How Do We Achieve True Holiday Cheer?

Man, it sure is cheerful around this time of year. Cheer, cheer, cheer! I’ll bet you’ve even found yourself trying to out-cheer your neighbors. Or family. Or strangers in the store.

So do you actually have more cheer around this time of year… or less?

The holiday season has deep roots in a giving tradition. It begins with giving thanks, heads toward giving gifts, and finally wraps up on January 1 with giving oneself a new outlook. All this giving sounds pretty benevolent and useful, but what happens when it takes a turn toward the mandatory? Sometimes, our (originally intended) good-hearted habits lead into darkness.

Red and Green Make Blue

Cheerful giving is awesome for everyone when it is authentic, genuine, and done with a free and open heart. Both the giver and the recipient benefit immensely through the spirit of non-attachment and pure love. Compulsory giving, however, can turn even the jolliest of elves into a Scrooge. Depression and anxiety both tend to peak around the holiday season because of undue pressure, commercially and from family.

We may not even be aware of it consciously, but this often intense requirement to perform can really wear us down. Unconsciously we feel apprehension, displeasure, and stress when considering all the so-called “obligations” of the holiday season.

Heck, even writing about it can foster a sense of unease. As I type, I am reminded about all the preparations, planning, decorating, shopping (oh, the shopping), invitations, cooking, house cleaning, present wrapping, Santa photos, and, of course, budgeting (!) required of us for about six weeks every year. Yuck! Who needs it? In fact, why do we even do it?

Or better still, how can we cure it without pissing everyone off by becoming some kind of hermit-leech, appearing only briefly at various festivities to suckle from the holiday teats of our friends, family, and neighbors? Woe to us as we suffer under those expectations laid upon us by the same folks we are trying to appease and dodge simultaneously.

Go Ahead, Blame Your Parents

Knowing why we think, believe, and act is important in uncovering a remedy for unconscious pressure. A funny thing happens when we grow up: people teach us stuff without our permission. It’s true! From the earliest moments of life, the voices of authority in our life, including parents, teachers, neighbors, clergy, television and (nowadays) social media have pumped into us what they think we should believe.

Now before I lose my readers with some presumption of tinfoil hat nonsense, this is no grand conspiracy. Although some might suggest that advertising aims purposely to brainwash, the overall scope of how we view the world is comprised of information we never chose to ingest. And the people who put it there had the best of intentions when they did so. Contrary to what you might read on Twitter, almost no one purposely corrupts minds. Even those who are considered dastardly by historical account had “good” reasons and “good” agendas from their perspectives. But I digress.

Later, when we get older and have children of our own, we wind up doing the same thing to them. Yet if we are really, really careful we still indoctrinate our children, just to a lesser degree, because we cannot avoid it. No such thing exists as fully intentional and as such, there’s no judgment here. We all do it. It just becomes a matter of how much you do it… and that you can control. That leads to real cheer.

Spike the Eggnog, Not the Systolic

Avoiding holiday stress is simple: take charge of your decisions. Some of you might say, “Come on Jake, I know my decisions,” which may be very true. But do you know your intentionality? Can you articulate the honest-to-God, depth-of-your-soul reason behind your choices?

(Spoiler alert: “Because that’s what _______ expects” is not the answer)

If you truly want to be psychologically free in this holiday season (or any other time in your life), consider your intentionality. That is, why you do what you do. If you are buying gifts for others and breaking your budget or stacking up debt to do so, that is a compulsion and it is not authentic. It is not truly by choice. If you are hosting parties and hating every moment of them because you are so busy that you don’t even get to taste the new bourbon you bought from Costco, that is the same compulsion and equally inauthentic.

I could write forever about guilt and shame and commercialism and the holidays, but only my former professors want to read that much and I have my doubts about them, too. In fact, I have already gone over my word count to this point and will likely lose half this article anyway. Look, we all know the path to personal freedom and real, actual cheer is to do what we are called to do, not just what someone has told us we “should” do. No dad needs the kind of stress that lands him in the cardiologist’s office, so let go of what you think others want from you and rediscover your own voice.

Know Thy Reasons and Find Thy Desire

My invitation to you this season is to consider the influences that say you “should” be doing something-or-other and re-record that soundtrack in your head with your own tune. Turn the “shoulds” into “want tos” and take back control. Maybe question why. Why this season? Why this party? Why these gifts? Why not do all this benevolence in June? Why do it at all?

If you are celebrating an event, regardless of the calendar, then celebrate it and be cheerful! But if the path to cheer is “because everyone else is doing it” and you have lost your purpose, then maybe consider your reasons and establish them again on your terms. Then you can feel the true joy of tasting that bourbon, pouring wine for your friends, smoking meat for your family, and giving meals to the homeless because you want to, not because you should. Maybe then you will indeed find yourself doing it all year long.

Chances are pretty good that if you leave behind the compulsion by entering into purpose, you will find yourself a lot happier, and along with that, some others – including your children – will follow. Real holiday cheer is comprised of inner peace. And when outwardly shown, becomes the best gift ever.

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