Ah, the holiday season: The delicious aromas from the kitchen, the wonder in the eyes of children on Christmas morning, the joyous bustle of friends and family gathered together around a crackling fire. It’s a time of enchantment, of magical moments and memories — undoubtedly the best of times.
Well, maybe not. All too often the real-life holiday season doesn’t quite match the media images that swirl about our heads. Instead of being enthralled by vistas of glistening snow, we’re more likely to be aggravated by bone-chilling cold, sleet, or mud. Rather than being swept up in the excitement of little children, we’re more likely to be swept up in a parade of cars circling the parking lot at the mall or by the mobs packing the aisles of the overcrowded stores. Our home fills up with relatives who seem never to leave, our stomachs fill up with too much food and drink, and under the stress of it all, our happiness and good cheer seem ready to crumble.
But then it’s all over. Thanks to the miracle of holiday amnesia, we manage to forget the bad, remember only the good, and find ourselves the next year gearing up for another holiday cycle. And so it goes, year after year, until one day we suddenly realize that our lives and our well-entrenched holiday habits no longer quite fit. Our children have grown up and left home. Perhaps we’ve gone through a divorce or moved to a new job and town far away from family and friends. Instead of being part of the gathering of the clan, we’re alone with the cat; instead of the dining room table being set for 20, the kitchen table is set for two, or one.
For some, the change can be overwhelming; for others, it simply leaves them feeling unexpectedly rudderless in the sea of holiday activity. In either case, they are dealing with life changes and the underlying sense of loss they bring — loss not only of people and places, but also of habits and routines that were part of the season for so long.
Taking stock of the old
If you’re in this situation, cheer up. While feelings of gloom are perfectly normal, they can keep you from missing a wonderful opportunity to recreate the old traditions and create some new ones. Where do you start? By first deciding what you want to keep.
Think back over all those past holidays — the Thanksgivings, Christmases, Kwanzas, Hanukkahs, New Years. Out of all that went on, all that you did, what did you like the best, what had the greatest meaning for you? Maybe you loved entertaining lots of people at your home, or maybe what you really looked forward to was the chance for more intimate get-togethers with family and friends. Perhaps you enjoyed buying special presents for those you cared about, or welcomed the emotional grounding you felt from religious services or the spiritual messages of the season. Go back through your memories and pick out those things that were most important to you over the years.
Now, be really honest. What didn’t you like? Maybe it was the crowds of people in your home, or all the “shoulds” in your head that told you who you had to invite or buy presents for, or the hectic pace of all those parties, or all the cooking, or the inevitable stuffing yourself for weeks at a time. Why not give yourself permission to give up these less enjoyable activities? Think about rebuilding your holiday with only those things that are important to you.
I know what you’re thinking. Sure, you’re more than willing to skip your neighbor’s holiday fondue fiesta or bypass the annual anguish of trying to find the right present for your hard-to-please Aunt Tess. But losing time with your children or that traditional family supper at midnight on Christmas Eve isn’t so easy to deal with. And you’re right. But is there a way to continue the tradition in a new way?
If it’s the crowds and entertaining that you enjoy, who can you reach out to and invite — neighbors, coworkers, folks from your church or civic group who you’d like to get to know better? Even if some of them turn down your invitation, there are probably many who, just like you, would enjoy having company for dinner or who would love a midnight supper on Christmas Eve. Will it feel the same as family? No, probably not; new people are going to create a totally new experience. But you may be surprised, not only by how well it turns out, but also by how many new friendships you’ve started.
Maybe you’ve always enjoyed toy shopping for your kids. How about finding gifts for your local Toys for Tots program? Enjoy caroling? Talk to your neighbors about starting a caroling tradition in your neighborhood, join an up-and-running established group, or meet with friends at a local nursing home and sing for the residents. Have religious services traditionally been one of the cornerstones of your holiday season? If you’re new to an area or have not attended services for some time, start now to explore the local synagogues or churches; find one where you feel comfortable, and plan, despite the normal hesitations newness creates, to attend.
Finally, consider some type of volunteering. There’s no better antidote to feeling down and out about the holes in your own life than getting involved in the lives of others. Help out at a soup kitchen, ring the bell for the Salvation Army, serve as an usher at your community New Year celebration, or start a clothing or food drive at your work, social organization, neighborhood, or church. During the holiday season, most communities are abuzz with good causes that could use your time and talents.
Creating the new
Maybe, though, you’re ready for a more drastic change of pace. Maybe you’d like to break the mold and treat the holiday season in a completely different way.
How about taking a vacation? Go on that trip to Colorado where the skiing is great, take that hike through the New Mexico desert, or kick back and relax on the warm, sunny beaches of Florida that you’ve been dreaming about for so many years. Don’t want to travel alone? Take advantage of holiday group tours and off-season rates to visit some adventurous or exotic locale that strikes your fancy. Visit folks you haven’t seen for a long time — distant relatives, high school friends — not only to renew old relationships, but also to see new sights. Consider beginning the new year on a deeper and firmer footing by going on a spiritual retreat.
Or maybe going anywhere is the last thing you want. If you’ve always found yourself on the road over the holidays, the notion of simply staying home may seem especially attractive. Try it — you may be thrilled by the nonscheduled pace of your time, and if you find you don’t like it, you can always make plans to go out of town again next year.
However you decide to celebrate the holidays and use your time, don’t hesitate to simplify, pare down, remove the confusion and clutter so that the holiday best represents your current needs and interests.
Keeping the emotional fires burning
Shaping the holidays to fit your current needs is only part of the successful holiday equation; the other is having realistic expectations. No matter how excited you may be about taking that big trip or meeting new people, for example, don’t be surprised if you find yourself, sometime in the middle of it all, missing what you used to do or the people you used to see. Rather than pushing back or trying to ignore these normal feelings and thoughts, acknowledge and express them. By doing so you actually get over them more quickly and make emotional room for enjoying the present.
Similarly, don’t expect all your holiday planning and preparation to guarantee that it will run perfectly. Some of your guests may cancel at the last minute, for example, or the food you ordered may turn out to be terrible, or you may find that inviting all those neighbors over was too draining of your time and energy or that the trip to Florida was more hectic than you had hoped. Think of your revised holiday celebrations as a work-in-progress. Whether you’re recreating old traditions or starting new ones, you’re still plowing new psychological ground, experimenting, and hopefully discovering what does and doesn’t work for you. What doesn’t work well tells you what not to do again, and that in itself is valuable information for next year.
Finally, it’s important that in your enthusiasm you don’t take on too much all at once. Change is great, but too much too fast will leave you overloaded and burned out. Here are some tips to keep you mentally and physically balanced:
Take care of your health. The holidays, with the change in routines, the stress, and the array of food and drink, make it easy to slip away from healthy diabetes management. Watch your diet, and continue your exercise. If you feel good physically, it’s easier to feel better mentally and be able to appreciate the joys the holidays bring.
Keep up your routines. It’s not only your diabetes routines that are important. Everyday routines — taking the dog for a walk, reading the paper after breakfast, going for a walk around the block before dinner, calling your daughter on Sunday mornings — all the things you normally do during the day or week help keep you emotionally grounded and reduce the stress of change. Even if you plan to change your locale or activities during the holidays, bring some of your home habits with you. Build them into your daily schedule when making your plans.
Find time to unwind. Even with routines you may find yourself getting tired or more cranky than you normally would, signs and symptoms of the normal stress that accompanies change. Find time to relax and unwind with a cup of chamomile tea in the afternoon, some quiet time reading your favorite book after lunch, a 20-minute rest while the dinner is cooking or before you go out for the evening. While it’s good to stay active, small periods of rest and quiet spaced out during the day can keep your energy and mood at their peak.
Allow yourself to change your mind. One of the tricks to enjoying yourself is recognizing and admitting when you’re not. While going out to a big New Year’s party at your neighbor’s house may have sounded great a month ago, your enthusiasm may have waned as you turn the corner on the third week of the get-togethers and drop-ins. Be flexible and give yourself permission to change your mind, to stay home and rent a video or go out for a quiet dinner, if that seems to better fit how you’d like to spend your time. Feeling trapped by commitments and plans that aren’t what you want keep your holiday from truly being your holiday.
Take time to appreciate what you have. Throughout history, end-of-the-year holidays have been celebrations in the fullest sense of the word — occasions to remember and appreciate the accomplishments of the past year, to acknowledge the contributions of those who have gone before, to look forward to the new year with all the wonder and opportunities that it holds.
Unfortunately, many people find themselves focusing on their mistakes, their regrets, the “didn’t haves” and the “might have beens.” If this seems to be your inclination, try making an extra effort to notice the positive aspects of the past year. Acknowledge and appreciate your accomplishments and contributions, no matter how small, all that you have and had, no matter how minor it may seem, your connection to others close to you, so easy to take for granted. If you are religious or spiritual, use this time to reaffirm the ever-present power of forgiveness and rebirth, to renew and recall the unique purpose of the wondrous journey that is your life, to take time and celebrate all that is you.
The best holiday ever
The mixture of emotions and memories that we all carry within us during the holiday season makes the natural changes in our lives stand out in bold relief. But each holiday season brings with it the opportunity to create something new, to rediscover parts of ourselves or our past that have been forgotten for too long. Make this holiday the best ever, a season that captures your spirit, your hopes, your dreams for the new year to come.