Friday, December 9, 2011

Ho, Ho, Help!!

Every December, my family, fortified with hot chocolate and cookies, bundles into my husband’s truck, and heads to the tree farm to cut our Christmas tree. Every December, I have this vision of a Norman Rockwell experience.

Every December, I get “Mad Magazine!” 

I kid you not. This hilarious attempt at creating the perfect Christmas memory has been going on for so many years it’s become one of our weirder family traditions! Usually, the holiday fantasy begins to go awry when we hit a country-road pothole and hot chocolate goes flying! We recover, pick the mini marshmallows off of our sweaters and out of our hair, and forge onward! We head into the maze of trees in search of the ‘perfect’ Virginia Pine for our home. Four family members--- four ideas of ‘perfect.’
Last year, we took home three trees.
We’ve had a tree fly out of the truck bed and land in a busy intersection; we’ve had a dog become lost in the labyrinth of pines; we’ve picked out the ‘practically perfect’ tree from a distance, only to have another family beat us to the excellent evergreen, and claim it for their own!  Sigh.
The tree-cutting tradition has taught me a lot about holiday expectations. It seems to me that we set the bar so high in our quest for seasonal perfection that we lose sight of what is truly important- the love and warmth of spending this special time with our family and friends.  And, just what is ‘perfection’ anyway? Is it the exquisitely shaped, perfectly balanced tree that *you* select? Or is it the ‘Charlie Brown” tree that makes your child’s eyes sparkle, and is small enough for them to help set up and decorate? Is it the ‘perfect dinner’ that you won’t allow anyone to help you prepare, for fear someone won’t ‘get it right?’ Or is it a dinner prepared by many hands, filled with love--- and a few lumps in the mashed potatoes?  Is it control over traditions, or compromise over new possibilities?
What is it about the whimsy of a fat man in a red suit juxtaposed with the reverence of a Savior’s birth that causes us to fret and stress, to spend and overextend--- all in the quest of the ‘perfect holiday?’ Is it possible to stop the holiday-gone-wild and to survive the season with style and a smile? Yes, if only we can learn to master what I call the ‘ups and downs’ of the season!
First, CLIMB DOWN off that perch of perfection! Life is not a Norman Rockwell painting or a Southern Living magazine cover. Don’t’ get me wrong. You will have those Norman Rockwell moments. Cherish them. Document them through photos, videos and journals. Because, you will also have those moments straight out of Mad Magazine, as well! Your seventy pound German shepherd may turn over your Christmas tree, drag it into the middle of the living room floor, strip it of every ornament and eat most of them! (True story.) Your child may sprain his ankle the week before Santa Claus is set to deliver a brand new pair of roller blades.  The grocery store may run out of cranberry sauce and you may put salt instead of sugar in the chocolate pie! So what? It’s not Christmas at my mom’s house unless someone burns the rolls!  When you veer from Christmas “wonder” to Christmas “blunder” laugh it off, take a goofy picture for the scrapbook and move on!
SET UP your priorities. If you try to please everyone by saying ‘yes’ to every invitation, celebration or obligation, you’ll be so tired and crabby no one will want to spend the holidays with you!  You will also lose sight of the magic of the season. Christmas will become just another chore. You end up emotionally drained and perhaps even physically ill. Don’t turn down every request or invitation (they’re part of what makes the season fun!) Just be selective!
WRITE IT DOWN! Make a daily, weekly, even monthly list of tasks you must complete. It will help you stay on schedule and when we are running on time, our stress level drops. A bonus: you’ll get great satisfaction every time you mark an item off of your ‘to do’ list!
LOOSEN UP your grip. Ask for help! Accept it when it’s offered! It doesn’t mean you are weak, or that you can’t ‘do it all.’ You probably can. But why? Let the kids decorate the tree. Who cares if it’s lopsided? Think of the memories they’ll be making while you take care of another task, like wrapping gifts, cooking or just sitting in front of a roaring fire, taking in their joy! 
LIE DOWN. You hit the floor running at dawn and don’t stop until far into the night. There’s too much to do, and not enough time to do it in. Parties to attend, gifts to buy and wrap, holiday treats to buy or bake! Who has time to sleep? You must make the time! Rest is one of the best gifts you can give yourself this holiday season. Why? Research shows the body, and brain, go into ‘repair mode’ during sleep! A good night’s sleep can make you feel better and look better. It can make you healthier, smarter, and nicer! Perhaps if the Grinch had gotten more sleep he wouldn’t have been such a sourpuss!
LIGHTEN UP. Smile! Studies show smiling can increase your pain tolerance, strengthen your immune system, improve your mood, and on top of all that, it’s contagious! Spread the cheer! Wouldn’t you rather interact with happy people than a bunch of grumps? Smile! It lifts your face and makes you look younger! Smile when the cat climbs the Christmas tree! Smile when you look at the mountain of gifts to wrap! Smile when you pull the hopelessly tangled lights out of the box in which they’ve been packed away. And no, gritting your teeth doesn’t count.
Nothing will take away all of the stress of the holiday season. It’s life and sometimes we just have to get over it. But, if we practice these ‘ups and downs,’ we are more likely to have holidays to cherish and remember, instead of holidays we would rather forget!
*This article was orginally published in Baldwin County Living Magazine, Winter 2009 Edition. It is adapted from my holiday speech entitled: Ho, Ho, Help! Surviving the Holidays with Style and a Smile