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How to Have a More Mindful Holiday Season

However you celebrated last year’s winter holidays, chances are good that you weren’t trying to avoid a global pandemic. Now, as you shop for gifts, get out your grandmother’s recipes or make plans for spiritual observance, current events might have you asking, “What’s the point?”

But change gives us a chance to mix things up – to change our mindset. If you’ve ever started a tradition that has grown out of control, like the late party that was just for immediate family but now hosts the whole neighborhood and has you grating potatoes into the wee hours, you know what we mean.

Celebrations that include gift-giving have the potential to bust your budget right into February or March, as the “gift for each child” becomes an expensive item for every niece and nephew in your growing extended family.

So even though this year’s holiday limitations may be difficult, you can also take the opportunity to become more mindful about your celebrations. What do you really enjoy doing at the holidays? What do you always do, but actually hate?

Trapped in the Kitchen

Maria loved to bake her grandmother’s Christmas cookies. There were four or five traditional recipes. One year, she gave plates with a selection of cookies to her next-door neighbors, and the neighbors across the street. Everyone raved about them, so the next year she expanded her cookie deliveries to all the neighbors she was friendly with. Eventually, her list covered the whole block. Relaxing by the fire with a holiday movie was a pipe dream as she drudged away in the kitchen night after night.

Christmas Eve was spent frantically plating cookies, wrapping each plate in cellophane, decorating it with a bow and sending her husband to house after house for deliveries.

This year? To reduce the risk of spreading germs, Maria isn’t sending cookie plates around the neighborhood. Next year, she and her husband plan to hold a party and simply serve her grandmother’s cookies there.

New times. New rituals. Maria is relieved and more relaxed this year to enjoy other things.

Hated holiday traditions

“Singing every carol in the book and reading three different versions of the Christmas story,” says Troy.

“Oyster stew on New Year’s Eve,” Cathy says. “I’m lactose intolerant and don’t like seafood, but my in-laws would be horrified if we didn’t serve it. Celebrating with just our household this year means we can skip it – my kids don’t like it either.”

A Pew Research Center study found that other unpopular holiday traditions include Black Friday shopping, decorating the entire house, attending office parties, and eating certain traditional foods. News flash: not everybody likes eggnog.

Six tips for new traditions

Here are half a dozen new traditions you might want to start instead.

1. Move into the slow lane of life.

The COVID-19 pandemic means many regular activities are canceled or held online. This may give you and your family some time to relax. Baking treats for every neighbor on the street isn’t a good idea when we’re trying to avoid the spread of germs. So, put together a few of your favorite cookies for yourself and the family, then call it a day. If there is a lonely neighbor or relative you usually take care of, set up a way to touch base with them virtually. Do an outdoor project if the weather allows, read a book aloud to your kids, or treat yourself to a movie marathon.

2. Customize the holiday menu.

Do you prefer traditional Persian foods to turkey and stuffing? Try a rice dish instead of the traditional bread stuffing. Go vegetarian – or replicate the original turkey meal with chicken or venison if you have a source of wild game.

If you’re celebrating with just immediate family, changing up the traditional menu may be easier. You can choose less expensive options, which can be a relief if budgets are tight. Set up an attractive eating area.

If you’re celebrating alone, you can still light a few candles and prepare a dish you love. Or support a local restaurant by ordering takeout. Most communities have at least some restaurants open on the holidays.

3. Hang with a new crowd – and love it.

Are you spending a kid-friendly New Year’s Eve because there are no parties and no sitters? Add a bottle of sparkling cider to your customary bubbly, serve Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies as hors d’oeuvres, and watch a family movie. Declare 10 pm the new midnight. After all, 2020 can hardly end soon enough!

4. Reset your body rhythms and destress.

Don’t have 23 relatives coming over? This could be your year to finally sleep in on the holiday. Do you miss the shopping, cooking, and other preparations? Take a walk instead or indulge in some uninterrupted yoga or time in the garden.

I have been out planting bulbs more than ever this year, ready for the spring bloom. One time an older Chinese woman (who spoke no English) walked by. Seeing me planting bulbs, she got so excited that she was soon pointing out (from a distance) where I should plant them and in what pattern. I gave her several bulbs for her trouble, after which we both smiled and bowed. This will be a new ritual for me now.

Our animal companions are often neglected or stressed when human holiday guests visit. If 2020 is a quiet year due to COVID-19, this could be a good year to take a hike with your dog, cuddle with your cat, let the hamster ball roll all over the house (shoot some video!) or even adopt a new pet.

5. Accept that this year is different.

If necessary, repeat to yourself, “This year is different, and that’s OK.” Or even, “This year is different, and that stinks!” Acceptance and commitment therapy is a mindfulness-based approach that helps you deal with reality even when it’s challenging, and helps you reboot your mindset.

6. This year and every year, remember the importance of meaning and purpose.

Winter can be an especially hard time for people who don’t have homes, jobs or the sources of stability many of us take for granted. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has created uncertainty on a national scale. Small-business owners may be struggling. Your neighbors who work in many industries, from travel to restaurants, may be out of work – and those in healthcare or education are challenged by overwork and new routines.

To help, check with your local food bank to see if you can volunteer while wearing a mask and gloves. Or talk with neighbors or your community about a contactless food drive, with food dropped off at a shelter or other central location. Meals on Wheels needs delivery drivers in many communities and delivering a meal may be an isolated senior’s only human contact in these days of social distancing.

If you need help yourself, consider this your holiday season to receive good things from others. Whether you are isolated, facing financial difficulties or coping with health problems, reach out. Call or email a friend or family member, a local faith leader or the advice nurse at your local clinic. When you request help, you give someone else the gift of meaning and purpose – and when times are better for you, you can always “pay it forward.”

Physically distant yet socially connected

Earlier this year, we talked about the potential pitfalls of loneliness and social isolation. The distancing required to slow the spread of COVID-19 can lead to mental and emotional challenges, including depression.

You may be weary of online socializing, but it can still lift your spirits, especially at a time of year when you are thinking of family and friends. You can use Zoom, Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, or one of the other video calling technologies available to get together even if you’re physically distant. You can also “attend” religious services together. Many houses of worship are live streaming their regular services, so family members and friends can watch from separate locations while enjoying the rituals and messages together.

Finally, remember that you can use good old-fashioned snail mail to stay connected. Sending care packages can lift the recipient’s spirits – and yours, as you enjoy shopping for small items to include, packing and mailing your goodies. You can rally family members to donate to a charity for the holidays to create a sense of connection and meaning. Find more tips at Verywell Family for ways to stay connected while you’re physically distant.

Specific tips for mindful holidays

  • Write in a journal. Try one or more of these 15 Journaling Exercises to Help You Heal, Grow, and Thrive.
  • Plan your menu, but ask yourself: Is this really what we like? Choose the foods you or your family would truly enjoy. If you are preparing food to share with people outside your household, check out these tips.
  • Get outdoors! Let this be the holiday you exercise instead of bemoaning how stuffed you are.
  • Finally, try our Happy Holidays tool to discover how you really want to observe the holidays you enjoy most.

Remember that one of the most universally beneficial emotions all humans can find and spread is gratitude. The holidays are largely about finding gratitude. So this holiday, seek out and do those things you most love and appreciate.

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