Beginning just before Halloween, stores in the US start blasting holiday music, setting up displays of Christmas tree decorations, menorahs and candles, sweet treats, toys, and special gift-giving displays that are nearly impossible to avoid. The consumer holiday machine grows stronger as Thanksgiving approaches, and by the time December 1st turns over the calendar, people are either fully afloat in the holiday spirit, or totally over it, dreaming of a nice Caribbean vacation as an escape from the madness. While for some people, coming together with family in the spirit of generosity and cheerfulness is something to look forward to, for others, it’s a painful time of year. For those who have lost a loved one or ended a relationship, the holidays can amplify heartache as they learn to navigate life without the presence of the one held dear. For those who have strained family relationships, the holidays may be a time filled with anxiety about how to handle tense and delicate encounters with as much civility as possible. And for many people, the pressure of expectations about gift giving may be a source of continual stress ~ trying to make all the right people receive all the right gifts, sending holiday cards to a long list of distant friends and relatives, and concerns about finances top the list.
If you are among those who are stressed and daydreaming of something entirely different, here are 10 things you can do to infuse your days with a little extra joy and cheer, and redefine the holiday season for yourself and your family!
- Go outside and pause. In North America, as the Winter Solstice approaches, the sky is magnificent, with cool pastel colors that never grace us at any other time of year. As the sun sets earlier and earlier, the wash of magical colors in the evening sky is truly remarkable, and worth taking the time to witness. Before you head out into traffic at the end of a long day of work, pause and take it all in. Feel the temperature of the air, the shifting of the trees, the sounds all around. Giving yourself a moment to breathe it all in can be an awesome reset.
- Let go of expectations. Personal, family, and cultural holiday traditions are like a raging river, and it can be challenging to stand up in the middle of the current and say, “enough!” It can be equally challenging, though, to continue to push to uphold traditions that don’t resonate, that require time and energy that you don’t have, and that add little meaning to your life. As unimaginable as it may feel at first, it is totally possible and acceptable to take stock of the traditions you have been handed, and consider what is really worth keeping, and what you can let go of. It may be upsetting to those people in your life who have equally strong expectations that things must be a certain way because they’ve always been that way, but at the end of the day, only what adds joy and meaning to the season are really worth it.
- Plant flower bulbs for spring. Until the ground is hard and frozen, it is still possible to daydream of the return of springtime, and prepare for new life and beauty to emerge around you. Even if you have only a tiny bit of land available to you, you can plant daffodils, hyacinths, and crocuses ~ the harbingers of spring! If you don’t have access to land yourself, inquire about planting bulbs with a friend, at a local community center, or in a community park. Bulbs hibernate through the winter, and don’t need any care at all once they’re planted ~ and they will return year after year to bring brightness wherever they are.
- Light a candle. This is, for me, one of the simplest ways to bring brighter energy to my space, and there’s always a candle right by my desk. If you can’t light a candle at work, it’s possible to light one in the morning as you wake up, or in the evening once you’ve returned home for the day, creating a ritual of beauty and presence to bring you into the present moment. If you enjoy a particular fragrance, lighting a high quality scented candle can fill your space with a sense of pleasure, and can invite you to slow down a bit and take some time for yourself.
- Explore your roots, and how your ancestors celebrated this time of year. Especially for those who aren’t particularly tied to a religious tradition connected with the holiday season, being surrounded by traditions with inherent religious undertones can be uncomfortable and frustrating. One way of expanding the energy around the season is to do some research (maybe just Google, maybe more) into your ancestors, and what their traditions were for this time of year. Where are your ancestors from? Did they have particular practices for honoring the Solstice, the changing of seasons, the shifting of the natural world? Or something else? It can be fascinating, too, to discover just how many holiday traditions have deeper roots than the consumer machine would have you believe.
- Explore a different spiritual tradition together with a friend or family member. This can be especially fun to do with a young person, who may not be familiar with spiritual traditions beyond their own. Especially during the holiday season, Christmas and Hanukkah dominate the scene. But what about other spiritual traditions? What do Buddhists believe? And Hindus? And Pagans? And Muslims? And Animists? And Atheists? There are so many traditions, it could be super fun to transform the Advent Calendar into a game of exploring a different world spiritual tradition every day!
- Get creative. In a culture already so geared toward working too much, productivity, and the convenience of mass produced things to make our lives easier, creativity often becomes a luxury more than a way of life. This is a very, very recent situation in our modern world, and for most of human history, if some object was desired, people would need to create it themselves. Entering into the creative flow is a gift that truly integrates all parts of the mind, and can be a wonderful way to alleviate the effects of stress. When was the last time you got out some paints and paintbrushes? Dusted off that old guitar? Sang songs around a fire? Created delicious homemade food from scratch? Do you remember how to knit? Whatever calls to your heart, find a tiny bit of time and space to just do it! The more you enjoy it, the more likely you will be to make space in your life for it again.
- Revamp those old holiday recipes with a new, healthy twist. My memories of the holiday season involve about half a ton of sugar in the form of candies, fudge, cookies, cakes, pies, and more. It’s no wonder the gyms and fitness centers make a mint after the New Year’s Day celebrations come to a close ~ eating heavy, sugary, rich foods can make anyone feel heavy, and possibly add more than a few pounds. As delicious as those old recipes are, imagine how much better it would feel to change things up a bit! For me, as I shifted to a gluten, sugar, and dairy free diet, I found a lot of joy in recreating old, treasured recipes to meet my current health needs, and best of all: very few people even noticed the difference!
- Random acts of kindness. One of the best ways to feel uplifted is by getting out of ourselves, and opening our hearts in kindness to others. Make a list of people who you’d like to uplift ~ some may be specific people in your life, and others may be more general groups of people, such as elders in a nearby senior center, or women at a local shelter. Ask yourself – and maybe ask directly (possibly in a stealthy way, keeping an element of surprise) – “what can I do to help?” It can be magical to plan something that will be meaningful and lovely for someone you care about, and the memory of your kindness will linger far beyond that single act.
- Give gifts with heart and soul. If you feel called to give gifts during the holidays, consider the impact of mass consumerism on the planet: so many gifts given are sweatshop made, highly breakable, have no longevity of use, and are highly damaging to the planet. Choosing gifts that come from people with hands and hearts and smiles may cost a bit more ~ or may not, actually ~ and are more special because they have a story and a soul. This could mean going to a local cooperative of artisans and choosing gifts that are handmade in your local community, such as pottery, handcrafts, and art. This could also mean visiting a Fair Trade shop and choosing gifts that come from all over the world, and that have been sustainably purchased from local artisans at a fair rate that supports their livelihood, while also being unique and interesting. Or this could mean connecting with local members of your community, and giving the gift of experiences ~ a massage, a class or workshop, or a concert ~ that not only surprise the receiver, but support the livelihood of your neighbors that make your community a rich and vibrant place.