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Happy Holidays?

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Choose to focus on the beauty of the season.
By Jene Hedden and Paula Moore Hurtt

        There’s a movie, “Christmas with the Kranks” based on John Grisham’s popular 2001 novel, Skipping Christmas, about a couple who decide to skip all the decorating, entertaining, cooking, gift-giving and all things Christmas to go on a Caribbean cruise.  Their only child has left home, and they don’t feel the need to celebrate in all the usual ways without her.  Hilarity and slapstick ensue.  It’s a funny movie, but the underlying theme is serious.  Things change, and sometimes we feel the need to do things differently…even long-standing Christmas traditions.  
               There are many life events that can change our feelings about the holidays and they range from trivial to truly disastrous. 
              ♦The holidays are bittersweet for many people.  At this time of year we sorely miss those who are gone.  If we have lost a loved one during the past year, it may feel impossible to celebrate.  Those who have lost a spouse, sibling or child can feel particularly bereft during the holidays as all the usual traditions, sights and sounds remind them of their lost loved ones and holidays past.  How can one possibly be merry under those circumstances?   
           For the person in mourning at this time of year, it’s most important to remember that there is no judgement about how you are handling the holidays.  There is no law that says you have to celebrate in all the usual ways.  If certain traditions are particularly hurtful, skip them or create new traditions. 
               It’s also important to have a plan.  Don’t let the holidays and their traditions sneak up on you without a plan for how you will handle the more painful moments.  If it’s too painful to be alone on Christmas Eve, make plans to be out and about or invite family and friends in to get over the hurdle of that time. Your friends are likely wondering how they can help you and make you feel better.  Let family and friends know you are available and accept invitations.  Holiday events are for sharing.  Allow others to invite you into theirs  If you feel at loose ends without your loved one there to keep Christmas with you, look for a place to volunteer.  Check with the local soup kitchen, churches and nursing homes and see who needs help.  Helping others always helps us feel better about own circumstances.   
               On the other hand, it’s also important to schedule some quiet time into your holiday.  You need to give yourself a few solitary moments to process your feelings.  If you don’t keep a gratitude journal, this is a good time to start one.  Counting your blessings, even in the midst of mourning, is a great balance for sad feelings.
               Some people find comfort in commemorating their lost loved one.  You can burn a memory candle throughout the holiday, make a donation to his favorite charity in his name or use the occasion to hand down heirlooms to children and grandchildren.  Or perhaps you could pull out old photo albums and share special Christmas memories with family and friends.   
              ♦For some, the holidays are so stressful, they can’t enjoy them.  Particularly for anyone who is struggling financially, Christmas can be especially difficult.  Boomers may be trying to get by on savings and retirement income while being burdened with medical bills.  Our children may be struggling to make ends meet as they raise their own young families.  Or our grandchildren, newly graduated from college, may be unemployed or under-employed in today’s economy. 
                    Fortunately, there are many ways to cut back on holiday expenses if we keep in mind that our time together is more valuable than what we spend.
          Christmas doesn’t have to be a big production.  It’s not the money we spend or the size of the tree or the number of gifts that make Christmas special for our families.  It’s the traditions we keep and the sense memories they invoke.  A sense memory is a memory brought on by a sight, smell or sound such as the scent of Christmas cookies in the oven, the sight of lights on the tree or the sound of a favorite Christmas carol.  These are not expensive things.  Yet when we share them with love and joy,  our children and grandchildren will remember them always. 
              Christmas is a good time to focus on inexpensive traditions.  Bake cookies with the grandchildren, gather greenery from the yard or farm to craft your own decorations, make and give homemade gifts to each other or bundle up and go caroling with the grand-kids.  Cut down on entertainment expenses by having friends over for coffee and dessert after dinner or having a cookie exchange party.

              Every generation and every family has its tough times.  The memories we make with our children and grandchildren now will help sustain them through their own tough times in the future. 

♦For some, the holidays are a struggle not because of sad memories or financial burdens, but simply because they occur in the darkest days of winter. 

Those of us who struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) find it difficult to get into the holiday spirit.  S.A.D. is characterized by the onset of depression during the winter months and is caused by the interruption of the body’s normal rhythms as the light/dark cycle negatively affects hormones in the brain that control the sleep/wake cycle.
Symptoms of S.A.D. are similar to symptoms of depression and may include sadness, sleep disturbances, anxiety, irritability, sudden weight loss or gain, crying or feelings of emptiness or hopelessness.  No amount of eggnog or fa-la-las can brighten the mood of the individual suffering from S.A.D. 

  There are ways to tamp down the Grinch in those of us who struggle with S.A.D.  Self-help treatments include being intentional about being in sunlight every day by taking a walk at lunch time or even just bundling up and standing outside in natural light for ten minutes twice a day.  It also helps to get regular exercise, have a regular bedtime and stick with it, avoid heavy caffeine use and avoid overindulgence in alcohol and heavy meals.  It’s tough to stick with these rules during the holiday, but the closer we stay to our regular routines, the less we’ll see of the Grinch.
                For more profound cases of S.A.D., the only effective treatments include light therapy in which the patient sits in front of full-spectrum light for a period of time each day.  Some studies indicate that taking melatonin under the guidance of a doctor may also help re-balance the body’s rhythms.  In some cases, anti-depressants and psychotherapy may be indicated.
            ♦Of course there are other reasons we may find the holidays to be less than happy.  Perhaps it’s memories of an unhappy childhood, an alcoholic parent, chronic illness, a painful break-up, a less than healthy family dynamic or any number of other of life’s difficulties.  Yet, no matter what is getting between us and a good Christmas, there are always things we can do to smooth the way.  Here are a few ideas: 
            Choose to turn off the noise.  We are all over-stimulated, particularly this time of the year.  This is doubly true for the children in our lives.  Choose to live in quieter surroundings by turning off the television and radio and taking breaks from social media.  Schedule quiet times into every day of the holiday season and invite your families into the stillness.  Read by the fireplace, rock a baby, take a walk on a still, frosty evening or just sit and gaze at the Christmas tree.  Peace on earth is found in the quiet moments.  
          Be purposeful about what you hear during the holidays.  The classic Christmas carols such as “Silent Night”, “O Holy Night” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” invoke memories of more peaceful times.  Their melodies bring us a sense of peace and relaxation as does classical music.  Music such as this will actually lower blood pressure and heart rate.  So, keep these carols and others like them on hand at home, in the car and on your hand-held music player.
          Choose to create realistic to-do lists.  Learning to say “no” can be one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself this Christmas.  Do your share, but don’t try to do it all or be perfect.  Decide early in the holiday season what responsibilities you will assume, then let the rest go.
          Delegate traditional holiday tasks such as cooking, cleaning, decorating, shopping, addressing cards and wrapping.  Check in with family members to find out what traditions are most important to each of them, then share that task with them.  Then let go of the need for perfection.  Letting go of unrealistic expectations for a perfect holiday season will bring you peace and create great memories with family and friends in the process. 
          Choose to take care of your body as well as your mind.  Take a nap.  Have a few bites of your favorite holiday treat, but don’t over-indulge.  Get regular exercise to release feel-good chemicals in your brain and keep your energy level up.

               Choose to acknowledge why we celebrate  Christmas in the first place  Invite God and the newborn babe into your celebration and unwrap the miracle that is the nativity.
The bottom line is that every decision you make regarding the holidays will result in stress or peace.  Choose peace.