Much as we love the winter holidays, by the time Thanksgiving has come and gone, many of us are feeling a little anxious as well. We want so much to create memorable celebrations for our families, that it can be hard to separate our sense of duty and obligation from our own intuitive sense of what our children really need, and what we most want for ourselves during this hectic time of year.
Christmas carols ring from every storefront. Fat catalogs arrive in the mail, urging us to hurry and place our orders before it’s too late. The children produce lists of must-haves. Meanwhile, an insistent inner voice whispers, “You should do this. . .You should do that…”
We can quiet that voice, and embrace the season, by seeing the month of December as an opportunity for connection, rather than as a series of obligations to go and do and buy. As the holidays approach, it helps to pause and ask: What part of this season is most meaningful to me? What message do I want my children to absorb from our celebration? What brings us true joy? What activities and expectations are we ready to let go?
The holidays invite us to change the pace of our lives, to slow down and focus on what matters most, to draw loved ones close as we share good food and cherished rituals. We can consciously choose simplicity over complication. And there is a real sense of relief in saying, “This is enough” — whether it’s enough holiday parties, enough guests at the table, enough presents or simply enough activities for one December Saturday.
When I find myself wondering, “Can I pull this off?” rather than looking forward to a special day, chances are it’s because I’ve allowed an event to become more extravagant or ambitious than it needs to be. But when I opt instead for the kinds of simple, heartfelt celebrations that really do enrich our lives, I feel joy instead of stress, and my children relax as well, finding contentment with what is, rather than demanding more. In our quiet times together, we make room for the true spirit of the season. You can too. Here’s how:
Downscale holiday plans and expectations. Keep the focus on family, on meaningful traditions and simple activities that replenish rather than exhaust.
Have a family conversation about why fewer gifts doesn’t mean less of a celebration. It might even mean allowing more time to enjoy a couple of special things. A gift of a sled, for example, could also include the gift of an afternoon of sliding, followed by a picnic dinner in front of the fireplace.
Ask your children what they most love about your family’s holiday. You may be surprised by their answers. For my sons, it was: reading our Christmas books aloud, opening the doors on the advent calendar, our annual carol sing with the next-door neighbors, lighting the ting-a-ling on Christmas Eve. . .
Set a limit at the outset on holiday activities. One Christmas party is enough.
Don’t feel guilty about skipping events that everyone else attends. Your children need you and your attention, not more activities. It is not written anywhere that children need to attend the tree-lighting ceremony downtown, or sit on Santa’s lap at the mall, or go to the midnight service at church. . .
Whether you’re decorating the Christmas tree, baking cookies, or making gifts for grandma, remember that the process is more important for your child than the outcome. Keep it simple, and you and your child will enjoy it more.
Create small special moments in every day. Open the advent calendar at breakfast time. Turn off every light in the house at dinner time, light candles, and invite everyone to be perfectly still and perfectly silent for a minute. Go around the table and ask each family member what they feel grateful for. Before bed on December nights, gather as a family around the Christmas tree to sing one song or read one Christmas story.
Celebrate the holidays as a season of giving and doing for others. Grab the kids and head next door to shovel an elderly neighbor’s walkway; make Christmas cards together for the newsboy and the mailman; deliver soup to a friend with the flu; keep a stash of chocolate Santas in the car, and hand them out to the gas station attendant, the doorman, the barber, the dry cleaner. And watch as your children begin to discover the secret pleasure of small kindnesses, offered with love.
Remember, once we take the pressure off ourselves to do things in a big way, we find more reasons to celebrate life’s little moments. And it is in these moments that the gift of real joy is offered and received.
What part of your family’s holiday celebration embodies the spirit of the season for you? What are you choosing to let go of this year?