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Taming the Chaos of Christmas
It’s time to plan and look forward to Christmas. Here are some ideas to make the season less stressful and more memorable.

Ah! The Christmas holidays are almost here! Time to embrace our loved ones, enjoy good food and good conversations, relive favourite Christmas memories through the eyes of the delighted children who gather around the tree. Time to celebrate the blessings of the year and the blessings of the season.

I have many fond memories of childhood Christmases. My favourite memories invoke a hazy picture of Grandpa’s wizened face as we gathered around the table with extended family for prayers and traditions carried from the Old Country. My grandfather brought a sacred solemnity and dignity to the traditional Christmas feast. Although I was young (he died when I was eight), I understood at least some of the symbolism behind the rituals. Following his lengthy grace in Polish, he carefully peeled an orange and dividing it into pieces, gave each person at the table a section. If a family member was missing, somebody took a segment for the one not there. I knew this signified family togetherness and unity.

Unforgettable food followed. These were the special dishes we had only at Christmas: the honeyed wheat with poppy seeds, roasted goose, broiled fish, and then the pies. There were pumpkin pies, Saskatoon berry pies, and always apple pies. I don’t remember a fancy tree or lots of gifts. I do remember Grandpa and the hush that settled on the room as he presided over the table.

Christmas spent at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s small house somehow captured the very essence of the season and did much to strengthen family ties with cousins, aunts, and uncles. Grandpa and Grandma knew how to make Christmas memorable.

But there are also Christmases made memorable by events I’d rather forget. The near relative who behaved unbecomingly while under the influence, the family squabbles, the tension headaches from trying to accomplish the impossible in an attempt to impress, the financial worries from overextending an already stretched budget. Sadly, when I reminisce about unpleasant events from Christmases past, I know I’m not the only one who has holiday memories they’d like to forget.

The fact is, the Christmas season has the potential to be the most stressful time of the year.  Expectations are high for every gathering to serve up heaping helpings of something extraordinary. Christmas is supposed to be a time of love, joy, and peace. We hear that message in popular songs and old-fashioned carols, sermons and advertisements alike.

But where does all that love, joy, and peace come from? Marketing agencies would have us believe it comes from brightly coloured packages in stores near you. One visit to the mall a week or two before Christmas is convincing evidence that many have bought into that belief. But, even the Grinch knew better than that. “Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more!” (How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss).

Undeniably, there really is a sense of genuine goodwill toward others this time of year. It’s nice to hear, “Merry Christmas” from store clerks and strangers and it seems there are more smiles on faces around Christmas than at any other time of year.

Although busy and stressed, most people really do try to live above the mundane, reaching down inside themselves to be more gracious, polite, and friendly, just because it’s Christmas. All the while, carols playing on the loud speakers remind us of some of the ideals we cherish, while providing heartwarming accompaniment to alleviate the shopping distress many seem to experience.

That is the irony of Christmas. Our mantra is love, joy, and peace. But we often end up giving and getting something quite different. And when we look around us on Boxing Day morning, we may wonder what it was all about. The frenzied build-up to the day (the advent calendars, school pageants, media hype, frantic buying for long lists of friends and relatives) can make the day itself feel anticlimactic – a real let-down for parents and children alike.

I sometimes wonder what kind of a celebration Jesus would have introduced if He’d inaugurated a commemoration of His birth. The gentle Saviour chose birth in a barn, not a tinsel bedecked palace, was heralded by angels declaring Peace on earth because of His birth, called Himself “meek and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:28-29), grew up in a dusty carpenter’s shop making things for people with His hands, and spent His life serving others. I wonder how He feels about the holiday named in His honour when He looks upon our frantic, un-peaceful preparations, elaborate decorations, and hectic shopping sprees in search of the perfect gift.

All the stress and striving to make Christmas exceptional for ourselves and our loved ones leave a lot of us burned out and exhausted – literally sick and tired. The hectic pace of life as we gear up for the day, the over-indulgence in festive foods and drinks, and the pressure to pull off with finesse all those parties and pageants have some of us reeling by Christmas Eve. Often we end up trying to cope with our many responsibilities while nursing a pounding headache, battling a flu bug, or dealing with the unpleasant effects of the common cold. The festive season can be hard on our health.

So what is at the root of all the stress? Maybe some of the anxiety we experience around this festive season has to do with the clash of our actions with our values. Cognitively we understand that love cannot be presented in a box tied with a bow. But we feel at a loss to replace commerce-driven actions and behaviours with something more meaningful.

Betsy Taylor, in her book, What Kids Really Want that Money Can’t Buy: Tips for Parenting in a Commercial World, says, “Many families are actively taking back the holidays” (Warner Books, 2003). Some people have found relief from their stress-producing cognitive dissonance by opting out of Christmas as it’s generally observed, to make their own traditions. If you’re looking for ways to revamp the holidays and are ready to try something new, consider the following.

Protect your health and the health of your family during the holidays

Staying well is the best thing you can do for yourselves and those you love. It’s hard to enjoy the company of others when you’re nursing a bad cold. Too many sweets, lack of sleep and exercise all contribute to poor health. Consider establishing some guidelines that you can all live with to preserve your health over the holiday season. The acronym, NEWSTART, can help you remember these eight tips for maintaining good health. And you don’t need to wait till New Year to get started.

1. Nutrition

Keeping meals on schedule will help fight the urge to nibble on holiday goodies. Steer snacks in the right direction by having festive displays of fresh fruits and nuts in shell, instead of candies and chocolates on hand. Serve plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, attractively presented, with meals. Try starting busy holiday mornings with a fruit smoothie instead of artery-clogging holiday breakfast fare. Whiz together berries, a frozen banana and milk or yoghurt (dairy or non-dairy) for a grab-and-go treat you won’t regret later.

2. Exercise

The holidays are a great time to gather with friends and family and do something fun and memorable. Plan an old-fashioned skating party, try snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, or gather the kids and head into the woods to follow animal tracks. Exercise can take on an altruistic spin if you grab your shovels and clean your neighbour’s walk or volunteer for dog-walking at the local animal shelter.

3. Water

North Americans are chronically dehydrated. We all know that we should drink about two litres of water daily. Few of us actually do. While we may think that any liquid will do, what our bodies really need is pure water, nothing added. According to Dr. Batmanghelidj (author of Water: For Health, For Healing, For Life) who has conducted years of clinical studies on the effects of water and dehydration on the body, many diseases are the result of chronic dehydration. Our bodies require a regular supply of free water for cellular health, smooth pain-free joint movement, clear thinking, quick and efficient operation of our immune system, problem-free digestion, plus innumerable other functions. Adequate water intake also ensures healthy skin and is the best (and cheapest!) way to fight aging.

So don’t let the festivities prevent you from getting the water you need. Remember that winter air is usually drier than summer air, so you lose more fluid through respiration in the winter. Also keep in mind that by the time you begin to feel thirsty, your body may already be short up to half a litre of water. So drink up!

4. Sunshine

Getting too much sun can be harmful to your health. But the body requires a certain amount daily in order to produce the vitamin D required for bone strength. In addition to the added stress of the Christmas season, some people in the northern hemisphere experience the winter blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) when daylight hours diminish during fall and winter. Sufferers of SAD can experience depression, change in appetite, weight gain, low-energy, and lack of libido. Getting enough sunlight on your skin can help to alleviate SAD symptoms. Another good reason to gather outdoors for fun under the winter sun.

5. Temperance

Christmas excesses often lead to New Year’s resolutions! We tend to ease our restraints during holiday times, staying up late, eating too much, and indulging in food and drink we may not normally consume. Snack and dessert trays served up at one Christmas party after another tempt us to try all the delicious-looking treats. Main courses served buffet-style beckon us for seconds. Resisting the urge to “have a little more” can be difficult, but there’s always a price to pay for intemperance. We often end up paying with our health through weight gain, fatigue, heartburn, indigestion, or headaches. A little restraint can go a long way toward protecting health over the holidays. And maybe even make some of those New Year’s resolutions unnecessary!

6. Air

Fresh air is imperative for good health. When temperatures fall, we tend to close all our windows and stay indoors more. Heading outside, even in cold weather, can bring health benefits, especially if you’ve been burning candles, or using your fireplace. Go for a walk, hang treats in the trees for the birds, go out after supper to watch the stars. Breathing deeply will bring necessary oxygen-rich air to all your cells, help you to think clearly, and bring relief from stress.

7. Rest

Getting enough good-quality sleep is important for optimal health. Staying as close to your normal bed-time routine as possible over the holidays is not only good for your overall health, but can prevent the kinds of problems associated with changes in circadian rhythm (our body’s internal time clock), when it’s time to return to work and school. When our circadian rhythm is disturbed, our body’s regulatory system goes out of sync causing us to feel lousy. So keep an eye on the clock, and hit the hay on time so you can be fresh and alert enough to really enjoy the fun!

8. Trust in God

Our loving Creator designed the human body in His likeness. He has provided for all our needs, and wants what is best for us. We can trust Him with our problems because He experienced the troubles of this life, too. Trusting Him will relieve the burdens of holiday stress that so often jeopardize good health. “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7 NIV).

Protect your family time against the commercialism of the season

I believe Betsy Taylor when she says, “Your kids will thank you when you shift the focus from what they will get to what they will do” (What Kids Really Want, p. 207). Kids are great idealists and creative thinkers. Plan together some fun activities to make the season memorable and avoid falling into the shopping-as-a-form-of-recreation trap this Christmas season. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Plan some old fashioned entertainment, like charades, skits, a talent show, or caroling.
  • Volunteer at a soup kitchen and help serve Christmas dinner.
  • Learn something new from each other. With family members and friends, do an inventory of skills that you could teach each other. Do you know how to build an igloo? Does Aunt Jessica know how to knit a scarf? Does Tommy who’s in grade 2 know how to make an ornament from Christmas cards? Plan a learning day and have some fun sharing your family’s expertise.
  • Have a cookie baking party.
  • Call your community volunteer association to find out where you can lend a hand in your community during the holidays.
  • Adopt someone for the season. Bring singles, the elderly living alone, and others living outside the sphere of family into the home for fun and fellowship.

Eliminate excessive gift buying

Let’s face it. Most of us really don’t need more stuff, and teaching our kids to resist materialism as a value is worthwhile. Two websites with some great ideas for alternatives to gift-buying are:

The Christmas season can be a time of love, joy, and peace, if you take control of your holiday plans. Look after yourself and your family. Time spent together with loved ones isn’t really about stuff. Endless possibilities exist to start a new tradition or explore forgotten traditions associated with your family’s ethnic background. It’s a time to slow down, be creative, and have fun. It can be as simple as remembering the significance of peeling an orange.

Originally published in Beyond Ordinary Living, December 2007.

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