Days are getting shorter, neighborhoods are beginning to bristle with twinkly lights, and flavors like “Salted Maple” and “Gingerbread” are gracing our coffee menus. A mild sense of anxiety is setting in: The holidays are here.
I’m not really a scrooge. I love peppermint hot chocolate and watching Christmas movies with my roommates as much as the next person. Still, the holidays seem to remind me of a harsh reality: All in my life is not as it “should” be, or rather, as I want it to be.
I have a feeling I’m not alone in this. Sure, Christmas cheer is a real thing. Yet, how deep does it really go? Why are the holidays widely recognized as one of the most stress-inducing times of the year? Because the holidays—much like our Instagram feeds—often remind us of what we don’t have, not of what we do have.
The holidays often remind us of what we don’t have, not what we do have.
The holiday season seems to demand a lot of us: that we should have whole families to celebrate with, plenty of money for buying presents and hosting elaborate feasts while maintaining the ability to put a pause on our lives in order to bake cookies, slink into glittery holiday dresses and take gorgeous, glossy family photos.
Should the holidays really feel this way? Should this season consist of one more social benchmark that we can’t seem to hit?
A Different Sort of Christmas
A few years ago, I had an opportunity to celebrate Christmas in a nation where fragrant tree lots and peppermint bark are conspicuously absent in December. In Morocco, where I taught English for three years, late fall and early winter rolled around without any public recognition of the holidays—Christmas, New Years, Hanukah or otherwise.
If you partake in the holidays and you live in Morocco, then you are left to your own devices to celebrate—to carve out your own season of rest and reflection. So, that’s what my friends and I did.
We made Christmas our own. Yes, we exchanged gifts, but they were small, useful ones. For Christmas dinner, we attempted to roast a whole duck, just for fun. On Christmas Eve, we watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” on a laptop and that was it.
There wasn’t an endless stream of parties, stress about what to wear, incessant checking of bank statements nor the post-holiday need to detox after binging on food and cocktails. For us, Christmas remained, well, Christmas: a season to rest, to reflect on our own spiritual beliefs about the birth of Jesus and to express our love for one another through simple gift giving and quality time.
Holiday-induced anxiety never crossed my mind. For the three holiday seasons I celebrated in Morocco, I was reminded not of what I didn’t have, but what I do.
I was reminded not of what I didn’t have, but what I do.
Cultivating a More Authentic Holiday Season
Having since returned from living overseas, I am back where the holidays are in full swing, in all their sparkly glory. Although I still feel slightly overwhelmed as Christmas approaches, I now have strategies in place not only to regain a sense of calm but to cultivate a more authentic holiday season.
1. Take time to pause
The holidays can feel like the busiest season of the year. In the midst of activity, feel free to say no to invitations and set aside time instead to rest, reset and refresh.
I love to journal. When my thoughts are scrawled on the page, even messy and free-flowing, I can make sense of them and find clarity. Journaling helps me keep peace and focus in the midst of chaos—even good chaos. It helps me reflect on and process those “should be” and “should have” feelings that surface around the end of November.
3. Develop personal traditions
There’s something inherently comforting about celebrating annual traditions. They bring us full circle each year, giving a sense of closure and accomplishment. They also create space for celebration—much needed in our culture, which barely takes a pause to breathe before focusing on the next best thing. Over the past few years, I have been developing small personal traditions—such as taking a run on Christmas morning or stirring up a batch of popcorn brittle—to make the holidays my own.
All that being said, it’s still OK to feel sad or anxious on the holidays. It’s still OK to mourn a painful anniversary, wish you had a significant other or feel upset about tense family dynamics. Instead of allowing a commercially-generated idea of the “perfect” holiday season to overwhelm you (and your bank account), make the holidays your own. Whatever you need to rest and celebrate, do that.
After all, this is the season to celebrate and to dream: To look at the year behind and reflect on the good and the hard. To look at the year ahead and dream of what could be.