forever green. We punish these trees for their resiliency in winter by bypassing the naked, brown oaks and maples, and killing the trees that look healthy in early December. We disrupt the ecosystem by cutting one with our rusty saw, and dragging it to the gravel road and tying it to the roof of our family sleigh.
One moment, it is a home for a family of squirrels, and the next it is rotting slowly in the corner of our living room. And a few weeks later, the oxygen generating, erosion preventing, creature protecting, and environment sustaining cornerstone of nature is discarded with all the reverence of that aforementioned turkey carcass from last month.
Don’t get me wrong—our annual Christmas tree cutting is my favorite day of the year, full of family and tradition. But if you’d never before heard of Christmas, and someone explained that tradition to you, you’d be more than a little perplexed. Since these traditions are among our first and most pleasant memories, we probably miss the symbolism. The thing we decorate and illuminate ends the month as an unwanted burden leaving behind a mess of needles and sap, and it takes lots of time and effort to restore our homes and our lives to their pre-festivity condition and mentality. The tree lies dead on the curb, and we are filled with disappointment and regret that we are too tired to manage. ‘Tis the season!
It’s mid-December, and you are right in the thick of it. It’s not too early for you to pay attention, nor is it too late for you to pull your holidays out of the ditch.
I’m no psychologist specializing in flaming festive disaster avoidance, but I’ve spent more than my fair share of Januaries wishing I’d done December differently.
Here are my six tips for making Christmas merry again:
1. Overeating is Unavoidable and Self-Berating is Absurd
December is full of neighborhood and office parties featuring confectionery creations, a cacophony of carbs, shimmering sugary sinfulness, and an endless collection of chocolate. Mundane events and gatherings are never complete until we try to inflict diabetes on each other. So we indulge, and then we self-loath. The temptations have us surrounded, and resistance is futile.
Rather than beat ourselves up for the inevitable, let’s look at the treats of the season with perspective and balance. Humans are weak. We are going to put things in our mouths in December that we’ll regret before we’ve had a chance to digest. Let’s lose the regret, celebrate the people who are trying to fatten us up, and feel the love that went into the sweetest of treats.
Let’s make it about balance. You don’t eat three meals a day in December at holiday parties, do you? Why not give a little extra attention to eating the foods that fuel our bodies for breakfast and lunch on the days we know we are hors devours-ing dinner at a Christmas party? We’ll get back on track. What do we think January is for, anyway? Dietary indulgence is inevitable. Why make shame and self-hatred the collateral damage?
2. Stick to Stockings as a Sign of Abundance
Piles of presents under that dead evergreen stir feelings of anticipation and good fortune on the days leading up to Christmas, but the aftermath leaves us feeling greedy, materialistic, broke, and, at least in my case, a little sick to my stomach. It’s too much.
Christmas has been too much for many of us for a long time. It is not healthy to try to keep up with the Joneses. The money we overspend on Christmas is a problem. But it’s not the biggest problem. When we reduce our love for our people down to trinkets and toys, we devalue the power of the relationship. We love our people. How is one-upping each other healthy? It’s as though we don’t have the emotional capacity to indicate in words or actions how we feel about each other, so we let Macy’s or Amazon try to do it for us.
To me, gluttonous gift-giving isn’t just a sign of affluence. It’s a sign of relationship bankruptcy.
In my family, we are trying something new this year. We are stuffing each other’s stockings, and that’s it. No expensive presents that take until late afternoon to finish unwrapping. I realize that lots of expensive things come in small, stocking-sized packages, but I’m hoping my family stays in the spirit of the stockings-only gift giving this year. In a place and at a time when human connection is so deficient and elusive, maybe we should put down the damn credit cards and give someone a hug.
3. Celebrate Sober
I’m a recovering alcoholic who spends most of my words on the topic of sobriety. So, it should come as no surprise to my regular readers that this topic makes my list for saving Christmas.
Look, I’m not calling you an alcoholic or suggesting you commit to a lifetime of sobriety. I could go on for millions of words on that topic. Actually, I already have. This is about getting the most fun and fond memories out of the next couple of weeks. You don’t have to be an alcoholic to drink too much and do things you regret. You don’t have to be addicted to have a couple of extra drinks, thus reducing your patience and resulting in disagreements with the family you are supposed to love. You won’t miss out on anything by being present, sleeping soundly, and waking without a dehydration-induced headache.
Is Christmas about Jesus for you? Is it about spending time with friends and family? Why do you keep making it about sloppiness and regret?
4. Make Time for Memories, and Sit with Sadness
Christmas is an emotional time for so many of us. Hopefully, you have lots of fond memories of time spent celebrating and anticipating. But once we’ve lived for a while, some level of grief is certain to plague us during the holidays. Memories of Christmases past surely include people who are no longer in our lives, and that can’t help but bring us sadness.
Rather than trying to deflect and ignore the grief, spend some time in reflection this December. Be alone. Be quiet. Be in prayerful or meditational remembrance of our loves lost. Longing and missing are not unfortunate burdens. They are the consequences of a life well lived with an open heart. Only when we run from the emotions, and refuse to give them their place in the season, does the sadness turn to depression. No matter how busy you think you are, take time to remember the relationships we should never forget.
5. Nobody Cares about You
Okay, that’s a harsh subtitle, and it’s probably not true. But when we start sizing ourselves up against our friends and family as though they are competition, that sentiment is absolutely accurate. Are you worried about wearing the right clothes or having every hair in perfect place? Are you concerned that your gift isn’t good enough or your desert isn’t delicious enough? Do you fear that your mood isn’t as cheery and bright at it should be at the most wonderful time of the year? Do you think everyone will notice?
The truth is, most people share these concerns. But their concerns are about themselves, not you. They couldn’t care less about your sweater or your sugar cookies or the width of the smile on your face. Everyone is too worried about their own impressions projecting into the holiday scene to give a reindeer turd about yours.
Look, humans are necessarily self-centered. It’s a required preservation instinct, and it serves us well. Understanding that will serve you well, too. Be comfortable. Find joy in your connections and your vibe, and leave behind the worry about measuring up. For most of us, it takes a lot of practice to be comfortable in our own skin, but it is well worth the effort.
6. Give Yourself on Christmas Day
My very favorite part of the entire holiday season is volunteering on Christmas morning to serve my homeless neighbors here in Denver.
Sure, most of us give of ourselves in one way or another. Maybe you have a few charities with whom you share your abundance. Maybe you donate service hours in your community throughout the year. That’s great! Really, truly it is. Until three years ago, that described my involvement, too.
But then I was reluctantly convinced to help with a Christmas Day mission. What about my family? What about our December 25th traditions? That’s a very special day to be protected and shared with our closest collection of our people. What I learned when my wife signed us up to serve three Christmas mornings ago, is that our new tradition is way better than staring at a dead evergreen and opening excessively until mid-afternoon.
The feeling of serving selflessly on Christmas morning is indescribable, so I won’t even try. You’ve got to get out there and feel it for yourself. The world doesn’t stop turning on Christmas Day. People don’t stop breathing and eating and shivering in the cold. There are ways in your very community to get involved in December 25th. At the risk of sounding like a Christmas movie, the experience is life-changing. I hope you’ll jump on the Google machine and find your new Christmas Day tradition right now. I hope you’ll tell me about it in the comments or by email. It’ll warm my heart to hear your new Christmas story.
Who am I to be offering advice about fixing your Christmas?
I’m just a festive sluggo trying to muddle through with a smile on my face just like the rest of us. I don’t have the answers, but I’m sure looking hard for them, and the six tips above are what I’ve found so far.
There’s something wrong with the standard approach to the holiday season, and I no longer drink my way through and ignore the obvious. That’s one of the side effects of sobriety—you kind of have to deal with all the stuff staring you in the face. Joy is there for us all, we just have to adjust the schedule a little to find it. Intoxication sure didn’t help me in my quest for a peaceful Christmas. What’s keeping you away from the holiday happiness you deserve?
If you’d like to learn more about my struggle with alcoholism and how I gained my permanent sobriety, please read my free ebook, Guide to Early Sobriety.