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The two words I hear most often when speaking with others about holiday stress are “obligation” and “guilt.” Though we love our families, the holidays have become a time when many of us have lost our ability to say “no” to requests from family and friends and we end up doing things that we really have no desire to do. We’ve all been raised on the holiday movies and books that depict an idealized time of family love and togetherness. Although this is how many of us experience the holidays, many others of us feel burdened, pressured, overwhelmed, depressed, and guilty. Trying to live up to this idealized fantasy of holiday get-togethers is often much more stressful than it needs to be.

First, it’s important to have some established routines that we stay with during holiday times. These can be as simple as a daily walk, a phone conversation with a good friend who can listen when we need to blow off steam, meditation, or just taking a nap. Realize that it’s helpful to give ourselves permission to do something we actually want to do and then stick with it. Sometimes this may even mean that there are holiday events that we don’t attend. If this is the case, try to find a sense of accomplishment in the choice to avoid events that are painful or difficult.

Second, it’s good to have a realistic sense of what to expect from ourselves and our families during the holidays. It is helpful to look back on past holidays in order to have a model of how different people in our lives act and react during get-togethers. When we divest ourselves of the fantasy of “White Christmas” and focus instead on how Uncle Henry got drunk last year and started a fight with Aunt Jane, expectations begin to move into a more grounded appraisal of the reality of family life. If anger or stress are occurrences in our households, it may be a good time to go for that walk! And really, no matter how wonderful our family is, there are times when each of us needs to take a “breather” (and of course I mean this literally!).

The other fantasy that gets us into trouble is the idea that somehow the “right” kind of get-together along with the “right” gift, the “right” food, etc., is going to create the perfect family time and that happy White Christmas. Unfortunately, or actually fortunately, there is no such thing as the right kind of get-together. The thing that creates rightness in every situation is a sense of inner peace and acceptance. We only have control of our own sense of peace, and this is what we can concentrate on through practices such as meditation, yoga, and breathwork.

We can also create happiness and peace in ourselves by giving to others. In this season of giving, it is helpful to think about those less fortunate and to give what we can to alleviate the suffering in those we observe. However, there is a crucial lesson here — we cannot make others happy! Happiness and peace come from within and nowhere else. If we get stuck believing that we can make someone else happy, we only end up making ourselves unhappy.

Finally, the thoughts that help me create a less stressful holiday are thoughts of the true holiness of this time. The long nights and short days remind us to go inward as we spend evenings by the warmth of firelight or surround ourselves with the lovely twinkling lights of Christmas. During this time the sun moves into the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. The Solstice has been considered to be a holy event for many thousands of years for it represents a new beginning, the time when the darkness begins to recede and the sun returns. In many cultures, the Winter Solstice represents a time of rebirth, and it is no accident that the Christ consciousness is seen as being born during this time period. So, in the end, I think of the holidays as a chance for me to reflect upon that which is receding, and that which is coming into form, and to honor the process of the season’s change. Happy Holy Days!