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A Holiday Survival Guide

Janice — I did a survey recently. I asked my Christmas-celebrating friends and colleagues to share with me their happy memories of Christmas. Some of the memories were of getting a special gift — but just as many were of giving a special gift. Interestingly, more than half of the memories had to do with visiting grandparents. There were many memories of making special Christmas cookies with Grandma, but the memory was more about the making of the cookies than the eating of the cookies.

Having said that, it’s so easy to anticipate holidays with intense ambivalence. Holidays may be great, but they’re also stressful. There’s too much to do. More than that, old wounds tend to resurface, and the emotional temperature can be just too damn hot. Adults become children again — and not in a good way.

And then there’s the food. Christmas cookies, eggnog — the whole holiday catastrophe (we’re not including fruitcake in the list because we don’t believe that anyone has actually ever eaten it). If you typically use food as a way to cope with stress, this time of year can be less than jolly. But there’s a lot that we can do to keep the food (not to mention the negative emotions) in control.

Here’s our suggestion: slow it down. Way down. Get the sleep [link] you need. Sleep is not a luxury, but rather a sanity saver. If making the sixth batch of cookies is going to sail you over the edge of reason, then five batches are enough. If you can’t find the perfect gift, then give an okay gift with a heartfelt card. If there are too many presents to wrap, then get bags and tissue paper. You get the idea. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself.

Janice — I didn’t join in Christmas celebrations until I married. My mother-in-law Betty,  whom I’ve spoken of before in our Chanukah post, made Christmas the magical time that Christmas card makers portray. On Christmas night, after the gifts, after the commotion, and after the food, Betty would light candles all over the living room and then turn out all the lamps. Everyone would settle in, some on the couch, some in chairs, some on the floor, kids and babies in laps. Then we’d listen to a recording of Hodie (Hoe´-dee-ay),  a beautiful Christmas cantata. Betty created an experience of such serenity and family closeness. I had not grown up with this tradition — especially the serenity part — and so I did not have past associations to build on. But I did understand the quiet joy that we shared. This slowing down, this pause at the end of all the festivities — and chaos — was what stays with me still as one of my most treasured memories.

It’s universal that people share their love by sharing food. Special foods that are associated with holidays really are special — enjoy them! But don’t let the food take control. As always, we are strong advocates for planning ahead. For example, decide ahead of time how many Christmas cookies you’re going to eat. Three? Ten? It’s your choice. Okay, then — that’s the plan, and you’ll commit to it. Now you can really enjoy your cookies. But then, that’s it.  Otherwise, mindless eating takes over and will likely lead to a sense of feeling physically sick and mentally numb. What kind of holiday is that?

Jay Every year at Christmastime, and only then, my aunt makes her famous chocolate walnut fudge. This fudge is bomb. It’s truly special. So you know what I do? I have a piece. I enjoy it. I eat it slowly. I savor it. I allow myself to be happy that I was able to experience it, I don’t feel deprived, and I’m proud of myself for eating in a sane way.

Janice — really, Jay? Just one piece? I’m not sure how you do that. You’re amazing.

 Jay —Not really — I forgot to mention that I am only allowed to take the single piece when we are walking out the door. That way I literally cannot return to the bowl and take more!

There are other ways to mentally and physically take care of yourself:

  • Bump up the exercise. Exercise just means getting your heart rate elevated! It can even be as simple as a ten-minute walk around the block — twice a day, if you can. Being outside in the daytime is an even more potent mood elevator as the days get shorter.
  • Set aside down time to reboot — meditation, yoga, or even just closing your eyes and taking deep, slow breaths for three minutes can make a difference.
  • Expand the space between stimulus and response. Translation: when a toxic family member starts spewing the usual poison, you don’t have to drink the poison this time. Pause before you respond. Or don’t respond at all. Give that person less power over you.

Jay — Better yet, plan an exit strategy in the event you feel overwhelmed. When I was at home during holidays and felt overwhelmed, my exit strategy was my dog. If I felt compelled to call out a family member, and I knew the conversation would deteriorate from there, I would politely excuse myself and say that dog needed to go outside. Nobody needed to know that our dog really was just walking laps in the backyard with me.

This holiday season, while you’re sharing love and attention with your family and friends, save a little of that love and attention for yourself. You deserve it. Happy Holidays from both of us!