It's easy to get swept away in the fervor of the holidays. Between the incessant ramblings of news reporters about the weekly shopping totals, the frequent shots of long lines at various retailers, the marathon to buy the neverending list of presents (just when you think you've finished, you remember the neighbors, your child's teachers, your spouse's co-workers, etc.), the mountains of boxes to wrap, the race to decorate and light up the perimeter of the yard, and the hectic schedule of holiday parties to attend, it's no wonder too many people associate the holidays with one big month of stress.
To make matters worse, the list of things to buy seems to always get longer, while many peoples' wallets are undeniably shrinking. In a time of heightened foreclosures and increasing layoffs, even the reasonably well-off are feeling anxiety about going overboard in spending. Ironically, some of the items on our list are actually cheaper to buy this year than last year as wave after wave of sales and discounts force retailers to whittle away at their profits. On the one hand, people are just plain scared to part with their money. On the other hand, stores that offer deep price cuts plus excellent savings are clearing out their inventory.
The worst part for me isn't even the spending -- I'm likely to overshop in any economy. No, the things that stress me out are all the things to do, and not nearly enough time to do it. How am I supposed to find the time to buy presents for 30+ people, box and wrap everything in time, bake 5 dozen cookies, write 80 Christmas cards, clean and decorate the house inside and out, plan and cook a feast for 15 family members, attend more than 10 holiday get-togethers, and bring over all the donations of food, gifts, and clothing collected by churches and charities -- all in just over 20 days while holding down a job and managing a household?
To be sure, the sights and sounds of a more appealing holiday season beckon me: the free concerts at churches, the caroling in town squares, the holiday lights shows, the children's recitals, the cooking demonstrations at Williams-Sonoma, the baking parties, and the call to volunteer at local food banks/soup kitchens/hospitals/retirement homes/other great causes. Or, just to duck into Starbucks and lounge peacefully with a steaming Gingerbread Latte while listening to my favorite holiday tunes. Now that would be a holiday worth looking forward to.
My husband and I recently watched a special holiday episode of one of our most beloved travel shows, Rick Steves Europe. Rick took us on a tour of the Old Country through storybook Alpine villages, charming English towns, rolling Tuscan countrysides, and chic Parisian boulevards complete with smartly dressed children. As we watched the beautiful Christmas season unfold at Advent and culminate in a joyous New Year's Day, we witnessed many time-honored traditions still being followed, even in the widespread digital society that is much of Europe today. What really struck us -- amidst the mesmerizing lights spectacles, angelic choral melodies, painstakingly crafted religious figurines and nutcrackers, crackling chestnuts being roasted on street corners, and lovingly decorated homemade gingerbread houses -- was the determined focus on family, friends, and an overall appreciation of the season's natural wonders.
Sure, we saw the bustle of pedestrians toting bags of gifts for their families. We saw plenty of oversized pine trees lugged home then dressed in either fine ornaments or simple white lights. We saw wreaths hung on doors, candles lit on windowsills, and stockings hung by fires. But we also saw children hand-dipping taper candles in German shopping malls to give to their parents. We saw English moms teaching their sons and daughters to make traditional plum pudding. We saw Swiss friends inviting each other over for an evening of fondue, hot mulled gluwine, and singing by the piano. We saw Italian toddlers distributing freshly baked panetone bread to their elderly neighbors. We saw French households everywhere displaying a unique "creche" or nativity scene with little clay saints. We saw Norwegian girls young and old donning white robes and a crown of evergreens 12 days before Christmas then waking up their parents to serve them coffee and buns to honor Saint Lucia Day. We heard teenagers all over performing centuries-old musical renditions of religious stories and choral concerts.
During a season that has so much to offer in the way of sights, traditions, and religious messages, many of us choose (or feel forced) to succumb to the stressful and sometimes superficial elements of the holidays. It's almost unfair, as I would much prefer to sit with friends around my fireplace, sip peppermint cocoa, and just catch up. Or just call up 10 people that I haven't spoken to in a year and find out what's going on in their lives rather than buy, write, address, and mail 80 Christmas cards. Instead of buying loads of new toys, clothes, and gadgets for family members that really don't need them (not to mention racking my brain to come up with creative gift lists), I'd rather buy and deliver more gifts to the poor, widowed, and abandoned in my community. Most of all, I would love to just enjoy a full week of cooking delicious meals and baking heavenly cakes for me, to enjoy myself, without worrying about cleaning the whole house or setting up buffets or taking down and putting back dozens of pieces of china.
Granted, there are a few purely pagan rituals that I do enjoy during the holidays. I like to go to the local nursery -- not the temporary lots set up along the side of the road or at churches -- and pick out a tall, fresh tree. We usually opt for a Douglas or Noble Fir, since we like longer, softer needles and a fuller, leafier body. We pay a little more at the nursery, but the trees are well-nurtured and full of life, plus they have beautiful wreaths, poinsettias, and other colorful winter plants you can pick up with your tree. After we take it home, unwrap it, and stand it up as the centerpiece of the living room, my favorite part is spending the next few days simply inhaling the heady aroma of the fresh evergreen scent that permeates the entire main level of the house. I think I revel in the actual woodsy ambiance the tree creates even more than the numerous boxfulls of ornaments and tangles of lights that eventually adorn it.
Another pagan pleasure I partake in is decorating the fireplace, toasting marshmallows or chestnuts in the fire, and watching holiday movies. Most of the year, the fireplace sits neglected and bare, with the occasional fire roaring forth on a particularly blustery day. But during the holiday season, I like to decorate it with lots of colorful stockings (even though there are only 2 of us plus 1 cat) and line the mantle with candles. It really becomes the hearth (and the heart) of the home, and it makes us want to sit together to stay warm and watch the crackling fire. Day in and day out during the year, my husband dominates the big rec room television and all the entertainment systems with his shows, games, and music. But when we sit in front of the fireplace, we sit closer together on the living room loveseat rather than the sprawling rec room sofa and watch the smaller television next to the fireplace. Whether we're watching the old-time animated Christmas stories or the plethora of recent cheesy flicks, warming our feet at the fire while sipping mulled tea or cocoa hearkens back to the simple enjoyments of a quieter era.
Like many of the European traditions we saw in the travel show, my ideal holiday season would be filled with 4 equals parts: 1 part religious themes, 1 part charitable acts, 1 part nature appreciation, and 1 part low-key friends and family time. What I could definitely do without is sending 80 Christmas cards, racing around the yard and rooftop to outdo myself in lights and decorations, fighting for parking then standing in long lines with unhappy children and frantic shoppers to buy 3 dozen presents (then agonizing about whether I spent too much, too little, or got the right gift), boxing and wrapping like mad in the wee hours before Christmas, and having to prioritize which friends birthdays to celebrate in December (there are surprisingly many) while trying to make it to family dinners, friends' cocktail parties, office functions, and the few worthwhile charity events that need to be squeezed in.
I can also do without the 5,000 or so solicitations for money that I receive during the holidays from every possible organization on the planet that seems to repeat itself under different names. This especially irks me since I tend to give throughout the year and find it difficult to open my wallet when I've just spent about a grand on the holidays (plus the many friend's birthdays that fall during the holidays) and the few charities I already chose for my holiday giving. Yet it brings a nagging guilt to my conscience when I open up envelope after envelope and find lovely packets of Christmas cards drawn by terminally ill children, address labels sent by organizations that feed the hungry and support wounded veterans, or (my biggest pet peeve) the prominent nickel or quarter glued to the front of the solicitation offering me "free money" in exchange for my modest monetary gift. This, added to the endless phone calls and announcements in the church bulletin about all the suffering, poor, and persecuted -- both nearby and across the globe -- that need my help makes more depressed, not joyful, that I can't help them all.
So how what can we do to enjoy the holidays more, and cope with the many stresses that seek to control us? My thought is, if I can at least mix in at least one traditional, soul-pleasing event per week, then I can feel as if I accomplished what I really wanted during the holidays.
Here is my Chicken Soup for the Soul-esqe wish list of things to do during the 7 weeks between the day after Thanksgiving and the January 6 feast of Epiphany:
1. Roast chestnuts over an open fire. Even though the chestnuts I buy at the grocery store aren't worth waiting an hour for by the fire - let alone waxing poetic about by the likes of Bing Crosby - they still remind me of a time when the simpler foods and simpler pleasures were enough to warm one's heart.
2. Bake . Now, everyone who knows me knows that I simply don't bake. I can whip up a mean 3-course meal, knock out 10 sensational hors d'oeuvres for a party, or throw together a divine last-minute brunch for surprise company. But I do not bake. Not bread, not cookies, and certainly not fresh-from-scratch pies. My sister-in-law, that's another story. She makes 3 pies for the Thanksgiving dinner alone (all on homemade crusts). For the holidays, she bakes literally hundreds upon hundreds of cookies for friends and family, which she keeps stored in giant tool-sized plastic bins. But me, I'm not good with dough or any derivatives of it. During the holidays, however, that doesn't stop me. I strive to make at least one homemade sweet. Last year it was fudge (technically not baked, but still a sweet). The year before, it was pumpkin pie (okay, I didn't carve the pumpkin, but I still pressed in my own crust and doctored up canned pumpkin
with my own unique blend of spices, which I topped with freshly-whipped cream. This year, I'm going to try to make decadent cupcakes, my latest rave. I guess around the holidays, the oven beckons me enough to throw my inhibitions to the wind. Even if I'm the only one who ends up eating my unique creations.
3. Drink mulled beverages. Whether it's mulled cider, spiced tea, or mulled wine, I eagerly anticipate bringing home fresh mulling spices (not the horrid milk carton sugar-based ones) and brewing up a piping hot vat of an aromatic beverage. It also makes the house smell divine.
4. Sing along to every single Christmas album I own. I like to do this in the car and at home while wrapping presents. Since my husband is vehemently opposed to the tradition of caroling, it's the closest I come to belting out all my favorite hymns, carols, and holiday tunes.
5. Tour a festival of lights nearby. I'm actually going to do this after Christmas this year, because I can't find any time to fit it in during the coming weeks. Fortunately, there are several parks, historic sites, and peoples' houses on the tour list this year. Although I would never go through all the trouble of hanging intricate rows of lights to illuminate an entire scene, I really do appreciate the effort that others go through to bring visual beauty to the rest of us during the season when the days are short and dark comes all too early.
6. Attend a holiday musical presentation. When I was younger, my parents always took me to see The Nutcracker ballet (can you believe it was scorned on its opening night performance in St. Petersburg more than a century ago?). Now, I often opt for a classical choral concert of Handel's Messiah or a symphony of bells. Our local historic church, which was once attended by both George Washington and Robert E. Lee (and now George W. Bush on December 21) offers a beautiful selection of musical masterpieces. They range from old European madrigals to traditional English carols, as well as string quartets and choir concerts. It's so uplifting to escape the business of one's day and simply get swept away by majestic voices heralding the glory of God. Of all the enjoyments of the season, traditional Christmas music is probably my favorite.
7. Watch or hear the real story of Christmas being told. I don't mean 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, either. I mean the real account of the birth of Jesus, the reason for the season. Whether it's a biblical re-creation at a children's pageant, or a prelude read aloud before a Christmas concert, the simple story of the nativity from the Gospel of Luke - with it's humble description of Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus swaddled in a manger - makes me remember the whole point of Christmas, which also has the effect of making me feel more at peace:
"In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
So have yourself a merry and nostalgic little Christmas, and may you and your family experience the full peace and wonder of the season!
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