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As we approach the final weekend before the 25th, I’m sure even those people who don’t celebrate Christmas can feel the hype.  Without a doubt, the most common question I hear these days is:

“ARE YOU READY FOR CHRISTMAS YET?”  – usually said with a sense of hesitance, like the question itself might cause someone to come unhinged.

Hmmm…. am I ready?  For what?  Family time?  Good food?  Contributing to my community? (if only the question meant those things to everyone, I think the chaos and stress that seems to accompany this time of year would be gone)

Unfortunately, I think it usually translates more like this:

Are you Ready?   Have you… gotten Santa pictures taken? Made and mailed photo cards to everyone? Shopped? Shopped some more?  Found the perfect present destined to reward you with that prized reaction from your kids on Christmas morning?  Outdid yourself from last year?  Spent more money than you could afford? Planned dinners?  Scheduled family visits?  Pencilled in holiday parties? Got haircuts and new holiday outfits for the family? Made sure your house was clean for a week of entertaining? Meticulously scheduled your time co-ordinating family visits – hopefully that don’t require days of travel or a Christmas day of house-hopping? Double-checked your list to make sure you didn’t forget someone?  And shopped some more?

Maybe it is hard to believe, but the week around December 25th is usually one of the most peaceful and relaxing weeks of the year for me.  I believe this is because of a few factors.  1 – We’ve lived in a different province from family for the past 15 years.  So our holidays either involve traveling or a quiet time with the four of us.  2 – When our kids were still babies, I saw how incredibly stressed out parents were at this time of year, and we vowed that we would do things differently.  3 – It was easy for us to start with simple gifts because our first few Christmases as a family were at a time that we simply had no extra money to be lavish with.

And so my top tips for bringing some PEACE AND JOY back into the holidays are these:

1 – START SIMPLE AND KEEP IT THAT WAY.   Let’s face it, babies don’t know the difference, toddlers are happier with the boxes and paper, and kids innately have the capacity to find joy in very small things.  As I’ve said in an earlier blog, it is usually us, as parents, that keep going bigger and better every year – and then wonder why our children are constantly wanting more.

(I had this conversation today with a mom of two young kids.  I was appalled when she told me that she has bought 8 substantial gifts for each of her kids, and that all 6 grandparents have bought another 5-6 gifts as well.  Her eyes almost bugged out of her head when I told her that we’ve always only bought one gift per child – and then, with a wistful look in her eyes told me that she wished she had started that way.  I suggested that if it were me, wanting to break that pattern, I’d plan a holiday vacation for an upcoming year.  I’d let the kids know the holiday was in place of presents, and then start anew – more simply – the following year.  (As for me, I can’t wait to experience a future Christmas in the Caribbean)

2 – GIVE GIFTS BECAUSE YOU WANT TO.  This is very different from giving gifts because you have to.  Would you rather receive a gift that someone happily and willingly gave to you?  Or one that you know was out of obligation?  I think we have become afraid of setting limits for gift-giving.  For me, when I give a gift, I get as much joy out of it as I expect the person gets from being on the receiving end.

The exchanging of gifts is a two-way street.  And it should feel win-win in both directions.

In my opinion, if you feel obligated to give gifts – that joy will be lacking (possibly even undermined by some subconscious irritation or resentment)  – both of which indicate that there is simply a conversation that needs to happen.  As often happens, you may just be surprised when you suggest cutting back and find that that idea brings a look of relief to other people’s faces as well.

There are lots of great ideas families have for keeping the fun and spirit of gift-giving alive.  Like exchanging names each year.  Or making it into a game – like Secret Santa, or “The Present Game”.  Or making a rule that presents have to be home-made.

3 – DONATE TO YOUR COMMUNITY.  I know that sometimes I get so caught up in my own life, that I forget that so many others have less than we do.  Less love, less security, less family, less food, less money – you name it.  Especially at this time of year – and its tendency to be very consumeristic – it can be very grounding to donate your time or money to others in your community.

Every year I make an effort to contribute a little more than at other times of year.  Each year in my practice, we have run food drives, or collected donations for a local woman’s shelter.

Other years I’ve brought the kids to pick out a toy they’d like to receive – with the understanding that it would be given to a child who might not be getting anything else that year.  We started this when Audra was 4, as I didn’t think she would understand well enough at an earlier age.  I was so pleasantly surprised at how much they grasped the concept of giving joy to others who are less fortunate.  Even at that young age, there was never once a whine that they wanted the toys for themselves.

But my favourite was the year the kids made dozens of Christmas cards that we brought and gave out at the local nursing home on Christmas Eve.  At the time, it was our first Christmas that we chose to stay in Ontario by ourselves – and I will admit that one of my motivations was to remind myself that there are many people who are lonely during the holidays – which is something that I will never experience as long as I am with my husband and kids.

Just like giving gifts, contributing to your community is another way to create a win-win situation.  No matter how difficult your own life may be at times, I suspect it may be impossible to feel badly about helping someone in need.  Rather, it brings up wonderful feelings of gratitude and a deep sense of inner peace.  Two things that are so crucial to truly enjoying the holidays.

And lastly,

4 – ASK YOURSELF:  DOES THIS BRING ME JOY?  Over the years, as we’ve made our decisions about the holidays, and the traditions we wanted to create, this single question is what has guided me.  I don’t mean it in the sense of being negligent of other people’s feelings.  I mean to check within yourself to see what choices make you feel those things that the holidays are meant to embrace: peace, love, gratitude, and joy.

For me, this list is simple.  I want quality time with family, good food, to feel like I have helped others in my community… and a good book to read.  For some people, this list  may include spending a day decorating their house, baking, filling their homes with guests, or a multitude of family traditions.

I challenge you to stop during this busy time and ask yourself:

What parts of the holidays fill me up with joy?

What things must be in place for me to feel content?

Who do I wish to spend my time with?

Where would I most like to spend my time?

What choices help my family be most at peace?

What traditions mean something to me – so much so that I’d like to pass them on to my kids?

I wonder what would happen if everyone stopped to reflect on these questions.  I wonder how many people would stop in their tracks and start to scratch things off their to-do lists?  I wonder how many people would remember what matters most about this time of year?

My wish is that more people would take just a few minutes during these busy days to slow down, breathe, and choose to create the holidays with great intention – while getting fully present to all of the beauty around them.

Whatever path you may choose, whatever tradition you may celebrate – my wish for you is simply this:  for your days to be filled with peace, love, and joy.

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Christmas Eve 2012 in Nova Scotia