Saturday, November 23, 2019

Christmas: Don't Treat A Gift Like a Burden

At this time of year, many of us begin to feel the mounting pressure of the holiday season as it looms before us on the horizon. Christmas, the joyous celebration of the birth of Christ, takes on the shape of a burden and not the gift it should be. We begin to "treat a gift like a burden."*

I've thought a lot about Christmas these past two years as I was researching and writing The History of Christmas. I've wondered what should Christmas look like, how stressful should a realistic holiday be, and how should my family go about celebrating it?

The most surprising result of my history research was realizing how much of our current idea of Christmas, and how it should be celebrated, was formed by writers in the 19th century who created fictional accounts of Christmas that the public adopted as non-fiction records of Christmases past. Think Charles Dickens and Washington Irving. Dickens and Irving made us feel that Christmas was a hugely sentimental and nostalgic time, a time with no end to the festivities and merry-making and cheer that should be participated in. Their writings served a beautiful purpose to bring joy back into the lives of their original readers at a time when Christmas was not as widely celebrated, but those same writings have tended to fuel burdens for subsequent generations as we try to live up to a nostalgic feeling at Christmas.

In my view, Christmas is a gift that's meant to brighten our lives and encourage our hearts at one of the most joy-less times of year. Before Christmas was a Christian holiday, it was a pagan celebration -- one that took place at the darkest time of the year. It was a time of festivity that helped people endure the dark and depressing cold of midwinter. When Christianity spread north, people kept the midwinter celebration but changed its focus. It became a joyous midwinter celebration of the birth of Christ, the Savior of the world. As a Christian, I not only have a joyous midwinter festival to look forward to, but one more opportunity to focus my mind and heart on Christ, on whom hangs the entire meaning of my religion.

As part of a denomination that does not feel bound by a Scriptural mandate to celebrate the birth of Christ in a particular way, I have great freedom to treat Christmas as a gift, and not a burden. I am free to celebrate it in a small way, or a great way, or even not at all. As a Christian I am commanded to love God and love mankind. For me, Christmas can be a means to both those ends! And those ends can also be a means of keeping Christmas from becoming a burden. When I ask myself, "Is this activity going to enable me to love others? Will it enable me to care for myself and my family? Will it grow my heart into a greater love for God?" I gain a better perspective on how to spend my time and energy during the holiday season.

So does this mean I have it all figured out  about how to keep Christmas from becoming stressful? Of course not! But thinking through these things, and having a framework for making decisions, goes a long way toward minimizing stress.

Here are a few more practical ideas:

Make a list -- Brenda taught me to write down a list at the beginning of the holiday season. This list should contain what is most important to you about the approaching weeks. If it's long, circle the three most important things. This helps focus energy in the right direction. Consider asking each member of your household what is the one thing they are looking forward to most over the holidays -- put those on the list and not the ten or twenty other things that could also be fun.

Rotate your traditions -- if it's too stressful to have all your traditions every year -- take a break. Do something this year and leave another thing for next year. Rather than do everything, do a few things with the promise you will do the other things next year.

Pick your poison -- decide what you are willing to be stressed out about and what you aren't, what you are willing to give up a night at home for and what you aren't. You do have agency (the ability to make decisions about your life)! As you decide, remind yourself that you are signing up for stress, or choosing to miss a good thing for the better thing that might be rest. Sometimes stress is worth it, sometimes not.

Why do you celebrate Christmas? -- do you have a working purpose in your mind for why you celebrate this holiday and go through the stressful motions that it sometimes takes? Every person's reason will be different. Mine revolves around the blessing of a celebration during a very bleak time of year which I can exploit to enable me to think more on God's love for me and share that love with others. If you can call to mind the purpose behind the stress, that often brings mental strength to keep going.

Remember it's a season of sacrifice -- quoting Gretchen Rubin again, Christmas is often a "season of sacrifice" for anyone involved in making it a special time for others. Despite careful planning, limits, self-denial, this month may call for an extra measure of sacrifice. Remember, the season does end! January is a wonderful time to hide away and recuperate!

Read this book -- Living the Season Well: Reclaiming Christmas by Jody Lee Collins. This book helped me to think more about simplifying Christmas. The future of this holiday is in our hands. How we celebrate it today will teach the next generation. Christmas has been a changing holiday since its earliest origins and it will continue to change. We can have a say in what those changes are!

Ponder how you can treat Christmas as a gift, and not a burden.

*thanks to Gretchen Rubin for her phrase, "Don't treat a gift like a burden."

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Saturday, November 9, 2019

Christmas Book List 2019

It's that time of year to order Christmas books from the library or your favorite bookstore! Here are the books I'm currently recommending for this festive time of year:

 A Literary Christmas: An Anthology by the British Library
I just got this book from the library and am excited to read it this season! The book is arranged around themes such as Before Christmas, The Nativity, Christmas Day, A Child's Christmas, or Seasonal Snow and Ice. Within each theme are up to ten works by famous authors: poems, story excerpts, essays. The authors include William Wordsworth, Emily Bronte, G. K. Chesterton, Samuel Pepys, George Eliot, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Kenneth Grahame, and Charles Dickens, among many, many others. It's just the sort of book one can dive into for a few minutes at a time and come away with something to think on.

The History of Christmas by Heather Winslow LeFebvre
Of course I have to recommend my own book! I feel passionate that everyone should understand what they are celebrating (or not) and why. My book is aimed at 8-14 year olds but is also ideal for adults who want a quick overview of Christmas history, and for young children who will enjoy the illustrations (done by my mom!). There's even activities, recipes, and suggested questions.

 Christmas books by Tasha Tudor
I'm on a Tasha Tudor kick right now -- although to some extent I always am. I've added a number of her books to my collection this year as well as discovered that one can reasonably come by an advent calendar of hers! My all-time favorite is Becky's Christmas, probably because so much in the book resonates with my own family's traditions. Here are a few books to check out:

The Dolls' Christmas
Becky's Christmas
The Christmas Cat
A Time to Keep: The Tasha Tudor Book of Holidays
Take Joy!: The Tasha Tudor Christmas Book
A Book of Christmas
Tasha Tudor's Advent Calendar: A Wreath of Days
Corgiville Christmas
Tasha Tudor's Favorite Christmas Carols
Snow Before Christmas
The Night Before Christmas (illustrated by Tasha Tudor)

The Jolly Christmas Postman by Janet & Allan Ahlberg
I've purchased this book for a surprise for the younger kids this year. What's not to love about little pockets filled with pull-out letters and other surprises along the way! It makes me want to be a mailman! Or at the least, write lots of real letters to people.

 The Christmas Stories of George MacDonald
I pulled this off my shelf this morning and need to read it this season. I've been studying the (interesting) life of George MacDonald this year and this will be just the thing to add to my growing knowledge of his works.

 Lucy & Tom's Christmas by Shirley Hughes
Next to Becky's Christmas, this might be my other favorite! I love this peak into a traditional British Christmas in the late 1990's. Shirley Hughes is one of my very favorite illustrators. She has many, many books, so check them out throughout the year!

Unwrapping the Greatest Gift by Ann Voskamp
I love this advent devotional and have used it several years in a row with our children.

 Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher
My favorite adult fiction read for December. I'm always on the lookout for new good Christmas-time stories. I have a hard time finding exactly what I like. Someday I will have to fill this gap by attempting to write my own.

 Advent Calendars
I purchased a new advent calendar on our fall family vacation and then realized that all these years I probably could have been collecting advent calendars on Amazon! Yes! They are available! Search for German advent calendars and you'll come across more traditional types. Through various situations, we now have three new-to-us advent calendars for December! I'm so excited! (It's the little things that matter....)

And that's my recommendation for this year! If you have books you love that I haven't mentioned, please comment and let me know! I am always looking for new Christmas books!

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