How To Put the "Happy" in the Holidays

Young friends on our front porch
Young friends on our front porch

Definition of dread: verb, with object: anticipate with great apprehension or fear (Oxford Dictionaries).

"I dread the holidays." "I dread the gift-giving craziness." "I dread dealing with all the expectations of my big family." "I dread the whole thing."

Merry Christmas. Happy Chanukah.

Being honest here, I don't hear my Chanukah-observing friends expressing dread. It's those who observe Christmas at least partly through giving and exchanging gifts who say they feel panicky about the time and money to be spent. They fear the consequences of too much consumerism and worry over how to get it all right.

If you love giving gifts, don't fret over the money involved, and can't wait for this year's holidays to fill your life for weeks, this post is not for you. Go read other blogs. I recommend Gourmandistan or Seedleaf.

All who are in dread, all those with the deepened worry lines between your eyebrows, read on. In the links that follow, people report all manner of changes in their families' gift-giving practices. One or more of these ideas may prove to be the dread-killer for you this year.

Before we go farther, how about a little Grinch-y head-clearing in the form of six priceless Seussical lines from How The Grinch Stole Christmas:

"It came without ribbons! It came without tags!"
"It came without packages, boxes or bags!"
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store."

Let's further note that singing—participating with others in making music—turns out to be the force that prove Christmas is alive and well in Whoville. Participation and experience and music all hold promise, and all mattered to me when I first wrote about the ways my family chose to shrink the role of gifts in our celebrations in The Joy of Not Giving Too Much: An "Enough" Essay. When I first wrestled with my own dread, I found few resources online and in the library. Two that helped me greatly—Hundred Dollar Holiday and Unplug the Christmas Machine—are still happily available and influential today, as you will see below. Now these stalwart pioneering resources have companion books and articles, more each year.

  • In "Black Friday: The Cons of Participating," the Lexington Herald-Leader's inimitable Cheryl Truman explains why she is already ready for Christmas, and tells about an unexpected gift that walked into the yard one Christmas night. Truman's 2011 story on the same theme, a bit tarter in tone, also makes a good case for happiness instead of holiday frenzy at Christmas.
  • Read excerpts from Unplug the Christmas Machine and decide whether you want to check it out of your local library, buy it, or none of the above.
  • In a recent article, The Hundred Dollar Holiday, Bill McKibben, author of the 1998 book, Hundred Dollar Holiday, updates the notion he and friends in rural Vermont Methodist churches launched in 1997 with a rousing quote for Dr. Seuss, a beautiful case for stillness, and more of his usual fine common sense.

People whose children are young enough to be caught up in excitement about what Santa Claus may bring, yet old enough to compare their Christmas experience with other children, seem to have the deepest gift-giving worries—and the greatest potential to re-envision holiday gift giving in a way that builds stronger family ties and stronger character. Some articles and posts, below, offer suggestions.

My own suggestion: engage the children in figuring out your family's distinctive way of celebrating. Suggest options and choose together. If you continue a gift tradition, you might decide to limit it by number, to locally sourced items, or to what fits in a stocking. Consider an experience tradition instead of gifts, and make the experience a big one. Some possibilities:

  • Plan and take a trip to a child-friendly place that is out of the ordinary for your family, from the Newport Aquarium for Kentuckians, to the ends of the earth if your budget allows.
  • Plan a special day when the whole family will go to at least four movies in a day.
  • Commit to a special day of staying in to watch happy movies for eight hours straight while eating nothing more healthy than popcorn.
  • Plan a joint cooking project that may go on for days: make your own from-scratch pizza, croquembouche, doughnuts, pot stickers, stuffed cabbage rolls, or elaborate cookies.
  • Commit together and start working together to raise the money to meet a big charitable goal that can only be attained over time. Locally in Lexington, that could mean working toward important investments in some of the 68 groups that are part of the GoodGiving Challenge. For international projects, you might decide to raise enough money to fund a child's education through Vapor Sports Ministries' Hasmin's Friends, or fund an entire ark of productive, pay-it-forward animals through Heifer International's Gift Ark.

Here are many more ideas and reported successes in making Christmas joyous and memorable without dread.

While many of us grew up hoping the "Christmas spirit" might visit us at least once during the too-long holiday, lifting our hearts and cheering us, may I suggest that joy and happiness during the holidays need not be so ephemeral? We live in freedom, and most of us live in plenty. We can make choices. We can choose to be happy, as Choosing Happiness Even When Life Is Hard and How We Choose To Be Happy counsel and instruct. You can do it. No need to puzzle until your puzzler is sore. Down with dread - hello, happiness. Happy holidays!

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