The other day I cleaned out my inbox and felt like it had been taken over by holiday elves. I sifted through reminders to buy gifts, bake goods, rehearse carols, contribute money, RSVP, and bring cans by tomorrow (oops).
And that’s just email. Offline, I’m supposed to wrap and cook and ice and mail and drive and organize and shop and light candles.
Every year, Advent feels less like a time of cultivated stillness then a mad rush to a finish line. And every year, I have to choose, once again, how to celebrate: with harried resentment, or with intentional, countercultural calm.
Because I’ve found, much to my surprise, that I do have a choice. A peaceful Christmas isn’t the preserve of the organized or more holy. It’s promised to me by Christ, who says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
But this isn’t a try harder kind of peace, a you’re doing it wrong kind of peace. It’s an invitation to seek peace in everything, including the holidays.
The choice to be quiet and look up is not easy, or without risk. So I have begun to filter the fire hose into a stream of water that actually quenches my thirst for joy. Here are three ways we can all turn down the pressure we put ourselves under every holiday season.
Remind yourself (and your family) that most things are optional
Back when my kids were very small, I bought an adorable advent calendar: a small green cabinet with twenty-five doors. I made little wooden discs with activities written on each one (make paper snowflakes, go ice skating, drink cocoa). Each day, we open a door and do.
Except after a few Christmases I wanted to toss that little cabinet in the trash. A fun activity every day for twenty-five days? On top of the email quicksand and the wrapping hurricane and the shopping explosion? Too much.
And then one year, we were due to move to another country a week after the New Year. I had no choice but to cut vigorously.
I told my kids that the Advent calendar was a suggestion, not a promise.
They wailed…and then life went on. The truth was that they didn’t really need an activity each day. Since then, I’ve held the calendar loosely, simplifying activities, letting my kids run the show, and saying no on days we just don’t have time.
It’s easy to feel held hostage by expectations—from others or ourselves. But expectations aren’t promises, nor do they bring life. Examining them, and saying no to those that push us over the edge is the first choice frees us.
Examine Every Should
My temptation this season is to try making myself and my family more holy. However I serve, love, or give normally, I should step it up a notch to honor Jesus!
Take service opportunities. If you’re anything like me, you feel like you should buy cans, say yes to ten charitable activities, and give money to every Santa with a bell.
But the word should stops me. I’ve learned that word is at the root of most of my shame. I should make time. I should care more. I should teach my children x, y, or z.
Should is a lie. What heals my heart is not my obligation or hard work, but God’s power. Jesus did not come in a flurry of accomplishment, but arrived helpless to unknown teenagers in a nondescript stable. I don’t need to be more this Christmas. I need to let God be my all.
Sure, if opportunities are joyful and doable, step forward and draw in your kids. But do it because there’s a joyful opportunity to seize. Or, do it other times of the year, when you have more bandwidth.
Intentionally Focus on Enough
Every year, I wonder if my holiday planning will be sufficient. Did I give generously, celebrate wholeheartedly, remember God sincerely, serve with joy?
And every year, I’m left with a sneaking suspicion that the answer is no.
My friend Melissa—who writes and homeschools six kids—is well-acquainted with that feeling of inadequacy. She writes, “At the end of every day, no matter how busy I’d been, there were always projects unfinished, emails unanswered, and household chores left undone. I hadn’t done it all, so I felt like I hadn’t done enough. And it’s only a short leap in your heart from “I never do enough” to “I’m not enough.”
A few years ago, she focused on a tool to help combat that habit. She calls it her “enough list.” She writes down the three most-essential tasks for that day, and tells herself that if she gets those three things done, it will be enough. “Anything else is a bonus.”
I will be honest: this idea sounds hard. Only three things? But it’s a helpful clarifying exercise. We might have time to do more, but if not—what matters most?
Focusing on what’s most important will help us choose peace.
Thinking of my current Christmas overwhelm, I choose to:
- Get all my shopping done and sent before New Year’s (Christmas might be too ambitious).
- Prioritize a dinner with some other families we’re hoping for even if it means saying no to other commitments.
- Choose as much calm, silence, and stillness as I can.
Your enoughness for the holidays will look different than mine. But I’d challenge you to think about what enough means to you—and what might need to fall by the wayside in order to do what’s important.
You Don’t Have to Save Christmas
It’s no accident the standard screenplay holiday movies involves “saving” Christmas. Our anxiety and overwhelm is literally the main secular story we tell about this time of year.
Yet Jesus came to save us, not the other way around.
Christ lives in our hearts without us running on a hamster wheel. Cultivating dependence on Him is a bigger priority than any to-do list we dream up. As Advent continues and I anticipate every carol, I want to remind myself that saving Christmas isn’t my job at all.
As the prophet Isaiah preaches, “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” Let’s intentionally turn towards that quietness and trust—even during the busiest time of year.
Image Credit: Thinkstock.com
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.