As I was writing this post yesterday I got news that a friend of mine had suddenly died. A young, loving, wife, talented hairdresser, and adoring mother of two, one minute she was doing what she loved—coaching high school cheer—and the next, she had collapsed. I’m no stranger to death; still, to be once again reminded of the fragility of life has made an enormous impact on me. I was already writing about how to bring the meaning back to Christmas*, but after hearing this news, my message feels even more essential. This one’s in memory of you, Tanya.
The Paradox of the Holiday Season
Why is this time of year so fraught with tense and varying emotions? It is, you know. We all feel it. It’s a paradoxical, magical, lovely, joy-filled, troubled time of year. I recently asked on my FB page, “How are you feeling about the holidays, in three words or less?” There were several replies like: “Peaceful family fun” and “Prepared, joyful, giving”. But there were more replies like: “Happy, full, busy,” “Is it over?” “Slow down, enjoy!” or even “Stressed,” “Melancholy,” “Weary, depressed”. From joy to love to stress to worry to wishing things were different, this is certainly an emotionally-charged time of year.
Top 5 Reasons the Season’s Emotionally Rough
So what leads to the intense emotions of the holidays? I have a few ideas. Not only have I personally experienced this emotional intensity over the years, but my psychology practice is always bare in December (everyone’s too busy), only to have my phone ringing off the hook in January with one common theme: “December really pushed me over an edge!” I’ve come to see that several factors play in to the emotional roller-coaster of this season, the top 5 of which include:
1) Losses and the Past: It seems each year we’re immediately drawn back to every other Christmas we’ve had, and if our past is filled with ghosts, it can be difficult to overcome. Old losses and grief easily resurface, painful past holiday experiences are remembered. Add to this the sense that we’re supposed “feel joyful” this time of year, and it can be especially difficult for those who simply don’t.
2) Holiday Heart Aches: With relationships, tensions are usually high and so are expectations, and that can lead to hurt feelings and heartache for couples, families, and even friends.
3) Lack of Time: If you felt “busy” before the holidays, you’re no doubt feeling it tenfold now—you’ve suddenly added shopping, decorating, cooking, events, and who knows what else to the mix! Even if you want to, it can feel impossible to really slow down and enjoy what matters most.
4) Financial Stress: We all know this is one of the most financially-demanding times of year. Not only are there the usual expenses, but there are year-end taxes and bills to pay, and now we’re buying loads of gifts!
5) The Desire for Meaning: Bottom line, I believe, is that we’re all searching for more meaning. I hear it over and again, “How can I create a more meaningful holiday experience?” Deep down, we don’t care about all the presents and hoopla—what we really want are the dazzling little family moments filled with joy, peace, and love.
The 5 Gifts of Meaning
So, if we what really want for Christmas is more meaning, then why not give ourselves and our family the gift we really want? We can overcome our past, strengthen our relationships, have more time, and save money as we create a more meaningful Christmas by giving and receiving the following “5 Gifts of Meaning”!:
1) The Gift of Remembering: Remembering the good times with family and friends is a wonderful gift. Create a scrapbook, photo album, movie, or written account of a favorite past-time. Remember those you have lost by establishing a tradition in their honor or creating a memento. I remember the year I had my husband sketch a portrait of my youngest sister, McLean, who had died 5 years before. We wrapped it up and gave it to my mother and father. There wasn’t a dry eye when that gift was opened. Remembering can turn a painful holiday into a time of meaningful reminiscence.
2) The Gift of your Heart: Really, the best gift is YOU. Slow down and listen to your heart. What needs to be said? What needs to be done? Is your heart open to giving and receiving love? Hug and love more. Listen more. Reach out in compassion. Take the time to ask, “How do I feel about this person?” Then, put it into writing, a phone call, or a visit. Share your heart and express gratitude for those you love; then, open yourself up to receiving greater love from them too.
3) The Gift of Time: Choose to fill your time with less decorating, shopping, and activities so you can create more “space” in your days. Then, share these spaces with those you care about. Help a neighbor, listen to a friend, read Christmas stories with your kids, or simply sit down and enjoy a meal together. Time is short and precious, so don’t waste it; give it freely and wisely to those who matter most to you.
4) The Gift of New Memories: Take a trip or vacation together instead of buying presents. Give a “coupon” for a future lunch date, concert, sporting event, or pedicure. Or, give a “free” memory—a long bike ride, a hike, a picnic at sunset. I love to give memories. I still remember my best friend and I laughing ‘til we hurt the year we got massages together, and my kids, husband, and I running like mad after setting off New Year’s fireworks on the beach in Rockypoint last year (yes, they’re illegal in Mexico—who knew?)! Really—who doesn’t love the gift of a lovely new memory?
5) The Gift of Service: At the heart of all of these gifts is serving others, for service is the surest way to a more meaningful Christmas. Do a “service exchange” with family members instead of gifts, or, instead of a holiday party, get your friends together and donate your time to a worthy cause. One of our favorite traditions is creating a Christmas for an “adopted” family in need. But our very favorite tradition is “The Christmas Jar”. Each year, we set out our “Christmas Jar” and drop in our dollars and coins all season long. On Christmas Eve, we place the collected monies into a gift bag with a note that says, “Merry Christmas. From, Your Friends.” We then pile in the car, say a prayer, and drive the streets until we feel we’ve found the person most in need of our gift. The kids jump out and deliver the gift with a “Merry Christmas,” and then we drive around the block where we can secretly watch for a while (we can’t help ourselves!). The look on our new friend’s face has become our favorite gift of each season. Yes, serving others is the surest way to a more meaningful Christmas and a more meaningful life.
Bestselling Author of This Is How We Grow, Clinical Psychologist, Mom of 6, Postpartum Couples DVD Producer, Non-Profit Founder, and expert on Parenting, Women’s Emotions, Pregnancy & Postpartum, and Grief & Loss, Dr. Christina Hibbert loves songwriting, learning, and teaching what she learns. She is always looking for ways to create more meaning, and loves helping others do the same.
What makes the holidays more meaningful for you? Leave us a comment, below!
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