The Christmas season is a mixed blessing for many of us. We are constantly bombarded by images and sounds of joy and celebration, of holiday cheer, of families feasting and smiling. We are presented with ten thousand opportunities to celebrate: employee parties, church functions and special programs, holiday stage productions, taking our kids to see Santa, selecting and trimming the Christmas tree, planning presents for the people we know, town events like Christmas tree lightings, and dozens more.
No holiday in the calendar year inspires as much madness as Christmas. This has been driven almost exclusively by commercial interests, seizing upon every available opportunity to separate us from our money.
But it isn’t just the commercialization; we willfully plunge into this madness because many of us want to be caught up in the spirit of the season. For many of us, Christmas brings happy memories of childhood anticipation, days off of school spent having a blast with family and friends. And, being Americans, we love to have ample choices from which to arrange the perfect Christmas season—which mall or local business has set up the best Santa? Which street has the most spectacular light display?
With all of this going on, it can be difficult to say no. There is no tyranny quite like the tyranny of the missed opportunity. Fear of missing out has even inspired its own text message shorthand: FOMO. And no season has more to miss out on than Christmas.
Let me gently suggest to you that the secret to having the best holiday season is less, not more. It’s creating sane boundaries around your family’s calendar and budget so that you can be fully present for the joy in store for you this season, and so that you can look back over the season with a heart-ful of treasured moments without the sense of bewilderment, regret, and even guilt that can spill over into the quietness of January.
Here’s a short guide to finding peace amidst this season’s holiday rush.
Treasure the truth that God loves you
I know this sounds trite. But far too few Christians spend enough time coming to grips with the truth of God’s love. This is the season of celebrating God’s profound love for our world, the birth of the world’s savior and king. These are huge, global, amazing events that changed the course of history. But they are also events that changed your course. God’s love found you. And no matter what your guilty conscience is telling you, no matter how close you feel to God, the simple truth is that he treasures you, longs for your companionship, and rejoices over you like a father over his precious child. Let this truth ground you every day this season. Begin each day with sure knowledge of his love and end each day resting in that love. Nothing will change your experience of this season (or any other season) as this practice.
Give yourself permission to say no
This is Sabbath wisdom for the holidays. When invitations come, Facebook events appear in your feed, you see advertisements for holiday events, let your default answer be “no” rather than “yes”. Resist the urge to do one more thing. Rather, set aside a calm moment earlier in the season (it’s not too late!) to sort through the opportunities that exist and then choose wisely with input from the people that matter most to you. Develop for yourself a stock phrase that helps to deflect the endless invitations or questions from the kids. “Oh, I’m sorry, our holiday calendar is pretty full already—but thank you so much for inviting us!” Practice reminding yourself that the joy of the season is found in quality rather than quantity; this is a truth most of us know but can lose sight of during the rush.
Practice the presence of God
The monastic practice popularized by Brother Lawrence is never more difficult than in the holiday season. And never was it more useful. This is simply the practice of attending to the presence of God whatever else you are doing. You know that moment when you close your eyes and bow your head in prayer, directing your attention to God? Practicing the presence is merely taking that moment with you into whatever else you are doing: baking Christmas cookies, digging through the garage looking for decorations, driving to the theater downtown, putting out chairs before the party, helping kids pick out gifts for their teacher, or falling down after a long work day during a busy retail season. One of the most helpful ways to practice the presence of God is to set a reminder on your phone or watch, to nudge you periodically to turn your attention toward God. Draw strength from his presence, seek his guidance, look for his wisdom, or rest in his love, whatever the situation requires. And listen for his direction; this season (as any other) abounds with opportunities to love and serve others. Thereby we become signposts for the good life of the kingdom.
When choosing events, find a balance between rewarding participation and passive reception
When you are choosing what to put on the calendar, remember to find a balance between events that involve rich but draining participation and easier but passive spectacles. Serving at a food pantry during the holidays is rewarding, but exhausting if we fill our calendars with such service. Intermix with a trip to the theater for a high school adaptation of A Christmas Carol or a re-run of White Christmas. Kids remember snuggling together on the couch reading Advent devotionals as a family, something that will shape their lives and their perception of the holiday for years to come. But such opportunities require a lot of energy and organization to pull together and maintain. Balance these rich moments with easier ones, like driving through a neighborhood with Christmas lights or watching Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special with a bowl of popcorn.
Pick up an Advent tradition
The Christmas season is rich with spiritual tradition, one of the most profound being the season of Advent, out of which many of our treasured Christmas traditions have come. Consider trying out a few ideas for Advent during the weeks before Christmas. It’s not too late to begin.
Take peace with you into the crazy holiday party
Many of us have holiday traditions that include a large family get-together involving food and presents. Very easily, we can find ourselves spending days preparing for this “main event”, making food, wrapping presents, thinking all the thoughts about family and we hope to enjoy (or hope to avoid) during this particular get together. Then the event happens, we get caught up in familiar patterns of relating to one another, and then we find ourselves spit out the other side barely having noticed that it happened. As an alternative, practice the presence of God as you make whatever preparations you need to make, allowing your preparations to become a moment of worship and service to God even as you cook or wrap or shop. Ask for God’s perspective and his wisdom as you prepare. And, as the day arrives, take a moment that morning to prepare yourself spiritually for the encounter with your family or friends or coworkers. See them as treasured children of God and see yourself as a treasured child of God too, but one sent among them to be the hands and feet of God, his listening ear, his quiet love for them. Ask God to come with you into the event and work with him as he brings his love into tangible expression through your service, words, and very presence. This will be difficult, especially if you aren’t used to the discipline, but celebrate whatever successes you might see and trust that God is at work, even in the very small things. Remember what Jesus does with mustard seeds.
Lay down the need to compete
Especially among moms, the Christmas season feels like a kind of competition in these days of social media announcement of every little thing we do to celebrate the season. Our friends are constantly posting pictures of their kids on Santa’s lap, the new recipe for wassail, the stocking they knit for their dog, and dozens of other things that can make us feel as though we aren’t keeping up. Put all such thoughts away. This is your holiday season with your family. Make decisions in accord with your values and enjoy what you have chosen to do with the people you love. Resist the urge to broadcast everything on social media, and even more, resist the feeling of inadequacy wading through other people’s feeds can often inspire.
Watch for and receive moments of quiet peace
More than anything else, keep your eyes open for those unexpected moments of peace and joy that present themselves this season: a quiet moment with one of your children, looking on the Christmas tree before bed. An opportunity to grab coffee with a friend you haven’t spoken with for a while, listening to the troubles and trials with an attentive and empathetic ear. The silence of the room after the boisterous voices of family or coworkers has gone. Remember that Christmas is the season of God breaking in on us. He is still in the business of breaking in and bringing joy. Watch for his coming.