Holiday stress is as much a part of the Christmas season today as shopping, and we search for the secret to stress-free holidays as frantically as we hunt for shopping bargains. So why not look to the character most often credited with changing his own experience of Christmas–Ebenezer Scrooge?
Scrooge had so many Christmas issues to overcome, it took nighttime visits from three spirits before he got the message about how to celebrate the holiday. But he learned his lesson well. After that night, Scrooge was a changed man when it came to Christmas. In Dickens’ words, “… it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”
“I wonder if that can be said of me. Can it be said of you?” I asked my friend.
“Who knows what that even means, keeping Christmas well. Scrooge lived in a much simpler time. All he did was send a big turkey to Bob Cratchit’s family, play games at his nephew’s house, and raise Cratchit’s wages and help him with some medical bills.” My friend sounded exasperated. “Today we have excessive commercialism, too many parties, fattening food everywhere while we’re continually warned about being overweight, long lines to get the special toy our kids can’t live without, and hundreds of articles about holiday stress. Scrooge might find Christmas more of a challenge in 2006 than he did in the 1840s.”
“What do you think he’d make of all the tips on how to avoid holiday stress?” I mused. “You know—don’t try to do it all, skip the parties you don’t want to go to, make lists before you shop and cut back on spending, don’t eat too much, don’t drink too much, don’t expect too much, exercise, take relaxation breaks—stuff like that.”
“He’d call it humbug,” my friend replied. “But, like I said, he lived in a simpler time. Plus he was rich, so once he decided to be generous he could give as much as he wanted without worrying about paying off credit card bills for months like most of us today. And he was starting from nowhere, so people were thrilled with whatever he did. It’s not like they were comparing his gifts to the ones he gave last year or the ones his brother gave. I don’t get where you’re going with this.”
“I’m wondering whether we’re off on the wrong path with all the tips to banish holiday stress,” I said. “Every year more articles come out. I did a Google search on reducing holiday stress the other day and got over 78,000 hits. All the experts say we’re overwhelmed and they offer advice, but it doesn’t look like it’s working. Maybe we need to find a new approach.”
“I can’t believe you’re saying this,” my friend said. “You’ve been teaching stress-management for over 20 years, and now you’re saying it doesn’t work?”
“Oh it works for your life overall if you regularly use techniques like meditation, yoga, physical exercise, deep muscle relaxation, and time-management,” I said. “But those are long-term. We’re talking about the Christmas season here. It’s only a few weeks long. Realistically most people aren’t going to start some new technique like meditation in the middle of the Christmas season when they’re already complaining that they don’t have enough time. And little hints like setting priorities and taking time for yourself are way too general to have much impact.”
“So we’re all doomed to live with Christmas stress unless we can time travel back to Scrooge’s day when life was simple? Not a very helpful conclusion,” my friend said.
“No, not doomed,” I said. “Just misguided. Instead of reading through endless lists of ways to reduce Christmas stress, maybe we should take a lesson from Scrooge’s experience and focus on keeping Christmas well. Just step back, look around and enjoy what is out there. Look–here’s how Dickens describes what Scrooge did on that Christmas day after the spirits had visited him.”
He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk — that anything — could give him so much happiness.
“You’re way oversimplifying the issue,” my friend argued. “I’m reminding you again that we live in a more complex time. We can’t just go wandering around patting unknown children on the head and peering into other people’s kitchen windows. And even if we did, I don’t think we’d find it nearly as satisfying as he did.”
“Duh! It’s a metaphor,” I responded. “Expand your awareness. Live in the moment. Enjoy the small daily pleasures. Be a good person. Help someone out. Maybe that’s enough. Christmas is a holiday. It’s supposed to be a happy time, not an endurance test. So let yourself enjoy Christmas with whatever you have, whoever you’re with, wherever you are. Maybe it’s that simple.”