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Tuesday 6 December 2011

A Christmas Tradition: The Survival Guide

Is it over yet?
Ahhh, December again. Time to dust the mall decorations that have been out since October. Time to check the credit limit twice. Time to practice the diaphragmatic breathing.

And for psychologists, time for the most hallowed tradition of them all. In newsrooms across the nation, reporters are drawing straws. The one who gets the shortest straw has to write the obligatory “how to cope with Christmas” article without make it sound like a retread from last year – and the year before, and…

'Twas the month before Christmas and all through the land, psychologists’ phones are ringing, interviews to be had.

The truth is, Christmas does not cause significant psychological problems. Anxiety, stress, disappointment, and sadness are not disorders, as therapists everywhere keep saying. They are part of being human. 

But for a holiday allegedly about joy, it’s surprising how much stress people can feel in the lead-up to it. So: here’s a dozen tips to help you make it to New Year’s.

1.  Remember: Christmas is voluntary.

People stare at me when I tell them this, but it’s true. December the 25th will come whether you like it or not. Christmas, however, is optional. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it. You can just announce that you won’t be celebrating it. And then don’t. Yes, this is possible. People everywhere are skipping the holiday altogether. Easter used to be mandatory as well; now only a minority actually observe the holiday. If you’re worried you will feel bereft, plan the day ahead of time. A pair of movies separated by a long walk, plus an hour of work on a pet project can fill the time.

2. Give up.

Disappointment is produced not by your experiences, but by your expectations. If you have no fantasy you cannot be disappointed. Popular media will attempt to ratchet your expectations up to a Victorian dinner with Tiny Tim and the late arrival of a reformed Scrooge – or at least a holiday with the Waltons. Recognize that this will not happen and has not happened in your recent past, so let it go.

3. Dice the holiday.

Christmas isn’t a monolithic structure. It’s a collection of bits. Chop it into pieces, preferably on paper: decorations, tree, family gift-giving, friend gift-giving, Christmas Eve get-together, Christmas dinner, whatever. Then ask yourself which bits you like and which bits you hate. Some (visiting Aunt Kate at the nursing home) may not be fun but you’ll decide to do them anyway. Some (risking your neck on the roof stringing lights) might be optional. Stop these ones.

4.  Compete with your worst, not your best.

If you must set a mark for yourself, don’t make it your ‘best-ever’ Christmas. Think back over your life, and try to remember what you did every holiday season. Sure, there was a great one here and there. But look for the very worst of the bunch – the one with the screaming fight, the trip to the Emergency Room, the deep depression, the house fire. And strive to make this year just a bit better than that one. Don’t try to push the brackets upward; just try not to set a new all-time low. It’s easier.

5.  Stop the arms race.

Arms races bankrupt the competitors. Much of the stress of Christmas comes from the “bigger and better” idea. Last year you gave gifts to X people and spent Y dollars. And some of those people outdid you. This year you feel you have to ramp it up a bit. But why? Take your foot off the gas a bit and start ramping it down. Pull back on the expense and let everyone breathe a little easier.

6. Fly.

The airport is a nightmare during the holidays, right? Yes, but there is an eye in the storm: Christmas Day. Almost no one flies, the airport is quiet, the flight crew is happy and relaxed, and you’re not at Aunt Mabel’s with your sister-in-law. An Air Canada bagged sandwich may be the best Christmas dinner you’ve ever had. (Yes, I’ve done this myself. It was blissful.)

7. Leave.

If it seems impossible to extract yourself from the trap of Christmas-as-usual if you stay home, then don’t stay home. Skip town. Go to a cheap cabin in the woods or get out of the country altogether. Spending the time with other Christmas refugees will make it even better.

'Tis the season to shoot your enemies, apparently.
8. Don’t buy gifts you don’t approve of.

I’ve noticed that one of the biggest stresses for people is doing things that are against their better judgment out of a misplaced sense of obligation. Maybe the only thing your nephew wants is a Call of Duty shoot-em-up video game (the top recommendation for holiday gift-giving in a recent article in Metro News) so he can practice slaughtering people with machine guns. Tough. Don’t buy it. If he doesn’t like what you give him, it ultimately doesn’t matter. If a package isn’t an expression of yourself to at least some extent, then it’s a bribe, not a gift.

9. Push experience.

Christmas memories are seldom of the gifts, the elaborateness of decorations, or the amount spent. They are about time spent with people. Make this the priority, not a slavish attempt to make your home mimic a magazine photo. Seven hours of labour may indeed produce a handmade wreath that Martha Stewart would declare a “good thing,” but seven hours spent with friends will be a better thing.

10. Cut an escape hatch.

Some families convene in large numbers for the holidays. Even if you generally get along, the close quarters can grate after a while. Plan breaks. Forget to pack enough underwear so you have an excuse to go shopping by yourself for a few hours. Plan to do things alone or with other friends after a few days with family. Remember that they probably don’t want to be around you 24 hours a day either.

11. Pick and choose.

When I was a child, Christmas streets were quiet. It almost seemed wrong to be driving in a car on that day. Somehow our culture morphed along the way, and now people spent half the day driving from place to place as though they are in a demented car rally, trying to hit all the checkpoints on their lists. The sense of futile pointlessness of this (“Is this any fun? Really?”) gets added to the stress of travel, and contributes to the sense of being trapped by the holiday. Instead, choose what you’re going to do and stick with it. My rule of thumb is that if you spend the day in more than two places you’ve made an error in planning.

12. Make someone else’s holiday.

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” – The Dalai Lama. If you don’t have much to do, or if you don’t like the way you’ve spent the holiday the last few years, then make a change. Volunteer for a charity on Christmas Day. There are few guarantees associated with the holidays, but this one comes as close as you can get: It will almost certainly be one of the best Christmases you’ve had, and it will certainly be better than any alternative.

*    *    *

So, do I sound like Scrooge yet? I shouldn’t. I recognized years ago that my own dissatisfaction with the holidays was created in large part by a feeling that I was acting out a script written by someone else; a script I didn’t like, written by commercial authors I did not respect. Sometime in my 30’s I threw most of the script away, and I’ve been discarding pages ever since. I can heartily recommend this approach.

If you want a holiday script at all, then write it yourself. You’ll be happier, you’ll have more fun, and you’ll be more enjoyable to be around.

“Mm,” you say. “Nice try. But I still want to give gifts to a few people, and have no idea what to get them. They don’t actually need anything. That’s what stresses me out.”

Next week: Gift-giving for the needless.

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