Amidst the season's glitz and clutter, it's sometimes hard to focus on what really matters. Beyond the shopping and the turkey, the latkes and the fruitcake, lies the fact that the holidays send us into deep communion once again with the people who made us what we are.
Really the season is about relationships, and most of these are with our families. Of course, some of these work well, while others are the pits. Learning to honour those we love and coexist with those who vex us will mean more in the long run than arguments over whether the potatoes are mashed with butter or margarine.
Here are a few pointers. If gift shopping is unavoidable, keep your spirits high by focusing on the affection you're seeking to express, not on whether you're picking the exact right thing. The best present of all, though it can be terribly costly, is the gift of time -- a date for a special occasion so the season's spirit can linger well into the New Year. Generally try to do things that you really enjoy, but if you have to put in time in activities that don't appeal to you -- a family trip to church or synagogue, an extra brunch that you hadn't counted on -- try seeing your attendance as another present to your near and dear.
If you're turned off by one of your family members, think of this as an opportunity to exercise the holiday spirit -- who says compassion always feels good? If you know someone likely to pick a fight, try talking about it in advance. It can help to let someone know you'll leave if the going gets nasty yet again. Finally, we know from research that in families with strong rituals, members report a more intact sense of self and tighter intergenerational ties. The holidays, in other words, are an opportunity to make relationships better. What could be more important than that?
what the experts say
"We are right now in the heart of the feminine cycle (of the Celtic calendar). We're talking about the void, womb energy, the dream time, intuition, celebrating the inward, the inside, the feminine. At Christmas there's too much emphasis on the external. People go out a lot when they actually need to spend time within. If they were to give themselves 20 minutes a day where they honour the inner, that would help. Make a list of the things you're worried about, like seeing your mother or getting the right present, then burn it. You're letting it go. Forgive yourself -- you're not perfect."
DESIR" GAESHEDA KHEAWOK, founder, Whispering Song Teaching Lodge of Energy Medicine
"When you want to recreate a ritual, ask, "What do I want the outcome to be?' Then take core elements of whatever cultural, familial or religious traditions work for you and add things that have personal meaning. For example, I have fond memories of making paper chains with my father. Now, at the solstice, we have a paper chain that we add to every year, and we write on the chain our wishes for the season. I took the core element that means love for my father and added it to my new family. We do freak out about gifts. Be really clear about what you want and let go of expectation -- just receive the gift in the moment. Balance consumerism and greed by giving to a food bank. You cannot stop the Christmas machine, but you can balance it."
DEIRDRE NORMAN, professional ceremonial consultant
"This is a time of year when one can truly reflect on the meaning of compassion. Because you care about someone you worry about what gift to buy. You don't want to buy any old thing. But we have to be careful that our worries don't become our downfall. If a person is on a tight budget but overspends in order to please, that doesn't do anyone any good. Truly thinking about the individual means giving from the heart and understanding your own limitations."
GRANT IKUTA, reverend, Toronto Buddhist Church
"You know it's a ritual if you would miss it if it didn't happen. One of the things that's interesting about rituals is they're pretty much defined by the family themselves. What works for one doesn't for another. An outside observer may not even be able to detect a family ritual; it can be very subtle. Conflict is one of the downsides of some family rituals. Identify things you might dread -- the awareness can be helpful. You'd be surprised, when you look at the things that family members look forward to, you'll find they're really not expensive or elaborate."
BARBARA FIESE, chair of psychology, Syracuse University, NY