What is worse than a group of people getting together who don’t really want to be there? Sound familiar? Where is the holiday cheer in that? And how did we get here—where guilt and obligation are the holiday norm?
On a recent radio show I asked Dr. Mario Martinez, author of the Mind Body Code, why holidays are so stressful for so many of us. And he stated it beautifully. He said that the pleasure of mindful ritual, for example going caroling or to a tree lighting ceremony with the entire family, has been replaced by mindless routine laden with obligation.
He explained further that these mindless routines often involve what he calls “ledger” relationships. For example, one in which you feel obligated to buy a present for someone you don’t know or don’t even like, because it’s expected. Another is feeling obligated to see a toxic family member out of guilt “because it’s Christmas” or whatever. This is really what causes all the holiday stress. Truly.
As Dr. Martinez reminds us, “Love is actually a toxin to toxic people. They can’t take too much of it before they turn negative and turn the negativity on you.” An example is a visit that’s going along well until your mother says “Looks like you’ve gained weight” or “What have you done with your hair?” Happy Holidays, right?
Anyone interested in health can’t possibly want to spend their time with people like that. And then there are the other obligations. For me, it was gift giving and feeling compelled to create “holiday magic” for others.
When I was a child, my mother and father did an amazing job of creating Christmas magic. I used to rearrange the presents under the tree every night and watch all those wonderful Christmas movies. And, like most kids, I got up at 5:00 am when it was still dark to sneak downstairs to see what Santa had left. My memories are full of wonder. I enjoyed every minute of Christmas dinner and then Christmas week, when so many friends came to our ski town for vacation.
Later I got married, and my husband and I started our residency training. We were often on call over the holidays, so holidays with family simply were never possible. When we had our own two daughters, I did everything in my power to recreate the magic of my own childhood on Christmas morning with them. But I was also working long hours and was too often away from them, so I also felt guilty.
I turned that guilt into buying more and more. As the girls got older, this became more and more expensive. After my divorce, when the girls were 16 and 18, I really went overboard. They had to take a break from opening presents because there were simply too many. The unwrapping went far into Christmas afternoon!
There’s an old saying about “How do you know what the edge is? Well, when you’ve gone over it and look back, you can clearly see that THAT was the edge—BACK THERE.” Believe me, I was well past it. And I was being driven by guilt, not by any magic.
Fast forward a few years when my daughters and I traveled to visit my mother for her 80th birthday. Because it was a road trip and my mother’s birthday is very close to Christmas, no one—my siblings or our children—had the wherewithal to bring Christmas presents. And guess what? We all agreed to forgo gift giving. It was a profound relief!
From that moment forward, we give our PRESENCE. And we truly enjoy the Solstice, the meals, and each other’s company. Now that one of my daughters is married, she and her husband are starting their own holiday rituals. And I have suggested that they follow their hearts in whatever way appeals to them. There’s absolutely no reason for them to start their married life with holiday guilt or unwelcome obligations.
And you shouldn’t either. So—here’s what I suggest:
Ask yourself what holiday rituals truly appeal to you—which ones contain magic and meaning or truly speak to you. Then figure out which have become routine and mindless. Have the courage to mindfully choose those rituals that give meaning to your holidays and ditch those that don’t.
But—and this is a big but—be prepared for the anger and guilt mongering that may follow if you have any toxic relatives who routinely manipulate others to visit them. And allow them to be angry. You may feel guilty at first. But that’s OK.
During the season of light, you simply must do unto YOURSELF as you would do onto others. In other words, your own well-being must be included in your holiday plans. Trust me on this, your holidays need never be stressful again.
If you are willing to truly invest in what has the most meaning for you, you will also be a beacon of sanity and magic for which your entire family will be grateful. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. This will be a family legacy—a new mindful ritual—that everyone will want to carry on for generations.