A few years ago, my husband and I planned a major move for December 31. The last thing we needed that Christmas, in our bubble-wrapped apartment, was more debris or a complicated feast.
So we struck a deal: one gift apiece. After a simple meal, we took a walk, ruminating on our time in the town we were leaving and planning our next adventure. It was utter bliss. So why, a few yuletides later, did I spend all day cooking, entertaining, and opening a warehouse's worth of presents?
By day's end the house was a disaster, my mother's frenzied picture-snapping had driven me crazy, and my shrieking toddler's refusal to sleep had me in tears. Somewhere between planning an idyllic event and actually living through it, my ho-ho-ho had got up and gone.
Year-end celebrations should, in an ideal world, provide an opportunity to experience myriad cultures and traditions, connect with loved ones, reflect on the past, and energize for the future.
In real life, that can seem as likely as the rooftop landing of eight tiny reindeer; the mad sprint from November to January instead involves overindulging at the office holiday party, fretting over the perfect Hanukkah gift for your mother-in-law, and spending way too much on stuff no one really needs. It's enough to make you want to disappear every December and not return until well into the new year.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Somewhere between avoidance and toxic levels of gluttony, there is a middle path. "If you're mindful," says Ashtanga Yoga teacher Beryl Bender Birch, "you can appreciate the season instead of having to roll around it. People confuse non-attachment with non-participation or indifference. The true meaning of vairagya [nonattachment] is a full-out, full-body embrace of life; it's being able to embrace the colors and sounds without getting sucked in."
While greeting December with a "full-body embrace" isn't as simple as it sounds, it can be done. But first you need to reinvent your take on the season.
1. Create New Rituals
Fawn Fitter, a San Francisco entrepreneur, was dismayed by what she calls "the oppressive relentlessness of the holidays" until she decided to take action and host a winter solstice party, encouraging her friends to take stock of their lives on the longest night of the year. "I asked people to write a list of what they wanted to leave behind in the old year and embrace in the new," she says. "As midnight approached, we read them aloud and threw them into the fire."
It was a ritual that strengthened a sense of community among her friends and infused Fitter's holidays with thoughtfulness and a connection to the natural world. "Solstice reconnects me to a rhythm that's not about society or culture," she says. "It reminds me that I'm a person on the earth, the earth is turning, and the light is coming back."
For Deborah Preg, a schoolteacher with two young sons in Media, Pennsylvania, balancing the commercialism of the holidays with a celebration of nature is key to enjoying the season. "The kids smear pinecones with peanut butter and birdseed," she says, "to decorate a tree outside with food for the birds." The annual tradition was originally an urban ritual: "It started as a nature thing we could do when we lived in the city," Preg says, "with the one small tree in front of our house." Since the family moved to the suburbs, however, it has evolved into a party shared with neighbors and other children, bringing the family closer not just to nature but also to their community.
If creating your own tradition sounds appealing, but you're not entirely sure what it should be, author Jennifer Louden offers advice in The Woman's Comfort Book. First, she suggests setting aside an evening to spend with your family and close friends discussing what the holidays mean to you.
"Dig past the obvious," she says. Identifying the aspects that bring you joy and meaning will probably jump-start the flow of ideas. Maybe, she adds, you can do something you wanted to do as a kid. "Organize friends and put on a holiday play. Or have a potluck dinner with nontraditional foods."
Proving it's never too late to change rituals, Pat Bearden, a 30-year yoga veteran in Santa Rosa, California, reclaimed a childhood fantasy when she turned 60. She persuaded her family to put on a talent show as part of the annual Christmas gathering. Originally met with some trepidation, it has become a welcome source of glee, and now family members sometimes arrive with well-rehearsed routines instead of gifts.
2. Shift the Emphasis
After that disastrous Christmas when my daughter was young, I didn't think about creating new rituals, but I did realize that a room piled high with stuff and packed full of people can leave a person feeling empty. I, too, set out to imagine what a fun-filled, stress-free holiday would look like. I wanted less time opening presents and more time talking. Less time in the kitchen and more time with my family. Less noise and more tranquillity.
I wasn't alone. When the Center for a New American Dream conducted a poll a few years ago, 77 percent of the respondents said they'd prefer a simpler holiday, and 54 percent said spending less on gifts would help them focus more on the meaning of the holidays. But it's not easy to change habits.
At a family gathering the following November, my husband and I shared our requests with our relatives. Please, we said, we want our children to associate the season with you, not gear. We set a spending cap on presents. We begged for nothing that required batteries, a tactful shorthand for "nothing that will stimulate a toddler into a panic attack." And we turned a formal Christmas dinner into a casual potluck.
We held our breath, awaiting the protests of Santa's self-appointed helpers, but instead were greeted with a collective sigh of relief. And even though my mother eventually cheated on the gift limit and my husband's father griped that the buffet wasn't hot enough, the mood was so much less frantic that I had plenty of tolerance for such minor transgressions.
In the ensuing years, we've developed other plans for lightening the holiday load, like limiting social events to only one day of each weekend; the other is earmarked for quiet and family time. Trimming our to-do list means we're more likely to be rested, so we look forward to the activities we do take part in and feel free to pull out the ingredients for a spontaneous session of baking cookies or making tree ornaments—a joyful experience light-years away from the usual obligatory production of holiday sweets.
But the biggest change I've made is to my own expectations. The less I worry about making it to lots of events, giving and receiving the ideal gifts, and having perfectly behaved children when the relatives visit, the more likely I am to experience contentment. Last Christmas, as I watched my daughters frolic in a sea of ribbons, I was able to resist the urge to hover over them and rein in the chaos. I was grateful for their example that tissue paper can bring as much joy as anything wrapped in it.
3. Slow the Pace
Still, the season can feel as if it's spinning too fast. "This is a time to be more internal," says Todd Norian, an Anusara Yoga teacher in western Massachusetts. "Animals hibernate. It's cold, and your body is trying to slow down." Honoring the body's natural tendency to be still in winter makes you less likely to overeat, overspend, and overcommit. It also gives you a chance to find that deeper sense of happiness that isn't dependent on finding the perfect party dress.
An ideal way to soothe your nerves is to go on retreat. Most yoga centers organize holiday packages. "If you're not able to have that luxury," says Norian's wife, Anusara Yoga teacher Ann Greene, "you can still create a period each day to go inward and be silent. It's a natural time of year to wind down and reflect."
Greene recommends practicing Yoga Nidra, sometimes called yogic sleep or very deep relaxation. If you can't find a local class, listen to a Yoga Nidra CD and let it lead you inward. (Teachers Rod Stryker, Shiva Rea, Jnaneshvara Bharati, and Richard Miller all offer such CDs; you can find them through a simple web search.) Greene also suggests de-stressing with a simple breath exercise: Lie on the floor, put your hands on your belly, and let it contract on the exhale.
Tias Little, the founder of Yoga Source in Santa Fe, New Mexico, says, "The winter solstice is a time to look within. It's a calling toward contemplative postures, like forward bends and meditation. These poses reverse the frenetic stress that builds up around the holidays." He also suggests you add some digestion-aiding twists in your practice—they're a good counterbalance to overindulgence in food and drink.
And if ever there is a time to stick to routines, this is it. Get plenty of sleep, eat well, and redouble your commitment to yoga. If you maintain balance most of the time, you can enjoy the season's indulgences even more and recover from them more quickly. Greene says she and Norian eat very simply at home most of the month. "When we go out to celebrate, we enjoy it. People have so much guilt and shame," Greene says. "Enjoy the season in moderation ... Going with it creates less stress."
4. Choose Wisely
However you overhaul your holiday, the aim isn't just to concentrate on your own desires but to be aware of the choices you have. Let go of the "shoulds" and see if you can figure out what truly makes you happy. One exercise is to list the elements of an ideal December, then dissect the most appealing ideas. If you want to host a dinner, ask yourself why. Is it because you love to cook? You want to get the family together? Or do you think it would make your mom happy? Once you know your motives, you can plan an event that makes everyone happy: Take time off so you can do the party and enjoy it, host a tea party rather than dinner—or drop the whole idea and invite your mother to a spa instead.
My best friend, a high-powered fashion executive who rarely enters her kitchen and doesn't even own a dining room table, has our family over every Christmas Eve for a takeout picnic on her rug. It's a tradition that's as far from obligation and complicated planning as it gets. And yet it's as warm a gathering as any feast on a silver platter—and my children love it.
With time and trial and error, my family and I have opted out of the overstuffed aspects of the season and created new traditions that satisfy the spirit. This January 1, we'll all take a long walk together, as my husband and I did that magical wintry day years ago. We'll breathe deeply of the cold air. And if we exhale in sweet relief, it won't be because we endured the season, but because we enjoyed it.
Mary Elizabeth Williams has written for the New York Times, Salon.com, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two energetic daughters.