Health

The 10 Holiday Commandments

Your guide to a fun-filled, stress-free season

The 10 Holiday Commandments

Photo by Chris Nicholls

We all know them: those “Christmas people,” who speak in exclamation marks, have yuletide playlists on their iPods, and who finish their shopping in October. some of us, in fact, need look no further than the closest mirror to come face to face with this harrowing holiday creature.

Indeed, I admit it, I’m crazy for Christmas. (Which may be Hanukkah, Kwanza or other to you.) Sure, the season has its challenges—not least the overpopulation of parking lots, where etiquette comes to die. But overall, I could never begrudge a holiday that so elevates family, food and fashion. (When else can you wear Dolce & Gabbana’s jewelled paillette pumps without looking like a refugee from Dynasty?)

Fortunately for those whose holiday cheer is as weak as willpower around shortbread cookies, seasonal bliss can be as easy—and pleasurable—as minding these 10 commandments.

1.Thou Shalt Own Thy Holiday Baggage:
To view the effect the season has on most people is to wonder if the true offerings of the wise men weren’t drama, dysfunction and demands. In the 2008 comedy Four Christmases, in fact, going home for the holidays is likened by Vince Vaughn’s character to “a prison sentence”—an apt comparison for many holiday haters.

“None of us have Hallmark, Norman Rockwell families,” says Nancy Berk, a Pittsburgh-based clinical psychologist and contributor to Chicken Soup for the Soul. “More people means more personalities, and more personalities means more personality clashes.”

Luckily, the “normal chaos” of holiday get-togethers is manageable if you have the right tools. Chief among Berk’s arsenal is backbone: deciding in advance what you will and won’t put up with, and having a plan for when those bound- aries are breached.

“Step out of the situation, take a walk, take a break, take a nap. Give yourself a bit of distance before you blow up,” says Berk. “this will give you time to collect your thoughts, gain some perspective and remain calm.”

2. Thou Shalt Love The Little Things: Don’t sweat the small stuff; savour it. toronto’s Neil Pasricha, author of The Book of (Holiday) Awesome, breaks down some of the oft-overlooked delights of the season: Getting a card from someone with whom you’d lost touch; that first shipment of eggnog at the grocery store; plugging in your Christmas lights and having all of them work; drinking with your grandma; huffing a tree fresh off the lot; and knowing that the crying kid at the mall isn’t yours. “Even the tiniest holiday interactions can give us lots of joy,” says Pasricha.

3. Thou Shalt Not Expect Miracles: Holiday expert Gerry Bowler, author of two books on Christmas, says people spend “about 10 percent of their lives under the sway” of this particular holiday—whether they choose to celebrate it or not. With all that trafficking of synthetic twinkle, expectations are often raised to the point where they clash with the realities of the season.

“You have to deal with mobs of shoppers, problems in parking, difficulty in getting the goods you want. You have to deal with people expecting you to be happy, to be enjoying the spirit,” says Bowler, who is also a professor of history at the University of Manitoba. “We expect people to be nicer, we expect certain miraculous behaviour, even as all of this pressure mounts.”

Keeping your sanity can be as simple as keeping a practical outlook. Save the dream sequences for the mistletoe.

4. Thou Shalt Learn To Say No: Taking a page from the toddler handbook, “No” can be a powerful ally—especially when your familial, professional and romantic commitments threaten to leave you with nothing for yourself.

“You have to practise saying no,” says Berk, who notes that it’s easier to stay out of something from the outset than to get out once you’re already committed.
Mari Sasano, a 38-year-old community organizer from edmonton, counts the right of refusal among her most important happiness strategies for the season. “If it’s overwhelming, stay at home!” says Sasano, a self-professed Christmas enthusiast. “It’s what people secretly want to do anyways. they’ll be envious.”

5. Thou Shalt Let Hollywood Set The Mood: From the “fake it till you make it” school of thought, few things can manipulate you into feeling warm and Christmasy like watching holiday movies. Some of your best bets include classics such as A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and A Christmas Story (1983); offbeat options such as The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993); and more recent holiday gems such as Elf (2003), The Family Stone (2005) and Love Actually, the 2003 movie that dares you to channel Scrooge with every hilarious note of Bill Nighy’s overcooked crooning.

6. Thou Shalt Be Grateful: Social scientists have uncovered a laundry list of benefits to thankfulness, linking it to everything from greater optimism to heightened alertness. Now, a new study co-authored by C. Nathan DeWall, associate professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, finds gratitude also leads to lower levels of aggression—something we could all stand to slash from our holiday traditions.

In being consciously thankful for what we have (DeWall recommends that people literally count their blessings on a weekly basis), we’re less likely to snap at a stranger over the last pair of Prada pumps. And that just makes everyone feel better.

7. Thou Shalt Nix The Navel-Gazing: Indulging in a little “me time”—be it a workout or a trip to the spa—can be a lifesaver when coping with the holiday blues. But Scott Kenney, a happiness expert and professor of sociology at Memorial University in Newfoundland, says we shouldn’t discount the value of shifting our gaze outward to friends, family and even strangers struggling with the season.

“Try to look at what other people are going through, and try to take the focus off [yourself],” says Kenney. Bowler adds that by looking at those who are in need, our own problems can seem to virtually shrink by comparison.

Whether it’s donating to a meaningful cause, volunteering for a local charity, or administering for your church, the holiday season offers dozens of opportunities to reshape your thinking—and start some healthy new traditions in the process.

8. Thou Shalt Open Thy House:
Perhaps the true magic of yuletide is figuring out how to fit a year’s worth of mingling into just two or three weeks. By hosting an open house, as suggested by Bowler, you embrace the spirit of holiday hospitality while simultaneously meeting all your social needs in an afternoon. Fewer events means less stress, and less stress means the freedom to actually enjoy your remaining commitments—be they office parties, New Year’s Eve dress-shopping or simply finishing that book you’ve been neglecting since summer.

9. Thou Shalt Quell The Consumerism: Berk notes that pressure to purchase is at an all-time high during the holidays, often resulting in poor financial decision-making. By considering gestures instead of gifts, budgets and shopping burdens alike can be spared.

“Some people are relieved to stop gift exchanges and welcome the idea of a holiday lunch together,” says Berk. “Gifts of your time and talent can also be valuable and well-received, whether it’s a resumé review or a gourmet dessert.”

Indeed, Amanda Ash, 26, a style writer recently transplanted from Vancouver to Edmonton, lists random acts of kindness as one of her personal holiday commandments.

“Give $20 to a homeless man. Help someone take their groceries to their car. Shovel your neighbour’s sidewalk,” says Ash. “It’ll remind you why you love Christmas.”

10. Thou Shalt Cut Thyself Some Slack: Whether you celebrate the holidays or not, the season is a perfect time to reflect on the things that truly matter—not to obsess over the things that don’t. When all else fails, keep in mind that nobody on her deathbed ever regretted having that second shortbread cookie.