When on a sunny, summer day, you hear the word "Christmas," how do you react?
For years, the mere mention of this would-be jolly word sent a chill up my spine, even in July. Jack Frost, snowmen, and a baby in the manger had nothing to do with it. It was the premonition of holiday burnout.
Working as a professional, being a mother with lots of friends and family, and carrying the local reputation of social doyenne meant that the busyness of shopping, wrapping, and party-throwing ran my elf legs ragged. So for years, the days between Thanksgiving and mid-January were a battle. I constantly stifled bah-humbugs and restrained my green Grinch arms from strangulating anyone who spoke in merry measure.
The irony was that I wanted to be a cheerful citizen and considerate boss. We all have our breaking points. Those of us who for adventure, love, or money live every day to our limits, don't appreciate having society toss more straw on our camel's back.
When my children looked to me with visions of sugarplums, it squeezed my heart that I couldn't share their enthusiasm. And my own mother was more a kid than anyone. Now she is gone. A poignant memory goes back to one Christmas she shared with my young family.
Having just flown in that evening, Mom was full of excitement and couldn't stop talking at 2 a.m. I was seated on the floor after a long, stressful day of work, surrounded by gifts to wrap. Although conditioned to multitasking, my brain was so overwhelmed that it couldn't process all I had to do as well as follow her conversation. Dear Mom hadn't worked since World War II. She was as innocent as a child to what it was like to juggle the grenades of work and family life.
I had to stop it. I didn't want to, but I did. "Mom," I said as gently as possible, "I just can't talk now. I'm sorry, but would you please be quiet." It was the only time in my life that I told my mom to hold her ever-active tongue. This may not sound like much, but I felt horrible. Like someone had painted me lime green and made me kill a mockingbird.
Perhaps you too long to be a carefree child at Christmas, but wrestle with adulthood and all its responsibility. What to do? I've been a slow learner, but these three things have helped:
1. Simplify. Obviously, but how?
Union Square in San Francisco is always a jolly place at Christmas: giant tree, busy shoppers, fabulous window displays, and sometimes even an outdoor skating rink. One year an activist's sign advised the crowd: Say No to Materialism.
My husband and I laughed. Right. Just tell our family and friends, "We're saying NO to materialism this year" and check out? Doubtless the protester felt more righteous than us commercial peons, but his suggestion was not helpful.
However, with a little willpower, there are a few things we can do to simplify. If we do so honestly and a smile, no one will detect the odor of scrooge on our breath.
• Cut down people on your list. Do something nice with them sometime instead, like buy lunch or coffee. (It was tough telling our extended families they were cut, but in the long run they were glad too.)
• Draw names for large families and groups
• Cut back on the number and cost of gifts. In the barrage of gifting, people forget who gave what.
• Internet and catalog shopping is leaps above mall mania.
• Gift cards and certificates.
• Duplicate gifts; the same thing for as many people as possible
• Decorate and wrap gifts simply; enjoy outside decorations. (We've done the show house thing; enjoying public decorations is easier and healthier.)
• Bring home something living -- a pine bough, holly, or poinsettia -- that "one touch of nature" that makes the whole world kin easily lifts your spirits.
2. Rectify reality with your past.
Carol, a wise woman I know, gave great holiday advice. She told her daughter, my friend, "Don't worry so much dear. You are trying to reproduce the experiences of your childhood. But remember, those things happened over many Christmases, not all at once."
Let's not telescope our past. Just enjoy today.
After she raised wonderful children, Carol moved to Eastern Europe, where she's spent two decades with the homeless, caring for orphans and drug addicts. Now, there's someone who knows how to live the spirit of Christmas all year long!
3. Amplify your joy in pleasing others.
Psychologists and theologians tell us it's a top way to find meaning in life. There's a Santa's sack full of opportunities this season. Sure, let's make our children happy in reasonable ways, but let's also include them in the joy of serving others. You too could:
• Make Christmas boxes for disadvantaged children around the globe. Put in a family photo or note to personalize it.
• Entertain foreign students and immigrants who either don't celebrate Christmas in their country or are far from their families' celebrations.
• Take baskets to needy families that you know, or get them tickets for holiday shows like The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol.
• Drop a check in the bell-ringer's pot for the needy -- easier than mailing it.
• Smile and have a friendly greeting for everyone. Even if you have to fake it a bit, it's the smallest gift that warms both you and the recipient.
When the holidays are over, these worthy activities will go on giving.
Will this regimen inoculate you against post-holiday exhaustion and January flu? No. But like vitamin C, it should reduce their power. And perhaps if you are busy to the point of batty, it will cure your summer shudder and help Grinch your inner Scrooge.
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