As soon as Mariah Carey warms up her vocal cords and the first wreaths go up at the shopping center, it seems that a predictable backlash isn’t far behind. The holidays are so commercial, the chorus goes. We run around frantically and stress ourselves out. We’ve lost sight of the “reason for the season”. Isn’t it time to slow down this holiday craze?
Not so fast. I’m not convinced a minimalist holiday is necessarily the more mindful choice. In fact, I think a packed schedule can be downright enlightening. A little background might be in order. I grew up in an interfaith, cross-cultural home. I celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, and the Dutch St. Nicholas festival. As an adult, I gathered new traditions: a party to gather far-flung college friends, a popcorn-and-cocoa evening with a friend who loves “The Muppet Christmas Carol” as much as I do, a white elephant gift exchange with my in-laws’ extended family. In short, my December is less a time of heavenly peace than a month-long, festive rager. We often equate mindfulness with serenity, but it really has to do with being focused on the present moment. Just like walking or a sweaty hot yoga session can be as meditative as staying seated, immersing yourself in a festive atmosphere might be just what you need to cultivate mindful awareness. Disrupting the daily grind with party preparations invites you to look past the to-do list and think about what you’re celebrating. A full schedule offers that many more opportunities to practice reaching a mindful state.
Holiday traditions are some of the most fun guides to being in the moment. Most of them are rich, vivid sensory experiences that we already associate with a sense of peace and happiness. I love to mix cinnamon, ginger, mace, and a pinch of white pepper until the spice dough smells like the treats my mother loved as a girl in the Netherlands. During Hanukkah, I concentrate on the rhythm of the Hebrew prayers and the warmth of the flame. My husband and I cruise through the neighborhood in the evenings, noticing our different reactions to the house aglow with a dazzling lights display, or the softly elegant one with candles and holly in every window. Screen time can be mindful, too. Watching a favorite holiday movie is a beloved bonding tradition for many families. You’ve got plenty of chances to extend mindfulness toward others, as well. Charity Navigator reports that 31 percent of giving happens in December. With Salvation Army Santas jingling bells outside every supermarket, it’s easy to imagine why donating is more at the forefront of our minds. Gift giving to loved ones offers an extra nudge to pick up the phone and hear what’s new in people’s lives. Even some of the less delightful aspects of the holiday season have their openings for mindfulness. Circling the mall parking lot looking for a space? Try turning on some soothing Bing Crosby or lining up Headspace’s commuter meditation. Listening to a meditation guide is also a great way to relax during a monotonous task, like licking envelopes. (I like to warm a pot of cider on the stove at the same time, to have something to wash the glue taste out of my mouth.) Sure, staying in celebration mode for a month or more has its stressful moments. I’m not suggesting that anyone should overpack their holidays out of a sense of obligation. If quiet and simplicity make your heart happiest, turn down as many invitations as you need to in order to achieve that peace. But I don’t think you should feel pressured to pare down the festivities, either. Revel in tinsel, gelt, and way too many cookies. Stay an extra half hour at the party if you’re having a blast. And when Mariah comes on the radio, crank it up.