I’ve always had a certain simultaneous attraction and repulsion for the holiday season. I think it’s related to the way that the fantasy is so much shinier than the reality.
The ideal is perfect harmony, the right gift for everyone, winter bliss and all the little joys of the season – special treats and extra kindness for others.
The reality includes some of the fantasy, plus other things like consumerism, greed, selfishness, and disappointment. There’s aggressive traffic, aggressive shopping, excessive indulgence of all kinds, depression and loneliness for some, family conflict over schedules and miscommunications.
It occurred to me recently that some of this gap between fantasy and reality is because of our expectations. last weekend while my husband took me to 4 stores trying to find replacement bulbs for the LED tree lights, I noticed how easy it was to shut others in the stores out of my attention, avoiding eye contact, for I was “on a mission”, and so were they. (I’ve been even more aware on subsequent visits to stores just how unaware and in their own heads others are, and I’m trying to be more present as a result, even when in a hurry now.)
Expectations: I was exasperated when I failed to find what I was looking for because I assumed it was readily available. I expected Target to give accurate information when we called and waited for them to verify stock. I didn’t expect to drop my 1 day old phone in the parking lot and stress over the damage for another 24 hours. On top of it all, I was irritated at spending so much of our precious Sunday evening on this endeavor when I expected it to be a simple errand. And for some reason I cannot now explain, it seemed urgent to remedy the unlit bottom half of the tree – the primary expectation that set the whole thing in motion.
More expectations: Every year, there is some change to plans or schedules required in response to other family changing their plans with seemingly little notice, and often miscommunication in the process. What causes me every year to expect this will not happen?
And still more expectations: Then there are all of the other little ideas about what the holiday include that somehow turn into pressure to do them all – homemade cookies, cards sent on time with personalized messages, decorations inside and out, enough of the right gifts for everyone – with an urgency as though tragedy will result without these things. Have you noticed? We trample each other during this season in myriad ways, in a fury to wipe out the potential discomfort of inadequacy.
These recent years have brought some of the slimmest holidays yet to our household, and yet have forced me to be more mindful of my discomfort with not doing all of the usual holiday stuff, and to make a choice not let it be a downer. In doing so, I have received an invaluable gift: I have been forced to search for and discover what makes the holidays special in the absence of the ability to purchase substantial gifts, and to revel in the tiny joys right under my nose:
- special drives and walks to view the abundance of beautiful lights in our neighborhood
- rituals like choosing the live tree, and placing and decorating it
- the smells: fir tree, eucalyptus wreath, fireplace, baked goods and candles
- the kindness of strangers – someone gave me change for a dollar today when store clerks turned me away – and refused to take my dollar
- the excitement and wonder of the holidays for children
- the sight of the lit tree in the early morning and late evening, decorated with memories of holidays past
- special holiday music, new and old
- giving and receiving small unexpected treats, gifts and kindnesses
- slowing down of work schedules, and time off
- cosy evenings by the fire
- winter wildlife sightings: 3 deer this evening on our walk
- special time with family and friends
- luminaries in the whole neighborhood on one night of the year
These are the skills of savoring and gratitude – practices for cultivating positive emotions that Christopher Germer talks about in his book on self compassion. These are skills that we can use during the holidays and all year round. We often receive and send such wishes to retain seasonal join all year in holiday greeting cards, but with these skills, it really is possible to keep the spirit of the season all year round!
Germer, C. K. (2009). The mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions. New York: Guilford Press.