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December 1999 Issue
A Recipe for Holiday Cheer
by Michael Fick
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What does Christmas (or Hanukkah) mean in your home? Extended family gatherings, religious rites and overtones, special foods prepared and enjoyed together, gifts, and a lot of fun and good cheer are common answers. Unfortunately, too many holidays, especially the primary one looming in my culture this month, also bring stress. Those genial gatherings, religious activities, ball games, feasts, and gift exchanges all too often deteriorate into competitive, white-knuckled, STRESS because of our reaction to some of these familiar irritants:

There's Uncle Sotto, the obnoxious, angry drunk. And there's teen-aged Rebella, who whines throughout December because her mom's too busy to cater to her. Mother Gargoyle, your mother-in-law, still can't accept that you and her offspring are in love. Lolita always brings her latest boyfriend, and carries on like an R-rated movie in front of the wide-eyed G-rated kids. Cousin Anorexa hates everything you cook and complains throughout The Big Meal. Sister Rosanne tries to run the whole show, issuing orders to everyone and threatening not to come next year if things don't go her way.

Dear Fred, who shows up every year on Christmas Day, is the least demanding, most genial and most helpful person at the entire event. He's so much fun that no one cares that he eats twice as much as anyone else ... and that they have no clue who he is. Grandma Reynolds smokes like a burning dump as she cuddles her infant great grandson despite every one's protests. Supermom Suburbia is devastated that she was unable to find a flying Furby and had to make do with a Miata for her little footstomper, Saddam.

Ultimately, faces get longer and lips get tighter as the holidays approach. Everybody just makes us go CRAZY at Christmas!

Wrong. We drive ourselves nuts at Christmas. We can't avoid irritants -- this many events, activities, and personalities can't help but push a few buttons. That's OK; a little stress heightens our consciousness, helps us stay focused, and imprints an event on our minds. But when it ... or we ... get out of hand, a lot of holiday cheer goes down the tubes.

This is not necessary. We can seldom control other adults' behavior, but we can choose to react to it differently. Our degree of stress is determined by our reaction, not dictated by the behavior itself. How we handle, and what we do, at Christmas is up to each of us, not to relatives, in-laws, tradition, Martha Stuart, whiners, the church, uninvited guests, or television.

Here are some attitudes, actions, and statements you might consider to greatly alleviate stress. Like most other things in life, sometimes including even death and taxes, most holiday activities and reactions are optional and are choices.

  • Tell invitees to "Drop in on Saturday. You're welcome to join us at the table about noon, but there'll be food on every horizontal surface and three TVs running all day. You might miss the soufflé if you arrive too late, but that's your choice."

  • Here's a radical idea: Christmas cards are optional. Let me repeat that: CHRISTMAS CARDS ARE OPTIONAL. We call our best friends and relatives when the mood strikes us throughout the year, but haven't sent a card in 20 years. We're just too busy to be slaves to ritual.

  • Do your Christmas shopping in January, when no one else is.  Keep your eyes open when you're in stores for other reasons, and top your shopping off in the fall with ONE TRIP to Costco and one trip to a nice department store. And realize this epiphany: THERE IS NO PERFECT GIFT!

  • There is no point in cooking 19 dishes weighing 46 pounds to feed eight sotted amateur food critics, unless you prefer cooking to all the other 57 things one can do in December. Whip up some good stuff, buy some more good stuff, have Aunt Annie bring her good stuff, and get out of the kitchen and enjoy the fun.

  • Tell Uncle Sotto, "I hope you'll join us this year. But if you start drinking, Larry, Daryl, and Daryl have agreed to escort you home."

  • Rebella can just shut up and contribute some effort, or get ignored from Thanksgiving until January. She can be part of the solution or be a non-entity, but she will not be allowed to be part of the problem.

  • Say, "Mother Gargoyle, I can only assume you feel I'm not good enough for your son because you envy our happiness. Your complaints prove that beyond a doubt." If that doesn't shut her up, simply don't respond to her barbs. When you can't stay silent any longer, respond to her next public barb by asking her equally publicly whether her resentment is because you and her son still make love three times a week despite having grandkids.

  • "Lolita, we have no room for your horny guests this year. Come alone or go visit his parents. Passing judgment? Darn tootin' ... we all have the right to apply our own moral values to what -- and who -- goes down in our house. Even though we should be civil to all our harmless relatives, we're allowed to choose who our good friends are even among relatives.

  • "Anorexa, please feel free to bring your range-fed tofu to my table, and you're welcome to some of my soufflé if you wish." After all, what Anorexa eats is HER choice, not yours, even at your table. It's a danged meal/party, not a contest of wills. If you choose to fight over it, you'll still fail if Anorexa refuses to fight and just eats her tofu in silence. Put on your emotional armor and recognize that Anorexa's diet has nothing to do with you. (When Anorexa sees that her diet does not push your button ... bet she has some green chile dressing and pumpkin cheesecake.)

  • Rosanne's orders are to be pretty much ignored, even the good ones if you don't want to encourage her. If she actually does boycott next year ... whose problem is that? Hey -- Fred'll still be there, even though Rubella swears she saw him sleeping under a bridge last week. 

  • Quietly inform Grandma Reynolds that she does not smoke in your home or around your infant grandkid. No discussion, no hard feelings. Just fact.

  • And if Supermom prefers to buy Saddam a Miata than paying her rent, guess who's problem that is?

If your problem is just the opposite -- no one to spend Christmas with -- there are volunteer organizations everywhere that need your help. They'll swamp you with new friends.

If you get swamped with obligations, remember who made those obligations: you did. Just    Say    No. Or say Yes and quitcherbellyachin'. When we accept too many obligations, we forego the right to whine about them.

The important thing for our sanity is to realize, then emphasize, that it's all about CHOICES. Just like you chose to let Grandma Reynolds smoke around your infant grandson last year, you can choose not to allow it this year. Then it's Grandma's choice whether to be offended. The one person here who has no choice is the kiddo.   

Is the common thread emerging? Is it becoming clear that stress is often voluntary, often self-initiated? That we can avoid serious stress by not reacting to potential irritants beyond our control and by announcing changes in things we do have control over? Gee, isn't this beginning to sound a lot like the so-called Serenity Prayer: "Grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference"?

Realize that this prayer is not meant to put your fate in the hands of your god of choice; its real purpose is to guide you through stressful situations. That simple guidance is the major ingredient of one recipe for Christmas Cheer, and for less stressful lives in general.

There are choices in most things we do. Choose to accept (including walking away from it) the BS (that stands for Bad Stuff here) you can't change, stand up and change the BS you can change, and think long and hard about the differences between the two. The former often becomes the latter with a little initiative, whether it's Dec 25 or Aug 16.



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