Christmas Rehab

Today's UPI column

So There I was...

We once had a dog who kept Christmas better than many people. He appeared to understand the theological concept of Advent, the expected surprise.

By his third Christmas he saw the tree and knew what was coming. He knew where I kept the decorations. He liked the food and he appeared to enjoy walking around the neighborhood looking at the lights. Because we had children with a sense of justice, the dog got presents. His were very simple and wrapped in the funny papers, but he understood the concept of a present and anticipated it. He waited as others opened theirs with vicarious joy, but when the child passing the presents spoke his name he would bounce up with delight. He was a package ripper. By his fifth or sixth Christmas he could count well enough to be aware that others were getting many presents to his one, and we had to start making several for him. We could fake him out by going around the circle twice before he would notice, but then he would sense that it was time for him again, and whimper with anticipation. I have no doubt that if he could have given presents, he would have. He understood that they were not all for him, and never bothered a package left under the tree until Christmas morning.

There are many Western Christian humans who could take a few lessons from that dog. There are many people who due to their upbringings or personal history and choices need to spend the season in Christmas rehab.

I have walked several friends and many counseling clients through Christmas rehab. It works. The major intervention can be done in one year, but must be followed up especially well in the next few years. Christmas serenity can be achieved in five years for most people.

Here are the ten principles of Christmas Rehab.

ONE: The operative verb of Christmas is “keep.” Christmas is not a storm that blows through. Christmas is not a misery forced upon you. It is not a black hole that you get sucked into. Once you are an adult, the Christmas you keep is the Christmas you get, and the Christmas you deserve. It is a matter of faith, effort and personal responsibility. You should keep the Christmas that you believe in. No one can force you to do anything else.

TWO: Do not stretch the season. This waters the thing down and makes it insipid. Avoid the stores as much as possible between Halloween and Thanksgiving. If you find the season to be tiring, shorten it.

THREE: Do beauty, appreciate beauty. Start with cleanliness. Spend the days between Thanksgiving and December 1 making your home clean and orderly. Repair or paint if necessary. Then decorate. Focus on quality not quantity. Have a few things to wear that you do not wear at any other time of year. Go out and look at the lights, the public displays. But not until you are ready to do beauty of your own.

FOUR: Simplify. If part of your tradition is giving and receiving gifts, then before you shop, you should get rid of all excess things in your possession. This is a marvelous tradition to do with children. Have them go through their toys and possessions and give a few away. Tell them that this is an essential part of getting ready for Santa.

FIVE: Have a budget and stick to it. Debt should have no place in Christmas. If this is hard for you, start saving in January. If you need to, take your Christmas budget out in cash and put it in envelopes marked for different purposes and when it is gone, STOP spending. If your budget does not feel generous enough, up your savings for the next year.

SIX: Participate in Charity. Sort food at your local food bank. Volunteer to serve a meal at the mission. Never, ever, walk past a Salvation Army bell ringer. Keep change in your pocket for this purpose. If a store you normally patronize does not allow the bell ringers, stop shopping there for a few weeks and tell the manager why. Adopt a kid or a family. Quantity of giving does not matter. Giving, especially if you can do it as a surprise, does.

SEVEN: Make faith the core of your holiday. It is a Christian holiday after all. Easter should actually be a little bigger, but Christmas is Number Two. Keep the core of your denomination’s and your ethnicity’s traditions. Go to midnight mass. Walk the Posada. Find out what your ancestors did and do some of that. Read religious stories to your children. Attend church – for the whole month.

EIGHT: Balance solitude and community. You may have to fight for this one; you may have to disappoint a few people. If you are a social person, do not go to every party you are invited to. If you tend to isolate, find a few public events and attend them. Do not overbook yourself or your family. Take a Christmas, or post-Christmas retreat at a local Monastic retreat house.

NINE: Have and make Flexible traditions. Do some things the same every year. Have a few traditional foods. If you had good Christmases in your childhood bring something of that forward to another generation. But stay flexible. Your children and grandchildren will need time and space to make their own traditions, and that by necessity means letting go of some of yours.

TEN: Avoid people who have the inclination to sabotage holidays. Avoid situations that are a set-up. Some families should just have a moratorium on the season for a year and then start fresh. In some families the longest standing tradition is the Christmas crisis, which can involve a fight, a trip to the ER, a drunken rampage, whatever. Some people need to avoid their biological relations to keep Christmas. Some people need to have a completely alcohol free Christmas. Some people need to cut back on spending even if that means offending some relations. Some people need to adopt a whole new family. It is not a sin to scale back. It is not a sin to choose who you wish to see and not see this holiday. You can turn off and unplug the phones on the 23rd and not turn them back on until the 26th – this breaks no law.

I suggest you take these principles out for a test run. If you have limited success, try them again next year with better preparation.

If you find these guidelines to be intuitive and easy to implement, well, then grasshopper, you are ready for the big task.

Learn from Ebenezar Scrooge and keep Christmas everyday of the year.

Thanks for this post. I'll be turning 30 the 31st of this month, I'm single, Live alone, & it's Christmas. Trying to be cheerful & keeping focus on the reason for the season is often a taxing chore. I am going to print this post & keep it handy in my time of gloom & doom. Thanks Again!!!!
Dear Shelley,

how interesting.
I will be 50 on the 31st of this month, and I am also presently living alone. Hang in there!
Shelley and Peggy,
I am likely to forget by the 31st so I will wish you both a Happy Birthday now. You have a very special birthday. On your day, people from every religion and culture around the world get together and have a party. Is that special or what. Now if we can only get Dick Clark to sing Happy Birthday for you before he launches into Auld Lang Syne.

Will T
Thanks Will, I think somebody told me "look the whole world has a party for you!" very early in life, because I believed it pretty sincerely for a few years.

The only problem was that I was raised by born-again Christians and so I spent my first 17 birthdays in watchnight prayer services.

What happened on my 18th birthday has been lost to the annals of history.
My son will be 20 on the 31st of this month. Happy birthday to you both!

This year my husband and I told our adult children that we really didn't need anything so please don't buy us gifts...they don't need the stress of spending even more money. That's one change we made this year. I've been clearing out clutter and stuff and it feels great. I'm surprised.

Another step I've made is to let go of trying to have a perfect Christmas....Jesus is the only perfection and I'm finally accepting that. It sure takes the pressure off of trying for a story book holiday. I'm sure I'll be much easier to get along with.

There are a few traditions we have that we've incorporated from both sides of the family. Simple things.

Other than the grocery store I've avoided the stores since December 1st. I prefer it that way although others like the hustle and bustle.
I was intrigued recently by an article in the local newspaper about a pastor whose church does not observe Christmas. The article explained that 100 years ago, many Protestant churches declined to celebrate Christmas because there is no Biblical evidence for the birth of Jesus in December and the holiday was so linked to pagan traditions.

This year, I am keeping Christmas with music and cards. I gave up on decorating, in part because I hadn't finished the cleaning, some time last week. Besides, on Christmas eve we'll leave here and go to a house that is decorated for the rest of the week.

But for the first time in a few years, all our Christmas cards have gone out before Christmas. And my older son has developed a love for Christmas carols that may rival mine.

It is enough.
Hi, Peggy!

Mostly I liked your advice, and I totally loved the unspoken idea behind it all. I have a couple of quibbles, though.

First: you advise, "Do not stretch the season", but doesn't that depend on how one does the stretching? I myself rush home after work, every day I can between November 1 and January 6, in hopes of playing Christmas hymns and carols from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries on my stereo, because these hymns and carols speak to me of what the heart of Christian faith really is. Does this make sense to you? Have you ever given serious thought to the libretto for Ralph Vaughn Williams's Fantasia on Christmas carols? It's a beautiful summary of what the core of Christian faith has been for most of the past two thousand years, and despite the fact that the Quaker gospel goes a very big step beyond it, it's still a tremendously inspiring message. I stretch the time I give to hearing it as far as my heart will let me. The Christmas season is a wonderful opportunity for stretching that time, and I honestly wish it were longer.

Second: you also write, "Avoid people who have the inclination to sabotage holidays." And I understand the motive behind this advice — but I have a close relative who is such a person, and if her nuclear family avoided her she'd have nowhere else left to turn, and might just hurt or kill herself out of sheer depression. For us who are her nuclear family this is a complicated issue, and merely avoiding the wounded traveler on the road to Jericho is not necessarily the best way to handle it. I personally think that the first step in such matters is not to avoid such saboteurs, but to find (in the Spirit) the inner strength and wisdom needed to respond to them constructively.

The blessings of the season to you, dear Friend!

Marshall Massey
(member, Iowa Yearly Meeting [Conservative])
Hi Marshall,

Nice of you to drop in!
Thank you for your comments.

please note: this was about Christmas REHAB for people who have a long history of terrible Christmases. I truly do not think that this post was speaking to your condition.

Those who keep Christmas well,can keep it longer and deeper, as you do with your music. I do believe in seasonality, though. I think we are hardwired to need seasons and that when the peaches are in you shoudll eat them to your hearts delight and then stop. Christmas is like that.

Some can and are called to interact with Sabateurs. But those who are just walking into health and away from addiction to chaos and crisis are not usually among those who can engage without taking severe damage. We all have our gifts.

I trust that you and all yours will have a blessed season.
much love,
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