I have mixed feelings about Christmas.
I love the idea of Christmas – slowing down, taking a break and reconnecting with family and community and what’s truly important. Though I am not at all religious, I have a great respect for Christ’s teachings on love, forgiveness, tolerance and helping the poor, and I like to think of Christmas as a time to give generously not just to your loved ones, but to those in need.
The trouble is, the reality doesn’t really live up to the ideal, does it?
Instead of slowing down, things seem to speed up to an almost manic pace. The generosity of spirit supposedly symbolic of Christmas seems to have morphed into epic over-consumption and excess. The giving to others is often accompanied by a sense of obligation and hassle rather than thought and pure intention, and the caring for those in need is barely on the agenda, except for maybe donating a few old cans of lentils to the Salvation Army food drive.
And family? Let’s just say like many of my generation who come from “broken” homes or most of us that just don’t have that perfect Brady Bunch family, Christmas can be a time of mixed loyalties, re-opened wounds and old resentments coming to the fore. Sheesh…send me back to work!
Last year in particular, Christmas proved too much for me.
I was quite burnt-out, I’d been saving money to go travelling so was juggling a full time job, a part-time job and a business and I hadn’t had a holiday for 2 years running. EVERY FIBRE of my BEING was hanging on for Boxing Day when I could finally just stop and rest. But getting through my last week of work, all the stuff I had to get organised for Christmas day; the cooking, the present wrapping and the last minute shopping in heaving supermarkets seemed like an insurmountable mountain standing between me and Boxing Day…my one consolation was that although I had to work on the day of Christmas Eve, at least I had the evening free to finish everything and have an early night.
And then mum called.
She wanted to have a Christmas Eve gathering. A barbecue with all her friends around. Nooooooo!!! I screamed inside….I just can’t do it. I don’t have the time and I definitely don’t have the energy. I started to tentatively suggest that maybe I wouldn’t come, I would just see her on Christmas day…but she wouldn’t give up…it’s Christmas after-all, and she so rarely has everyone over, I HAVE to come, just for a few hours. So despite how low I was feeling, I said yes and I went.
And quite literally, it was the straw that broke this camel’s back.
The fatigue and overwhelm, the coffee (which I normally don’t drink) during that day to get me through, then the sugar and alcohol (which I normally don’t consume) and the rushing and the small-talk and the noise just all added up and it tripped something in my nervous system. Despite being so tired I could pass out, I was so wired I couldn’t sleep that night – at all – and the next day – Christmas Day – I was a total wreck and ended up having a panic attack, the second in my life…..Merry Christmas everyone!!
I went home early with my partner, and pondered it. I believe the anxiety was induced by a mix of triggers, I have a sensitive constitution and the combination of things I don’t normally consume combined with the lack of sleep and a year of burn out just proved too much for me. I thought about how Christmas has drifted so far from what it is supposed to be about, and I vowed that from now on, Christmas was going to be different.
This year I am away from home, living on a serene lake in Guatemala with my partner, so we really will be taking it easy, but for the future, I have come up with these guidelines for a more mindful, peaceful Christmas – if this is a stressful season for you too, you may want to try them yourself:
My Manifesto for a Mindful Christmas
Know and protect your limits – even if it means disappointing others
You don’t have to say yes to everything and everyone – that work party, the second piece of cake, the 4th glass of wine or even your mum’s Christmas Eve barbecue. Some people might get disappointed but there’s no need to feel guilty. As an adult it’s up to you to take responsibility for your needs and to know and honour your limitations, they’ll get over it.
2. Slow down, do one thing at a time and take breaks.
When we have more things than usual on our to-do list, our minds often race ahead to what needs to be done next when we still haven’t finished what we are doing now. This creates stress and overwhelm as our minds become full of activities that need to be done in the future but our bodies can’t possibly keep up with anything that is not happening now. Instead, bring your full focus to what you are doing right now. If you can, try to bring some awareness to your body as well such as your breath in your belly to keep you in the present moment. If the mind wanders off to the future again, just gently bring it right back to your body and the task at hand.
Also, take breathing breaks every now and then – 2 or 3 minutes on your own to just sit or even lie down and focus on your breathing, especially if you are feeling overwhelmed…It will clear your mind and refresh your energy levels.
3. Eat mindfully
One of the best things about Christmas is definitely the food, but as I learned the hard way, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. When there’s lots of special goodies on the table or in the staff-room and when we are in our frantic, rushing, doing mode we can scoff down a dozen treats without a moments notice – or real pleasure – and end up eating too much and feeling like crap. You can have your cake and eat it too, if you do so slowly and mindfully, by turning it into a truly pleasurable experience and savouring each delicious bite. You will enjoy it much more and end up consuming much less.
4. Share love, not just stuff.
Reach out to old friends, write real letters instead of the perfunctory “Merry Christmas” in a throw-away card, tell people how much and why you love them. Give with intention, as a pure act of love, rather than through expectation or obligation. And try to think beyond your own small circle to those in famine, need or suffering and give to them too…your spirit and your generosity could make a real difference.
5. Be present instead of trying to be perfect
Do you really need to make 4 different types of dessert? Does it really matter if you forgot the fruit mince pies? Stop striving for that “magical, perfect Christmas moment” and realise that the magic is right here in the beautiful mess all around you – the wrapping all over the floor, the kids going nuts on too much sugar and Uncle Roger snoring away on the couch…THIS is your life, don’t miss out on it because you were dreaming of something that doesn’t really exist.
6. Practice self-compassion
Sometimes Christmas isn’t all warm and fuzzy especially if you are not in one of those “perfect” families or if you have lost a loved one and Christmas is just not the same without them. You don’t have to push through with a fake smile planted on your face, at least not to yourself. Be real, acknowledge your own pain if you are suffering, and cradle that tender heart of yours with patience, understanding, kindness and lots of self-compassion. And don’t feel all alone either – although it is still a bit of a taboo subject, Christmas is hard for many people so you are not the only one who may not be feeling full of cheer.
I hope these guidelines are useful and I wish you a Christmas season that is not only merry, but calm, genuine, and full of all the things that really count.
Have you got any suggestions for coping with a crazy Christmas? Please share in the comments below!