Christmas is upon us. What do you envision?
I see bright, colorful lights and happy people. The church sanctuary is loaded with poinsettias, and an inspiring Nativity scene with the kindergarten and junior kids plays out on the platform. At home, tasteful decorations highlight each corner, and a warm and friendly tree beckons from the immaculate living room. There are many outings with friends, delicious six-course meals full of laughter with family, or maybe quality time spent with one special person.
Wouldn’t that be lovely? Adjust your glasses just a little, though, and you see people—maybe even yourself—scrambling through long lists of Christmas shopping, with an element of panic in the air. The church sanctuary certainly is lovely. But you volunteered to help with that Nativity scene, and are now herding lively young children around in an attempt to create order. The house is a mess, boxes of decorations are open and scattered about, and the half-decorated tree has a strand of lights that simply will not stay lit. Your calendar is ridiculously full, and there is no way you can fit in one more Christmas event, not even a Messiah sing-along. The food actually makes it to the table and the family is gathered round, but you’re praying that Uncle Lou doesn’t say anything politically inauspicious and that your 5-year-old grandniece doesn’t spill her bright-red juice. Or, maybe it’s worse than that: nothing is happening, no one is there for you—you’re lonely at Christmas.
This holiday season how can we lessen our stress while at the same time bringing more joy to our lives?
Let’s start with the stressors. What are the things that cause you the most grief at the holidays? Make a list: expense, family stress, too much busyness, loneliness.
Personal boundaries are a wonderful thing. Set some realistic ones for yourself so that you won’t be overcome with holiday stress. For example, take the area of expense. Is your family inclined to be in debt by the end of the season? Set a budget for gifts, food, and activities.
If you have a large extended family that gathers to exchange gifts, suggest to them that you exchange names, enabling each person to purchase only one gift. Or if there are numerous children in the extended family, perhaps each family unit could present only the kids with gifts, and allow the adults to be gifted by saving money. Maybe extended family isn’t an issue, but you have a very tight budget for your immediate family. Prepare children ahead of time that each child will get one gift—which could be bought, handmade, or even presented as a gift of one-on-one time for something they were particularly wanting to do—and the rest of your Christmas will be filled with family activities.
Another boundary area is time. Too many activities on your list? List your possible commitments, then number them in order of importance. Decide to choose one special event a week, or maybe only one for the season if you are easily exhausted by crowds. Do you have children,grandchildren, or young friends engaged in a plethora of Christmas concerts? If family obligations demand your attendance, then cut out a block of time each day for yourself. It might only be a half hour, but take yourself away from people, phones, and television, and spend that time reading a book, listening to music, or talking with God.
Are there ways you can retain some of the activities you’ve been looking forward to all year, but tweak them to be less frenetic? Don’t lock into a pattern just because it’s the way you’ve always done it. Are there things you can do before the stressful season hits? Be willing to look for tiny gifts of peace.
So things are looking better. You’ve set a few parameters not to overwork yourself and get lost in stress. Now, how do magnify the joy of the season? There are usually a few traditional ideas that spring to mind readily. Make a list of the things you like best during Christmas, and seek them out: drive through neighborhoods to look at twinkling lights and displays; find a local church hosting a Messiah sing-along and participate; go ice skating with family or friends; look for free concerts in the area.
Help your family retain the spiritual significance of the season. Read the Christmas story every day for family worship in the week preceding Christmas Day. (If you have young children at home or grandchildren nearby, follow the 12 Days of Advent with them.) Make sure your own soul is also fed during this time. Step away from the holiday trappings each day, and make time to be alone with God. Look for those “grab it” moments. Late-night wake-ups, alone in your car as you run errands—both times lend themselves to communing with God.
Here’s another way to keep our perspective. Even though we know the true meaning of Christmas, the focus of the season is usually on our family and ourselves. Service to others doesn’t automatically surface on our list of favorite seasonal activities. Finding ways to serve others could turn out to be one of your best memories and favorite traditions of Christmas.
See if your local pet shelter needs help with feeding and walking during the holidays. Call a homeless shelter and volunteer. The latter might not turn out to be the poignant picture in your mind of handing plates of food to suffering humanity. What they might really need is for you to wash dishes in the kitchen. Nonetheless, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).
A classic example of Christmas service is singing carols at the nursing home. Don’t stop there, though. Stay and chat. Many of the elderly will have no one visiting them on Christmas Day. Your 20 or 30 minutes spent listening to reminiscences of a past era may be the best present ever.
Are you yourself alone this Christmas? Consider spending the whole day at a nursing home, shelter, or hospital. Serving others helps both giver and receiver. “Ask what is it God is wanting to teach us through this year’s festivities, and who is it He is wanting to place in our paths to be a friend to, or to be a friend to us,” reminds my friend Penny [Roberts]. “So many possibilities! It’s awesome, really.”
I know a gentleman in Georgia who has a 20-year tradition of Christmas service. Early Christmas morning every year, Michael Fuchcar, a member of the Marietta, Georgia church, gets up and starts baking. He has gathered all his ingredients and pots and pans ahead of time, so that Christmas Day can be all about the joy of doing and giving. He bakes dozens of cookies in several varieties, loads them on colorful plates, and delivers them to several local fire departments: first responders who have given up their own Christmas to serve the public. “It’s an absolute honor to serve those who serve us each day by putting their lives on the line, standing in harm’s way,” says Fuchcar.
Ellen White wrote, “As His representatives among men, God does not choose angels who have never fallen, but human beings, men of like passions with those they seek to save.”*
This Christmas, stay above the fray of it all and find ways to stay grounded and peaceful. See how you can represent God to a lonely old man, a sick child, a homeless woman. Maybe you can even represent Him with a cookie.
* Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 134.
Sheila Elwin writes from Livingston, Montana.