Monday, December 18, 2006

'Tis the Season to Lighten Up!

It's commonly accepted that the holiday season can produce stress of monumental proportions. For reasons perhaps best understood by psychiatrists and psychologists, many of us create much of that stress because we seem determined to make everything perfect: the holiday decorations, the holiday meal, the holiday gifts. For those of us who already have perfectionist tendencies -- and often people who struggle with clutter actually do so because they are perfectionists, difficult as that may be for "regular" people to understand -- this can create a level of anxiety that makes us want to decamp to a remote mountain top and hide in a cave. Add to that those fast-approaching New Year's resolutions that are usually uncomfortable repeats of the ones we made last year and, well, we may want to stay in that cave like a hibernating bear until spring and skip the whole traumatic experience.

Let's get a grip! This is a holiday season, not an endurance test. And let's be honest about our feelings: seeking perfection is usually about us trying to do what we think we're "supposed" to do, not what others actually want or expect. In fact, if you have someone in your life who wants you to be perfect, you're dealing with a person who is delusional. Rule of Life: no one is perfect and no one should expect anyone else to be perfect. The best we can hope for is to make the holidays as enjoyable as possible for the people we care about. That requires a more realistic approach to handling our time and energy so that we can enjoy the experience, too.

In our household we've managed to pare down both the gift list and the decorating over the years to a manageable bare minimum. We have a simple holiday meal with the immediate family and one or two guests. I save my major entertaining for a Chinese New Year party in February. I made that decision quite a few years ago and friends now look forward to my unusual annual event rather than worrying about trying to squeeze in another party during party-packed December.

But I confess that I still feel stressed sometimes anyway, probably as a result of my own perfectionist tendencies which cause me to compare everything I do with my memories of my childhood holidays. I have the good fortune to have very happy memories, thanks primarily to my incredibly organized mother's skills at creating a charmingly decorated home, preparing delicious meals, and selecting special gifts -- all while thoroughly enjoying herself and not worrying at all about perfection. Yet she even made the gift-wrapping look exceptional, pleating different colored tissue papers, mixing different paper designs, hand-tying unusual bows. Looking back I realize that many of my gifts were quite practical, yet they were still exciting to receive because they were wrapped so beautifully. And there was always some truly special item that I particularly wanted that I was lucky enough to receive, too. I also realize that it took a lot of effort and frugal spending throughout the year to make the holidays enjoyable for my family. Mom's a tough act to follow, although now that she's moved to Los Angeles and shares the holidays at our home, she kindly insists that I'm doing just fine.

But there was a ten-year stretch in which my mother faced this time of year alone. My father had passed away and Mom was living in a small town. She never wanted me to travel there during the usually snowy weather (a long drive was required following the flight), but she was not about to mope around or rely on friends to entertain her. Instead she volunteered every Thanksgiving and Christmas for the Rescue Mission, an organization that served a full holiday meal to everyone, not just the homeless or poor population, but every single person in the whole town who wanted to attend. Now, that's a friendly town! Obviously, this was a major community event requiring many, many volunteers and the generous donations of several businesses, including the use of the huge, newly renovated, historic former train depot, which was always specially decorated for the event. This lovely, sit-down dinner was a great success with a cross-section of the town's residents but it was especially popular with senior citizens who were on fixed incomes and alone for the holidays. Mom always had a wonderful time helping out with the baking and serving the meals. What could be a more inspiring example of the true spirit of the holidays?

So, instead of feeling stressed about trying to be perfect, let's just admit that we'll never be perfect anyway and take a look at what this season offers us: we have a chance to give to others, a chance to share with family and friends, a chance to feel the joy of being a part of something larger and more significant than any pointless attempts to create some imaginary "perfect" holiday. Let's not miss our chance.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

No comments: