Thanksgiving has passed, as has Black Friday and Cyber Monday. We’re in the middle of Hanukkah and there are sixteen shopping days until Christmas. How are you doing? Do you associate the holidays with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which celebrates growing and sharing the spirit of peace and goodwill to all? Or do the holidays remind you of another of Dickens’ novels, A Tale of Two Cities? “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness. . . . It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Do you think most people experience stress around this time of year? A survey showed that 41% found the Christmas-Hanukkah season “somewhat to very” stressful. That compares interestingly with 36% who found job interviews stressful, 43% who were stressed by asking for a raise, 51% who experienced stress when going to the dentist and 65% who get stressed out when getting a speeding ticket! It looks like the holidays are right up there with some of the more pleasant events of life.
What stresses you at this time of year? What do you think the biggest stressors are? Money: 72% of people surveyed reported stress over money sometimes, often or always. 56% said their expectations for the holidays were too high and in trying to make them perfect, they felt stress. Another 56% said they over commit and take on too many responsibilities and feel stress about that. 52% experience family conflicts and 43% said they had stress because they had too much to do. But, despite the stress, 71% said that they did enjoy the holidays anyway. Interesting. This year of course we have the added factor of the hurricane, whose effects many still cope with be they loss or damage to homes, cars, property, loss of work, temporary or permanent, hassle with insurance companies or FEMA, loss of loved ones.
What stresses us during the holidays? What happens to us? It seems to me there are at least five categories of holiday stress which are inter-related. Fantasy is the first and it comes in a variety of guises. The image of the holidays portrayed by the media and in some popular literature is one of cozy love, with all difficulties overcome in pristine white snow and sparkling pine trees. It’s a Wonderful Life. Miracle on 34th Street. A Christmas Carol. They warm our hearts and we want that for ourselves. Advertising and the consumerism that is so strong in our culture plays into this and molds it. Love becomes material. The perfect holiday is a material one. Get her the perfect gift; a diamond from Zales, and she’ll love you forever. Make your father-in-law happy with this perfect chain saw from Home Depot. Bless your grandchildren with their very own iPhones.
Many people dread the holidays because their inner experience doesn’t match up to all the hype. Barry Schwartz, in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less says, “During the holiday season, we struggle to find the perfect gifts for our family and friends, to be exchanged at the perfect meal, with everyone in a perfect mood. With so much choice available, anything less than perfection feels like failure. And when we do, inevitably, fail to achieve perfection, we have only ourselves to blame.” When we drive ourselves over the brink, trying to make our holidays, or our children’s holidays, perfect, we put them in the category of fantasy and set ourselves up for disappointment. Yet we do it year after year – why? It’s an appealing myth. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if life was simple and everybody was patient and kind? It’s a child’s way of longing. Something about the holidays makes us want to be children again. When I was nine or ten my mother got me a bicycle for Christmas. She had no place to hide it so it sat in the porch, in full view. When she wasn’t around I would go there and sit on my blue bike, dreaming of where it would take me come summer. I’d like to sit and dream again on that blue bicycle.
Fantasy also takes the form of nostalgia. Longing for those great times in the past when everybody was so happy together and everything was so perfect. It’s the way it never was. My Aunt Bea cooked Thanksgiving dinner for at least thirty years and it has become a family myth. Thanksgiving was her holiday. We laugh hysterically as we remember the day she dropped the stuffing on the floor and didn’t tell anybody, but went ahead and picked it up and shoved it into the turkey anyway. (And everybody ate it, except me, who never eats stuffing.) Or the time my young cousins were wrestling and knocked the folding table down and the turkey went sliding off and through the legs of their father? It’s fun to remember now, but at the time these were occasions for a lot of yelling and screaming, not fun at all. It’s good to transform the memories into laughter so that we aren’t slaves to what was, but it is not so good to confuse those embellished memories with what really happened at the time, or to forget that, at the time, it felt anything but delightful. If we do forget the more difficult aspects of the past, we can never own them and we become nostalgic for a past that never was. We compare the present to a myth and the present never measures up.
The second category of holiday stress is, of course, family. It overlaps with fantasy, especially in the nostalgia department. We buy into the Hallmark presentation of mother, father and two blond kids gathered around the hearth, smiling and happy. Maybe a dog lies peacefully at their feet. That the picture doesn’t at all resemble a majority of our family configurations doesn’t seem to faze us. In some part of our heart, that peace and harmony is what we want. Or we hope that if we can only make the holidays perfect, all will be well in the family. Did you see the movie Pieces of April? It’s about a young woman, estranged from her family, trying to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner for them in her lower East Side walk up. It captures the almost desperate wish that some of us have to please our families or gain their approval. Or the anxiety we have about what will happen if we don’t please them. The film captures the ambivalence, the anger we can feel toward our families, the rivalries, the grudges, the quirkiness, and yes, the love as well. Families are complicated groups of imperfect people who have many expectations of one another and share many memories, as well as a past history. Thus we have experiences of disappointment and hurt, as well as joy and laughter. Bad behavior as well as generous and loving behavior. Why do we hope that our families will be different than they are when the holidays come around? What is that expectation about?
Families can be the reason for some sadness around the holidays, and sadness is a cause of stress. We might be missing them and wishing we were together. We might be estranged and not missing them. We might not have living family and feeling some loneliness. We might be remembering those who have died. My aunt died the day before Thanksgiving – her holiday. So many of us, it seems, have lost people we love around a holiday.
A third category of holiday stress is finance. In making our holidays perfect for family and friends, lured by the ads, the Santas, and the sparkle, we might spend too much money. Eight days of Hanukkah meant, for some of my friends, eight nights of presents. My son Matthew, when he was seven, insisted that he was Jewish so that he could have Hanukkah gifts. Any holiday tradition can provide a reason for us to overspend, if we let it.
Poet Brian G. Gilmore writes, in Bow to Allah,
Sometimes our guilt leads us to buy expensive presents to make up for what? Not being around? Not caring the way we think we ought to? Or the way people want us to? Because we equate money with love? Because we need to keep up with everyone else? It would seem relatively easy to get a grip on our money at holiday time. To sit down and figure out what we have to spend. To set limits on gift giving. It would seem easy, but it isn’t. It is the American way to buy and consume. The temptations to do so are very strong. No money? No problem! Buy now and don’t start paying until March. We are told we can have it all. Our children are told they can have it all. We live in consumer heaven, protected by myths of denial about the real state of our finances. How could we not overspend now, the height of the spending season? Why are we so vulnerable to this?
While we’re busy spending money, decorating our homes, cooking and preparing food, hosting guests, attending parties, visiting relatives and friends, and much else, we bump into the fourth holiday stressor-time, or lack of it. Most of us are quite busy to begin with, so we feel particularly stressed when the holidays come around and make extra demands on our precious hours. We feel pressured, overloaded, tense and tired. We could prioritize, let some things go, but we don’t. We think we have to do it all, or that we can. We take time to relax and then feel stressed by the time it took from other things. Some of us cope with this holiday stress by eating, drinking, or using other substances in less than helpful ways. We’re celebrating after all. That becomes its own source of stress — food and drink, the fifth category.
I know that we know what to do about such stress. I know that we know to take care with what we eat and drink, to exercise, to sleep enough. To meditate, do Tai Chi, listen to music, have a massage, or engage in some other stress reducing activity. We know to prioritize our time; we know to pace ourselves. We know about budgeting our finances and finding holiday activities that are free. We know we need to consider the quantity and cost of the gifts we give, as well as the need for them. We know we must set limits on the acquisitiveness of our children, both with our words and through the modeling our actions provide. We know that we should match our expectations more closely with reality. We know. But how many of us successfully to that? What gets in the way?
I think somewhere deep inside us, and even though we know better, we wish the holidays to be like the myths. In this part of the world, in the darkness and cold, we long for those twinkling lights, and the cheer they bring. The yule log that burns all night; the oil that lasts for eight days, the star in the east. The winter solstice truly is a monumental event in the soul of the northern hemisphere. In this risky and unsafe world, we long for safety and protection. We long to be loved and embraced for whoever we are, surrounded by warmth and peace and by the generous gifts of people who adore us. We might even long for Santa Claus who works all year for us and gives us far more than we deserve, all with a smile and a hearty laugh. In these winter holidays comes to rest all our fears of the dark and the destruction it could contain; all our hopes for the light and the life it promises to sustain. In these winter holidays comes to rest that part of us that wants security in this world, even if it comes in the form of a miracle birth, or a miracle victory. In these winter holidays resides the human desire for happiness and freedom, and the human need to laugh and play and celebrate in the very darkest hours of the year. These holidays carry some heavy duty baggage. No wonder we want them to be perfect manifestations of our hopes. No wonder we run ourselves ragged trying not to disappoint. It doesn’t work, though, does it? No matter how hard we try, the holidays aren’t perfect.
But maybe we’re looking for warmth, peace and love in the wrong places. Maybe warmth, peace and love are with us all the time, not only at holidays when we demand their presence. Maybe they exist in small and large moments, all around us, but only glimpsed or briefly sighted. We can’t force them, but we can notice them and allow them to comfort us and speak to our needs. Wonder is all around. Stop, be still. See it, smell it, hear it, taste it, touch it. Intuit its presence in a myriad of daily interactions.
Guided meditation: Imagine the places where you have celebrated these December holidays. . . . Imagine the people you have celebrated them with . . . Let their faces rise up in your memory. . . . What colors come to mind
What sounds come to mind
What smells come to mind
What tastes come to mind
What tactile sensations come to mind
What I’m saying is that we don’t have to turn the holidays into something they cannot be, and become very stressed in the process. We do not have to do this in order to know the love and beauty that are all around us. In order to feel safe and warm and protected and connected. The potential for that is always with us, just waiting to be found. If we believe it is there we will find it there. And then we can celebrate the holidays for what they are and we can more easily accept those parts we wish were not the way they are. There’s a freedom in that. And a real joy.
May it be so.