December can really be a wonderful time of the year, if we let it. The other evening, I found myself rolling my eyes as I sang along to Andy Williams and his entire big band, “It’s the MOST wonderful time of the year.” My enormous list of things to do didn’t feel so wonderful at the moment. Neither did all the extra holiday craft messes and cooking projects that needed cleaning. I started to slip into a dark existential holiday crisis before I caught myself and realized that it was the overwhelm talking.
Around the holidays, things can start to feel out of control, which means it’s time to take charge and reframe so we can open to the wonder and connection we cherish this time of year.
It’s the most expensive time of the year. This is an undeniable fact, and not just because I’m putting more gas in the car and blasting the heat to stay warm this time of year. I’m buying SO many things. In years past, I would buy a leaning tower of gifts for my kids and also my partner, friends, teachers, co-workers and neighbors in addition to donating to organizations I love.
However, as I’ve worked to translate mindfulness into more areas of my life, I realized much of my spending was out of habit or obligation. Now I try to stay grounded in a few really meaningful principles to assure I’m spending my money on the people and causes that sustain me and feel good.
- You don’t have to give money or purchase presents for people. Your genuine friendship is a gift. Your time is a gift. Your words of love and encouragement are a gift. Your hugs are a gift.
- Giving from a place of fear or obligation is draining and has the potential to breed resentment.
- Making a short list of people you’re excited to buy gifts for and identify a budget that feels good to you. For our children, we stick to the “four holiday gift” rule, giving each child something they want, something they need, something to wear and something to read. Then come immediate family and teachers (because I was one and I know how much they need chocolate this time of year).
- Participating in gift exchanges instead of planning to get every single extended family and friend individual gifts. Many exchanges encourage re-gifting something gently used or handmade gifts.
- Giving yourself permission to get scrappy and give meaningful gifts of time, connection, messages of love and reassurance to the people who don’t make the short list.
- It’s the most hectic time of the year. There is always somewhere to go, someone to visit, an office party to attend, gingerbread houses to decorate or some project to do (that usually makes a mess) during the holidays.
- You get to decide what you need to do — the gatherings, the traditions, the gestures that really define the holiday season for you and are non-negotiable.
- You get to decide what you want to do — the projects, the outings, the shopping, the recipes, the events that help you feel energized and connected to the holiday spirit.
- You get to decide what you might do if you have the time and energy. These are a maybe, and you check in with yourself honestly before you agree to them and give yourself permission to say no.
- Making a bucket list of “musts," “wants” and “maybes” as a family so that everyone can give input and adjust their expectations. If my kids really want to do something that’s far down on my list, I let them know that I need help to make that happen, and they can do the work if they are really committed to it.
- Saying no to an event or activity that has left you feeling tired or on edge in the past.
It’s the most emotional time of the year. The holidays are often about family and friends coming together, which can be complicated. All the people in all the families have a wide variety of expectations, opinions and wants/needs floating around between them.
- Your family cannot read your mind, and it’s okay for you to do what you need and let others know what’s important to you.
- It’s also not your job to make sure that every person in your extended or immediate family gets their every holiday wish granted.
- Big feelings will fly this time of year, and that’s OK — your kiddos’ laughter will quickly turn into tantrums and protest, and then right back again. There will be arguments, misunderstandings and tears.
- Letting people feel their feelings without judgment. Help them name their feelings and normalize them: “It’s common to feel disappointed when that happens.”
- Ask, “How can I support you in getting what you need for yourself?” This is a simple question for helping the youngsters, and even adults, in your life remember they are in charge of knowing what they need and helping themselves to get it.
Note that none of the holiday songs talk about any of these realities (except maybe a few by Elvis and that one by Wham!), so we assume that there must be something wrong with us if this time of year is difficult and emotional. Many of us also assume the role of “dreammaker,” as if it’s our job to make sure our parents and our children receive all the holiday experiences and gifts they hope for.
What if your biggest accomplishment could be to model self-care and healthy boundaries for your family over the holidays? To show them how joyful it can be to drop the ball, lower expectations and do fewer things so you can enjoy more ease and genuine connection.
My kids see “lying in bed for an entire morning reading a book for fun” on my list of needs. They hear me say, “It’s OK to give a mindful hug and say thank you instead of buying a present.” We can model the freedom to say yes to what’s important and say no to energy draining “shoulds.” When we embrace this for ourselves, we give permission to others to stay true to themselves in this most wonderful time of the year, which may be the greatest gift of all.
Petterson lives in Moscow with her husband and their two children. She left public education to become a yoga instructor, sleep specialist and mindful parenting educator. She can be contacted via her website at www.kristinepetterson.com.