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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This is a really thought provoking post. Thank you!
I just posted my annual "make a list" blog post. This time I shared the original list as it was in 2008. I had forgotten I wrote it for a "Simplify Christmas" post a blog friend was promoting.
Helpful to think through!
Wise words, Heather!
I just ordered your book!!
Years ago when I was about your age, I became very interested in very much the same aspects of Christmas. My inlaws don't celebrate anymore. My husband decided when we were going together that he disagreed with their decision and the reasons behind it. As with anything that gets my mind chewing, I started researching ( and additionally fueled by my love of all things celtic )...I came to many of the same conclusions you have explained here. Even if December the 25th is not Jesus' birthday but comes from some pagan origin, nothing comes as a surprise to God, He knew that we would celebrate His Son's birthday on that day. To me it is fitting; so many (if not all) of the pagan holidays and Hanukkah center around light. How fitting that we celebrate the coming of The Light of the world, Jesus. He is the Light that gives us a hope that promises everlasting life.
All this , and yet I still struggle for the right balance in the quest to "make it perfect". My track record, since I have not reached personal perfection ( surprise surprise ! ) can leave me feeling overwhelmed and depressed at the very thought of the season.
Thank you for sharing Brenda's suggestions. I will keep this and study on it. HAPPY THANKSGIVING !
Come to think of it, you are probably old a little older than I was when all that began.☺
Lovely! I am eager to start my Advent daily celebration. I have a junk journal I made to record my thinking and I'm using lots of resources (including your book!).
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