Making Merry, Making Meaning - Eight Tips for Busy Families to Reclaim the Holiday

Laura Markham's picture

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Wouldn't it be terrific if you found yourself on January 1, rested, refreshed, and contented with your life? What if:

  • You used this holiday to have some wonderful, deep experiences with each member of your immediate family, with the result that your whole family felt energized and connected?
  • You gave presents that delighted the receiver, and therefore delighted you? You didn't go over budget, and most of the time your present was something you made or did for the recipient?
  • You didn't gain any weight? Instead, you fed your hungry heart with connection to others, and with giving to others. You spent time outdoors. You cooked healthy food. In short, you nurtured your body and your soul.
  • You and your family found a lot of meaning this year in brightening the season for others? Your kids really lived the spirit of the season and felt the gift of being angels to others?
  • You felt clarity, going into the new year, about the ways you want your life to be different? You picked one thing, and made a concrete plan to make a change. You will revisit this plan every day as you make it real.
  • You felt overwhelmed with gratitude for your many blessings? Even in a bad year, there are always so many blessings.

Does this fantasy seem alluring, but impossible? It isn't. More and more parents are saying no to the Holiday Frenzy and inviting connection, joy and reflection into their homes in December. It isn't as hard as it might seem with these eight strategies any parent can use.

Decide what's really important to you and just say No to everything else

We all have full lives the other eleven months of the year. Adding an elaborate agenda to accomplish during December can only send your household into a tailspin and your blood pressure through the roof. The guaranteed result is tantrums from the kids and tears for you.

There is a simple answer, if you're willing to be ruthlessly honest with yourself about what you can actually handle. Start by sitting quietly for ten minutes with your eyes closed, seeing in your mind the scenes you want to create this December. Then open your eyes and list your priorities. Be realistic. If you want homemade presents, you probably won't also have a clean and orderly house. Decide what really matters to you.

Next, sit down with your partner, and your kids if they're old enough. Serve something delicious that reminds you of the season to come -- holiday cookies, or eggnog. Talk about everyone's ideas of what would be a perfect holiday season.

What do you need to do so it feels like Christmas, or Chanukah, or Kwanza, or the Winter Solstice, to you? Maybe you always decorate the house with greenery, or bake cookies. Maybe you'd like to make presents, or volunteer to deliver meals to someone who's housebound.

Get out the family calendar

Think about when these things will get done. What events do you expect to attend? Do the hard work of writing down the things you agree to do, and saying no to whatever doesn't nurture your family.

Agree on how much time is to be spent with the immediate family, how much with extended family, and how much with your community, such as your annual tree trimming or Chanukah party, or church and school events.

Just say no to holiday events that don't hold meaning for you, including most work events. If you must spend time at work-related holiday events, be sure to acknowledge them as work time that's cutting into the family time you want to prioritize this season. Take other time off to make up for it. For instance, you might leave work early to pick your child up after school for a special afternoon together doing something meaningful and holiday related.

If your kids are old enough that they want to spend time with their friends rather than just family, terrific. Plan now to include their friends in any events where it feels appropriate -- baking pies for the local soup kitchen, or making holiday cards, or gathering greenery to decorate the house. Your kids will probably jump at the chance for a party, even if it's a party to make presents. (For ideas about what kinds of presents to make at such a party, see below).

This family meeting about the Holidays is a great time to express what YOU most want this holiday - special time to connect with each member of your family.

Reject commercialism

None of the holidays we observe in December are designed to include purchasing things from stores. Each is an opportunity to celebrate -- the birth of the Savior, the Seven Principles of Kwanza, the return of the light with the Solstice, and the right to worship as we choose and the miracle of faith that are symbolized by the Chanukah lights.

The pressures of commercialization do a disservice to these sacred days, to our wallets, and to our children. Kids who watch TV have an especially difficult time, as the seasonal ads whip them into a frenzy of desire that can only crash and burn. But all kids have been trained to think of the winter holidays as a time for loot. Their first question upon returning to school is usually "What'ja get? Any good presents?"

After having spent years buying too many presents -- originally one for each night of Chanukah -- our family settled into making each of the eight nights meaningful in it's own way. One night is the big present night, where the kids each get one "storebought" gift. One night is "Homemade presents" night, and given our skill level these are fairly modest gifts. One night we always throw a Chanukah party for friends, another night we celebrate with family, another we end up at a friend's house. One night is Tzedaka night, when we discuss good causes and donate money to them. Each night is special in its own way, and presents take a back seat. We work hard to de-commercialize what can so easily become a feast of more, more, more, rather than a feast of lights.

De-commercializing Christmas is even more challenging. More and more families do this by making all, or most of, their presents. It isn't free -- you have to buy supplies -- and it takes time, but it is more fun, and more meaningful, and often more pleasing to the recipient than a "bought" gift.

If you feel it's less stressful to buy presents, set a budget for each gift, add them up to be sure you can handle the total, and really stick to it. You might try catalog or online shopping, so you can do it at night without the kids around, avoid the exhaustion and crowds, and diminish the importance of holiday shopping in your family life. You're also more likely to stick to your budget.

If you choose to make presents, sit down with a list of people and decide what you're making and how long each present will take. Your goal is to delight your giftees with a token of your affection, not to garner status points or exhaust yourself. One strategy is to make big batches of something that most folks will enjoy -- fudge, or bath salts -- so that many of your gifts can be made in one evening.

If your whole family is making presents -- and what kid doesn't like to make presents? -- try scheduling some afternoons or evenings when everyone is working on presents. You can count on having to help the younger members of the family, but it's worth it. If you make this a family tradition, you'll find that they get more independent each year in making ever more lovely presents. Click here for presents you can make easily with your kids.

But the real secret of taking the focus off gifts is creating other traditions that substitute, like Christmas morning treasure hunts or pancake parties, which may include prayer.

Create traditions that make merry, make meaning, and bring your family closer

Children love tradition and ritual. Repetition, the comfort of belonging, the sense of wonder, magic, and celebration -- traditions nurture kids and parents alike, and create a sense of shared meaning. They connect families.

Kids need the security of repeated traditions, and they'll want you to repeat this year anything you've "always done" in the past. Honor those requests and savor those moments.

But why not also create new traditions that work for your family? It's simple. Try something new, and if you like it, repeat it. Then begin to talk about it and look forward to it with the whole family. Eventually, that tradition will take on a life of its own and will become a sustaining part of your family's culture.

Many families who aren't religious find that reconnecting with the cycles of nature that underlie our seasonal traditions gives their holidays more meaning. Celebrating light in the midst of long dark evenings has a sacredness all its own. You don't need a complicated ritual -- lighting candles at dinner and offering gratitude for light can be enough. If you're feeling ambitious, you can take a quick trip outside for stargazing. When you come back into the dark house, leave the lights off, light a bunch of candles, and watch your children's faces in the glow.

Holiday traditions that will have meaning for your family are plentiful; your job is to find the ones that feel best to everyone and are simplest to pull off. Any of these traditions can become a party if you want to include your kids' friends, and often kids prefer that as they get older.

One answer, of course, is to limit kids to one store-bought gift (although often a grandparent will add another.) But what we really want for our kids, of course, is not for them to feel deprived, but to find their own holiday spirit and discover the joy of giving to others. Did you know that the experience of giving actually activates an area of the brain that gives us physical pleasure?

Generosity starts with a feeling of having plenty -- emotionally, even more than materially -- and develops as we have experiences of making others happy by giving to them. Our job as parents is to help our kids to have those experiences.

Eventually, if your child is lucky, she'll learn from experience that making someone else happy by giving to them really is more rewarding than receiving a gift herself. But that wisdom is something that usually develops only after one has lived long enough to feel truly gifted by life.

Take time as a family for reflection

Beyond the obvious opportunity for spiritual reflection and embodying the spirit of giving, the holidays are a great time for families to reflect, examine, and appreciate their lives together. It's traditional at Kwanzaa to rededicate oneself to living a principled life. The rest of us usually rely on the New Year's tradition of making a resolution, which is generally less than effective. Here are a couple of ideas for rituals to extend this practice:

Ask each family member to write down one thing they want to leave behind in the old year, and throw it into the fire (or use a candle to set it on fire in a firesafe pan). At the same time, they can write down one thing they want to create more of in their lives, and put that in a safe, secret place. It's even more effective if they write a plan for creating this, and review their plan daily.

Start a Count Your Blessings scroll.

Take a roll of adding machine tape and let everyone write on it something they're grateful for. The scroll can be taped in lengths around your house as a blessing, like a Tibetan prayer flag.

If you go on vacation, be sure it recharges and reconnects your family

Some of us look forward to the kids' school vacations as a chance to leave town in search of warm weather or winter sports. That can give you plenty of chances for family connection, especially if you forgo organized evenings in favor of family board games. What you want to avoid, of course, is racing around before you leave, getting stressed out by a busy trip, and returning home in need of a vacation. Kids tend to get cranky and stressed with travel and schedule changes, so plan to do less, rather than more.

Cultivate enough-ness by nurturing yourself

We approach the holidays each year with the secret hope that our life will be transformed. Somehow, our home will become picture perfect, professionally decorated and worthy of a magazine spread. Our homemade gifts will be the envy of the neighborhood. Our children, perfect angels, will be baking for the soup kitchen, starring in the holiday pageant, and certainly never bickering. We, of course, will look and feel fabulous, basking in the warm glow of the season as we greet our guests.

It helps to make these fantasies conscious, so we can let go of them without guilt. I find I have to remind myself repeatedly throughout the holiday season that my happy mood and time with my kids is more important than my vision of all I could "give" them -- even the educational, values-laden experiences!

The "perfect" holidays shown on TV can be discouraging, since real life never looks like that. Some families agree to drastically reduce TV time during the holidays, to reduce the consumer pressure, but also to use the time for family games and other more intimate connecting.

In addition to all the other ideas in this article, I encourage you to find ways to nurture yourself over the holidays. Go for long walks outdoors, take hot baths, work out at the gym, do yoga, trade massages with your spouse or a friend, cook good wholesome food. The more full you feel inside, body and soul, the less you'll need to pursue the holiday frenzy. And the more you and your family will find yourselves making meaning, as well as making merry.

Dr. Laura Markham