Surviving The Holidays

Image courtesy of FlowersinDecemberDS

A lot of the holiday stress is due to various "should"s we inherited from our families or wider social circle. We "should" have a family dinner (sometimes down to specific dishes that "have" to be served), wear particular clothing, listen to particular music, send and receive gifts of particular type and within a particular price range. Slightest mismatch between these rigid expectations and reality can result in huge stress, shame, sense of failure, anger about "ruined" holidays, etc. For abuse survivors, these expectations can be plain impossible to match. Many of us have broken ties with immediate family, deal with social anxiety, get panic attacks from seeing holiday decorations, or struggle financially and can't afford to participate in the "obligatory" gift exchanges. If the holiday season is causing you stress, it can be helpful to step back and focus on the bigger picture. Holidays are supposed to be an opportunity to break the routine and create good memories and traditions, and share them with the people we love. How we do it specifically differs from person to person, and there's no wrong way to go about it. Dropping the "should"s and finding what works personally for you can turn the holiday season from something you dread into something you look forward to.

Feel free to celebrate less

A lot of us feel like we can't just spend the day browsing the internet the way we normally do, because holidays are supposed to be special, yet none of the "normal" holiday activities seem inviting or even feasible. However, celebrating holidays is entirely optional. You can do it if you want to, skip it entirely, or partake in some activities but not others. You can also plan to do one thing but then change your mind and do another. The goal of the holidays is to feel good; for some of us that means curling up on a couch and watching cartoons - and that's perfectly fine. Do what feels right, and walk away from the rest.

Feel free to celebrate more

Usually it's specific holidays that cause stress, rather than the entire concept of celebrating something recurrent every year. Holidays are supposed to be fun, so if a particular one is causing you more grief than joy - just celebrate others instead (or in addition to). Research your ancestry (was your great grandpa from Czech Republic, what holidays do they celebrate there?), join friends on their cultural holidays, or just create your own. I celebrate Pi Day, World Penguin Day, and the birthday of Vladimir Lenin's girlfriend, among numerous other things. The more holidays you have on your calendar, the less emphasis will be placed on the one holiday that stresses you out.

Make gifts easy

Stress over holiday gifts comes from expectations of reciprocity, while the point is just to think of others and do something nice for them, to wish them a good year, to show them that you care, that they are a part of your life, no matter how small. It's a perfect excuse to randomly contact a friend or a relative you lost touch with years ago, or to say thank you to your bank teller or supermarket cashier. If you aren't ready to connect to the people you know - donate to your locan food pantry or google an orphanage in Uganda and send the kids some candy. Just send something to someone, no strings attached. I know an old lady who knits striped wool socks all year, and sends them out on holidays. I also know a girl who makes clay whistles. And a guy who lives off-grid in a forest, and sends everyone cedar wreaths. You can try making ornaments, gingerbread, homemade candles, popup cards, or whatever arts and crafts you're into. Spending $3-5 per gift on materials would make pretty fancy gifts, so you can cover 20 people for under $100.

Spend time outdoors

Nobody said that the holidays need to be spent sitting at home, especially if you're alone. It's a day off, a great opportunity to do things outside. Google tutorials on snowmen, igloos, and ice sculptures, local ice skating and kicksledding, or just shows and movies. A weekend spent skiing somewhere abroad can be a great solution as well, if you can afford it: you're doing something fun, out of your usual surroundings, so there are no reminders about things you "should" be doing or having. It doesn't have to be Iceland, Canada has plenty of snow too.

Make it festive

Holidays are supposed to be different from business days, a fun change of the routine, so if you're staying home - decorating is a good idea, even if you're alone. Google DIY projects for inspiration: coffee filter snowflakes, pill bottle garlands, newspaper wreaths, clothespins ornaments, orange peel candles, etc. Cedar branches are particularly good: you can put them in a vase or hang them as a wreath, and they smell like a Christmas tree, without an actual tree taking up half of your living space. Music helps create the mood too - if you hate all the traditional holiday tracks, try something slightly different: acoustic guitar instead of orchestra, tunes from other countries, or make your own holiday music.

Homemade food

Ramen noodles are fun any day, but fixing something different could make your holidays more interesting. Holiday food is easy even if you aren't a chef: just buy a slow cooker (it's $15-20, not outrageous). You can throw anything you like into it, add water, plug it in, and let it be; in 4-8 hours you'll have a yummy homemade stew that you can keep on low heat and munch on all day. There's no way to mess it up: nothing will be undercooked, overcooked, too dry, etc. If you know a few people who will not be spending the holidays with their families, you can invite them over too. Hosting a holiday dinner might sound insanely hard, but gets a lot easier if you have your guests help out with the food, entertainment, etc. They'll be happier as contributors rather than recipients, and you'll be able to sit back and enjoy yourself. All you really need to do is tidy up your home and figure out which of your guests brings what: food, snacks, sweets, etc.

Homemade drinks

Hot chocolate or cider, mulled wine, eggnog - all of these are easy to make, are great for creating a festive holiday atmosphere, but require spices you might not normally have around the house, like anise seeds. Google recipes, stock up on the spices and mugs (I personally love soup mugs), get a case of butter cookies, and you'll have something yummy and entertaining to offer your visitors. Even if you spend the holidays watching Netflix in bed, doing it with a cup of hot cider is a lot more fun than without.

Invite people over

Most of us don't think of this option because everyone we know spends holidays with their families. However, there's only so much time one can spend unwrapping presents and eating a dinner; the rest of the time everyone dies of boredom and doesn't know what to do with themselves. Invite everyone over for a snowball fight or a round of Scrabble. Family folks are a lot more likely to come to such an event than for a one-on-one visit with unspecified agenda. Plan ahead, send out fancy invitation cards (including the whole family of the person you're inviting), light candles, make eggnog etc. This can become your new holiday tradition, and your friends will be grateful to you for making their holiday more fun.

Get invited

Most families have someone extra at their holiday table - a grandma, a widowed uncle, a single neighbor, a friend who just got divorced, etc. It's not weird or unusual to adopt a family that's not biologically yours, and you can get a feel for them by first getting invited to a holiday dinner. No matter how socially withdrawn you are, you do know a few people: coworkers, neighbors, gas station attendants. These people might invite you over if they knew you're available, but they assume you'll be spending the holidays with your family. There's no need to be melodramatic, but do mention to them casually that it's not the case. You might just find yourself a new family this way.

Volunteer at a soup kitchen

Sometimes you just can't do any of the above, but can't simply ignore the holidays either. Volunteering at a soup kitchen might a good option: you aren't home alone, aren't having awkward small-talk at a dinner table, aren't spending any money, and you get the satisfaction of doing something nice for others. Just google your local soup kitchens and homeless shelters, they always need volunteers around the holidays. Let them know you're available, they'll tell you the times and locations.