Festival of Shoulds: Holiday Stress (and Joy)

Close your eyes and imagine the holidays. What do you see? Do you see lights, decorations, and loved ones? Do you feel joyfulness and nostalgia? Keep looking. Is there suddenly a disruption, as this lovely image gives way to a to do list? Ugh. The burden of holiday stress. This joy stuff doesn’t happen by itself.

We don’t need the research to know how stressful the holidays can be, but the research is there. Last year the term “ festive stress ” was used to describe the 31% of Americans who describe the holidays as frantic. Frantic?! 49% of women feel pressure to have a perfect Christmas and report they work too hard to make it happen. The APA reports that holiday stress is different from other stress and affects women more than men.

Photo by freestocks on UnsplashThe Holidays: A time of stress and joy Source: Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

We Need to Celebrate

Outside, the world is dark. The darkness has been growing for months, and the daylight we love is fleeting as we approach the winter solstice (this year on December 21). We need to celebrate and we need light. Throughout our history, cultures in the northern hemisphere celebrate at this time. The holidays of the oldest cultures were supplanted over time with new holidays, which now appear ancient to us.

Turn taking. Help all members of the family take turns talking and listening. Children find it much easier to talk when there are fewer interruptions.

In my community, people everywhere are celebrating Festivals of Light. The entire community has hung lights on homes, trees and streetlights. Two important holidays have passed recently, Diwali and Hannukah. Very soon, churches will fill with candles for the Christmas Eve candlelight services.

In the midst of all this light, everyone is burdened by the shoulds of holiday stress.

It’s a Festival of Shoulds

Consider presents. Weeks before Christmas, people start asking me if I’ve finished my shopping yet. Finished? I’ve not yet begun. This year I managed to get the annual family pictures taken, but never ordered the cards. After a brief discussion, which started with “Oh darn, I forgot to order holiday cards,” my husband and I decided that this year we could be the people who put our pictures up on a as a “virtual holiday card.” I was fine with this plan for a few days (after all I just found out I need a white elephant gift and some relatives sent gifts from whom I did not expect them…so I need to get on that right away).

It turns out I’m not okay with the virtual cards plan. I should really place an urgent order, and then I should get stamps and make sure we have that return address stamper so I don’t lose my mind hand-writing. The computer Christmas list should be updated and that means I need to cross-match the addresses on the cards that have started coming. I should do this so my friends don’t think we are neglecting them. After all, they went to all the trouble to send us a card.

It’s ridiculous really; my friends understand that my job is time-consuming. Of course I can do a virtual card. So why can’t I let it go? With all the time I spent worrying about it, I should have just ordered the cards.


What Can We Do About Holiday Stress?

The SIGH, SEE and START method can help us here. My head felt tight with all of this and I breathed in a deep SIGH with that extended out-breath. Ahh. That was starting to feel better. I did a couple more. Then I tried SEEing what’s going on with me. What was driving my stress here? Sounds like a lot of worry about what people will think, whether I’ll hurt their feelings, and a sense of failing in a duty. Pretty heavy baggage for a little card to carry. I contemplated whether I could START just letting it go? Nope.

So I wondered about the holidays themselves and what they are for. I decided to SEE what the traditions were. My own holiday, Christmas, is just too close. I decided to look at Diwali to take a fresh perspective.

“Diwali is the five-day festival of lights, celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world. The festival, which coincides with the Hindu New Year, celebrates new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness… To celebrate, houses are decorated with candles and colorful lights and huge fireworks displays are held while families feast and share gifts,” says The Independent “During Diwali, families and friends share sweets and gifts and there is also a strong belief in giving food and goods to those in need.”

Put on your own oxygen mask first. In other words, take care of yourself or you can't be a fully engaged parent. Parents who deprive themselves of rest, food, and fun for the sake of their kids do no one a favor. "People feel guilty when they work a lot, so they want to give all their free time to their kids," says Fred Stocker, a child psychiatrist at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, in Kentucky. "But you risk getting squeezed dry and emotionally exhausted." A spa weekend may not be realistic, but it's OK to take 15 minutes for a bath after you walk in the door. (A tall request for a kid, yes, but a happier Uno player goes a long way.) Running ragged between activities? Ask your child to prioritize, says Taylor. She may be dying for you to chaperone a field trip but ambivalent about your missing a swim meet—the ideal amount of time for a pedicure.

Wow! That sounds a lot like Christmas. I envision my friends who celebrate Diwali happy and unburdened. Such a meaningful observance could not share the same frantic shoulding; not if you understand what it really means.

When I asked my friends, they told me Diwali may be even more stressful than Christmas. For instance, it is traditional to clean the house in preparation for Diwali (I mean really clean the house). And here in America there is no time off from work or school. “At least at Christmas you get days off,” says my friend. True.

It turns out my friends approach Diwali just like I do Christmas. It is as tied to their self-image as women as it is to mine. I am suddenly a 1950s homemaker with aspirations to float around the house like Donna Reed, effortlessly doing it all. (But no way am I giving up the 21st century woman either.) Yikes.

 Photo by Element5 Digital on UnsplashAspiring to the Perfect Christmas Source: Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

The Sacred Stories

The sacred stories of these three holidays hold remarkably similar themes. In each of them, the divine comes to reside among the people, bringing hope, light, truth and joy. This divine light is victorious over the darkness. In Diwali, Lord Rama has defeated evil in the form of the demon king and returns with his wife Situ to the people, to live among them. The people celebrate this with light, togetherness and generosity. In Hannukah, the people have defeated their enemy and reestablished the temple. A divine miracle has allowed the lights to burn in the dedication of the temple, which is understood to be the presence of God in the midst of the people. The people celebrate with light, joy, laughter, games and gifts. In Christmas, the divine brings light into the darkness by coming to the people as an incarnate person, with the announcement of hope, peace and lifting of oppression. The people celebrate with light, joy, togetherness and generosity.

Screen time shouldn't always be alone time. Co-view, co-play and co-engage with your children when they are using screens—​it encourages social interactions, bonding, and learning. Play a video game with your kids. It's a good way to demonstrate good sportsmanship and gaming etiquette. Watch a show with them; you will have the opportunity to introduce and share your own life experiences and perspectives—and guidance. Don't just monitor them online—interact with them, so you can understand what they are doing and be a part of it.

“Wow,” said my informant on Diwali, “I don’t think I realized how much we all had in common.”

Everyone is celebrating, including my Muslim neighbors. They may even have the best time of all at Christmas. They celebrate because Jesus is one of their prophets, but Christmas is on of their minor holidays. They can relax and have a good time with family, who can all be together during America’s winter break.

Back to My Holiday

I contemplated these ancient stories, these archetypes, and what they said about the deep hopes of humanity. What if I brought my insights back to my own holiday? I tried again to SEE what was truly important to me.

It is the snuggles on the couch, surrounded by wrapping paper and the boys more interested in giving us gifts than in opening their own. It’s the food we’ll eat later, and the relatives we’ll see. It is the experience of sacred human togetherness we’ll feel. The central message of these festivals seem to have nothing to do with the shoulds and the burdens, and everything to do with community. My own holiday speaks of redemption from the oppression of perfectionism.

I guess that means Facebook holiday cards after all.

©Alison Escalante MD

Photo by Element5 Digital on UnsplashFestival of Shoulds by Alison Escalante MD Source: Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash