What marks the beginning of Christmas time for you?
Do you proclaim it December 1st, or is it when the decorations come out of storage? Maybe the feeling just settles over you like the gradual arrival of softly falling snow.
For me, it generally strikes me when I walk into a store. I’m pushing the cart down the aisle and I’ll catch myself humming to the background Christmas music that until that moment I hadn't noticed playing. Or, I’m greeted smack in the face by the towering, regimented abundance of a Christmas display. A feeling sets over me of nostalgia for all the comforts of Christmases passed: mixed nuts in the shell, mandarin oranges, Toblerone, egg nog and brandy…
But does any of this have anything to do with “the true meaning of Christmas” ?
Forgetting what the true meaning should be, if we’re honest with ourselves what is our true reality and meaning of Christmas? For some, it’s a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. For others, it’s a time to be with those we love. For a fortunate few, it’s a vacation. For many, it’s a time to give. For what I’d venture to guess as most, it’s a time to consume. We eat more. We drink more. We spend more.
With respect to latter meaning, does that make us bad people? No, it makes us trapped people. We fall into the trap very easily because we are baited into it every day.
Unless you live in a secluded area off the grid, chances are you live in a potent atmosphere of consumerism.
The geniuses who bait and set the traps - that is, the institutions that invented advertising - have been fine-tuning them for over a century. As Noam Chomsky explains in his documentary Requiem for the American Dream, advertising was developed to control the working class and distract it from the realities of its oppression. Control over the masses could no longer be achieved by force because the concepts of freedom and equality had been too broadly accepted. Instead, the goal became to control the masses by influencing our attitudes and beliefs. Advertising was developed to alter our perspective and transform us into uninformed and irrational consumers.
This goal was sparked by the powers that be in the late 19th century and as today’s society demonstrates, they achieved their goal outstandingly. By continuously dangling the superficial things in life in front our faces, we are swooned into thinking these things are the very essence of our existence. Without them, our quality of life will suffer. Of course this is not true; it’s the illusion.
A large part of this illusion is our belief that material things will bring us joy.
However, a growing body of research from the University of Sussex shows that the more attached we are to materials, the more negative emotions like anxiety, stress and depression we feel. Just as the illusion of an oasis in the desert can bring an upwelling of hope and relief but ultimately leave us thirsty ever more, gaining material goods can provide a false high that leaves us feeling empty and wanting more.
What happened to that stuff you got last year? Does it still bring you joy?
Granted there are material goods that are useful and we’re happy to have. I love good quality socks. Every time I put them on, I enjoy them. Even the ones I got three Christmases ago. And the meaningful gifts, like the sewing box my mom handcrafted for me, I will always appreciate. But chances are, there’s a lot of stuff you got that you quickly grew bored with or are now craving an updated version of.
Given we are inundated in consumer-driven traps and known to experience more negative emotions the more attached we become to materials, how can we avoid the traps and generate more positive emotions this holiday?
Here are my top 3 ideas to achieve this.
1. Avoid the traps through observation.
Be aware of what information is being thrown at you. Observe how that information makes you feel. Does an ad for the newest phone make you feel desperate and needy? Broke and hopeless? Where you see your attention being pulled, look left or right to see what else is happening. Take in the whole picture. If you’re out shopping, stop for a moment to look at the clouds or listen to the sounds around you. At your work party, take a moment to really enjoy the decorations someone spent time arranging. Savour the taste of good food. Slow down. Don’t hustle and bustle. Saunter.
Cliche it may be, the present is a gift. A habit I adopted from world-renowned life coach Brendon Burchard is to stop anytime I see something beautiful or witness a good deed and say to myself, “What a gift.” I do this all the time now. If the sun is falling on the sidewalk in a particularly beautiful way, or I’m outside and a flock of geese passes over me, or a stranger smiles at me in a heartfelt way, I stop and say those words to myself. It’s amazing how much it magnifies the moment and makes me feel good inside. It’s as if I’ve turned my internal lens to the HDR setting.
2. Borrow from a Buddhist / Japanese technique called Soji and don’t do it all.
In the Buddhist use, Soji is the daily practice of chores to clean a temple. In this technique, you are assigned a task at random that you spend a designated amount of time, say 20 minutes, doing to your very best ability with - and here is my favourite part - no ambition to finish. Once the time is up, you leave that chore in whatever state you have reached and go have breakfast or do what’s next on your agenda.
Does this mean leaving the Christmas tree half-decorated? Not necessarily. What I’m suggesting is be comfortable with not accomplishing everything you want to, like finding the perfect gift, having a spotless house or getting your Christmas cards in the mail on time.
Research around Christmas stress has found that it is typically higher in women for this reason. We try too hard to do it all: preparing the meals; cleaning and decorating the house; buying and wrapping the gifts; and making ourselves gloriously presentable. Instead, give yourself the gift of enjoying whatever you can healthily manage without sacrificing your financial, physical and emotional states. You are enough, just as you are.
3. Rather than buy that special someone more stuff, give them the gift of an experience or your time.
Treat them to a dinner out. Buy them tickets to a show or event. Take them on a date of some kind; not necessarily a romantic one. Share an experience that will leave good memories.
Or, surprise them by doing something for them that they can’t seem to find the time or desire to do themselves. Clean out their car or fridge. Polish their shoes. Drop their bottles at the recycling depot (and don’t keep the money). Repot their houseplants. Seal up a draughty window. A good idea I heard from a dear friend is that she’d love is if someone sorted all the pictures on her iPhone, printed them and put them in an actual photo album just like the old days!
And what’s the number one thing you can give this year?
A damn! Give a damn. Avoid supporting big box corporations as much as you can. Support small businesses instead. Eat locally-produced food. Celebrate the little things like giving/receiving a heartfelt card or the smell of the tree in your home. Donate to those in need. Care about mother nature and cut back on disposable crap.
Most of all, appreciate - pause to really appreciate - how much you adore those close to you. The sound of their voices. The fine lines that frame their smiles. The feeling of holding them close when you hug. These are the true sources of joy.
Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat the sounding joy
the sounding joy
If you got something from this post, why not share it with a friend? Or, perhaps you have your own way of keepin’ it real this holiday. I love to hear about it in the comments below.