It's a Wonderful Life

Ten rules for having a jolly Christmas

By  Lorraine O’Donnell Williams, Catholic Register Special
  • December 24, 2012

We’re told in song that this is “the season to be jolly.” Yet, it’s ironic that, like many occasions when we should be most happy — planning a wedding, moving to a new home, bringing a new baby home for the first time, the first day of a dream job — Christmas brings plenty of stress.

Is this a disservice to the infant Jesus? Not at all. We’re planning a very important birthday and want it to be a source of happiness to everyone who’s invited. Still, too much anxiety can be unhealthy, so here are 10 suggestions to minimize the stress of Christmas.

1. Accept the fact that you can’t avoid all stress during the Christmas season. All reputable charts identifying stress-producing situations list Christmas as one of the 43 stress items. On the “Stressor Scale” it’s on a par with vacations or minor violations of the law. Those same stress studies, however, indicate that stress can be good.

2. Try time-honoured methods to settle your nerves. Deep breathing (a key element of the relaxation response) can get you back on track. A few minutes of meditation with a Scripture passage — for example, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” — or a timeout to say a decade or more of the rosary can bring you out of the frenzy and into the peace of God’s healing presence. You can help loved ones cope with seasonal stress by tucking a copy of Brother Nicholas Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God in their stockings.

3. Feel comfortable asking family or friends for help. After all, Christmas is a communal celebration. If you can’t find that perfect present for hard-to-buy-for Aunt Aggie, delegate that task to your spouse or one of your kids. They may have more imagination than you at a time like this. Concerned about how to cope with all the courses of a Christmas dinner? Make it potluck by assigning different dishes to family members. If your niece or nephew is famous for their mince pie, take up their offer to bring some along. If cousin Joe is great at the piano, ask him to lead the carol singing while you’re busy with other duties. To stop the kids from running around — and even soothe adults at loose ends — have a couple of DVDs on hand, such as It’s a Wonderful Life or A Charlie Brown Christmas.

4. Recognize that you won’t always choose the perfect present, nor have to spend a fortune. A modest cactus plant for someone’s collection can be as thoughtful as an expensive watch. The sweater a mother has taken four months to knit for her college son says far more than a new digital camera. Or the photo album a father has put together for his daughter has more love in it than a designer label blouse. It’s the thought that counts. Washington, D.C’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl is promoting a special way to think of Christmas presents. He asks Catholics to bring themselves as a present to Jesus, and, in turn, to receive Jesus as a special gift to themselves. It is stress-reducing to reorient ourselves to the real meaning of the season.

5. Remember that stress is relieved when we “get out of ourselves.” This means forgetting about ourselves and thinking of others. One married couple I know gives up the first half of Christmas day to serve a full course meal at an Out of the Cold program in an inner-city church. Their older children now follow their example. Another man and his son make Christmas visits to the local nursing home, stopping to talk to each patient, while leaving a small Christmas token. Others take time at the Christmas season to take special individuals out for Christmas lunch — a former parish housekeeper, now old and alone; a cousin whose faithfulness to his A.A. program means he can’t risk celebrating the season with his old gang; a crotchety neighbour considered by the other neighbours as a bit “weird” but who you know as terribly lonely.

6. Don’t expect the impossible of yourself. Be flexible. If the only way you can accommodate an unusually large crowd of relatives and friends is to depart from tradition, go for it. Experiment with buffet-style eating instead of over-crowding around the dining room table. Newlyweds have to watch the first Christmas when trying to please both sets of parents. They rush from one parental home to the other, ending up with indigestion and even insulting their parents by finding it impossible to finish the second meal. Better that they alternate where they spend Christmas day each year, then arrange a relaxed New Year’s Day with the other set of parents.

7. Read up on the origin of Christmas customs. That way, you’ll see yourself as part of a long tradition, not as the performer of perfunctory tasks. This will give true insight into the rituals of this time of year. For example, did you know that in 19th-century England, Christmas pudding preparation was considered a ceremony? It was prepared five weeks in advance in a huge copper pot. Mixing in the eggs, spices, fruit and brandy involved the entire family. Each member got a stir and a wish. This took place on the last Sunday before Advent, appropriately called “Stir up Sunday,” because one of the opening prayers at Mass that day began with “Stir up, we beseech thee O Lord, the will of thy faithful people.” Teaching these stories to our families reinforce their sense of belonging to a long tradition.

8. Concentrate on the Christ in Christmas. The sacraments are a special source of grace and calm in this busy season. Receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation allows us to recognize each other’s beauty and worth as children of God. It helps to mend family fences that have been erected through misunderstandings or pride. We can become as humble as Our Lord who chose to be born in a stable.

9. Invite all Christmas guests to attend Christmas Mass with you. This might mean changing from midnight to daytime Mass (or the reverse) in order to accommodate everyone — a small sacrifice to start the day in true togetherness. Christmas may be the only time some members ever attend Mass in the entire year, and who knows in what year God’s grace will finally soften their hearts? Just watch your stress melt as you receive our sweet Lord into your heart.

10. To avoid stress next year — clip out this article and read it again next December!

(O’Donnell Williams is author of Memories of the Beach: Reflections on a Toronto Childhood.)

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