December 10, 2009

Keeping the Christmas Spirit

The joy of decorating & eating a cookie.With two weeks left until Christmas, I'm noticing an increase in my anxiety level. The calendar is filling up, the to-do list is maxed out, and moments of peace are becoming increasingly few and far between. In addition, there is the usual end-of-the-year stress at church, as we struggle to put together a budget and a slate of officers for 2010.

It is therefore time to remind myself of some important--essential, even--practices to get me through the season. If you are also worried about losing the spirit and joy of Christmas amidst the holiday madness, you might want to consider adapting these practices for yourself.

Don't do everything: The office party. The neighbor's open house. The "one-day" sale at the store. All the items on your "to-do" list.

You haven't put all the decorations up yet, even though Christmas is in two weeks? I'm telling you: it's okay. In my house, we've had the tree up for almost a week, but many of the ornaments have yet to be hung. Each day we add a few as we have time. Maybe we'll get them all on by Christmas, maybe we won't.

If you still have boxes of decorations still to put up, or if you wore yourself out getting all the decorations up, perhaps you need to reconsider the importance of it all. You may want to get rid of many of your decorations; having the perfect Christmas house isn't worth the stress. You don't need a perfect house to have a perfect Christmas.

Do nothing. Spend one hour a day and one day a week doing nothing ... and by "nothing," I mean don't do anything that requires you to "get ready" or "prepare," or that appears on your "to-do" list. Instead, grab a book and spend a couple hours reading it while enjoying a cup of coffee or tea. Go for a walk, and enjoy the Christmas decorations in your neighborhood. Meet a friend for lunch, if you can do it without stressing about the details or finding time for it.

Ancient Jewish and Christian wisdom teaches us to observe one day each week as a "sabbath," a day of rest. Most of us don't do this, because a day of rest or prayer seems to us to be a day of doing "nothing," and few of us can afford to do "nothing" with all that needs to be done to "get ready" for Christmas. However, the truth is that, with all the stress and anxiety we experience this time of year, we can't afford to not spend some time doing nothing. We need that time to restore our soul. Without it, we lose the joy and peace of the season.

Don't worry about what "they" say or what "they" are doing. "They" say you need to spend so much on Christmas gifts. "They" say that it isn't Christmas without having loads of gifts wrapped in brightly colored paper under the tree. "They" say that if everyone else is doing it, then you should be, too.

This year, it's been particularly hard for me to resist the "they" mentality. My wife and kids are asking for things that they want, simply because "everyone else has them." They're right, but is that a reason for us to have them, too? I feel the pressure myself, and yet I'm also aware that just because something makes someone else happy, that doesn't necessarily mean it will make me happy. I know myself well enough to know that if something complicates my life in any way, the happiness it brings probably won't compensate for the added stress and anxiety.

Think of all the "essential" things we have in our homes today that weren't even available fifty years ago. With all the wonderful things we have now, one would think we'd be a lot happier. However, study after study shows that Americans are not any happier today than they were fifty years ago.

Knowing this makes it easier to resist the message that I need to do what "they" do and have what "they" have in order to be happy.

Look for God even in the chaos. Even when I get caught up in the madness, I am often able to experience God and Christmas. The other day, in a crowded store, buying something that "they" said I had to have (it was on sale, after all), I saw a small child riding in a shopping cart, delighted at his newly-discovered talent of making raspberry sounds with his mouth. Joy like that is contagious, and that moment gave me more happiness than the item I walked out of the store with.

A similar moment came during a church board meeting. In the midst of discussions that often alternate between bland and challenging, one board member expressed gratitude toward another member, affirming her work and ministry. The special-ness of such moments is easy to miss, unless one is paying close attention.

The truth is, it's not the store-bought presents that make Christmas special. It's not filling up one's calendar with events, or completing every task on a to-do list. What makes Christmas special is pausing, even in the midst of the madness, to notice the joy that is all around us. It really is there, and it can be experienced by anyone who is able to stop for a moment and notice it.

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