Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
— Viktor Frankl
Many of our most vivid holiday memories are centered around food. When I was growing up in Communist Poland, we had feasts twice a year, on Christmas and Easter. But otherwise we ate very plainly, with no extravagance and indulgence. We looked forward to exotic holiday foods like oranges, figs, walnuts and hazelnuts—treats that are all so readily available today.
What I remember the most is the anticipation and the excitement in the atmosphere. We would make our own holiday ornaments and garlands from paper, hanging chocolates and apples with tin foil, innovating with our creativity to make the tree that my brothers would buy special. (My baby brothers would slyly steal treats from inside the foil, plumping it up again afterwards to give the illusion that nothing had been taken.) There were special dishes we only had for feasts: holiday borscht, steamed carp with almonds and raisins, dumplings filled with sauerkraut and wild mushrooms, poppy seed cake, with stories to accompany the long cooking process that scented the whole house.
Our challenge now, in these times, is to avoid feasting every day. The holidays are really about the ambiance we create—the warmth of being with family who’ve come from far away, taking time to tell stories and share old memories, joking with one another and feeling the joy of connection. We still love to shower our loved ones with gifts and special treats. It can also be a time of reconciliation, an occasion to make peace and forgive old wounds. The holiday spirit makes us softer.
With all the nostalgia and emotion that comes with the holidays, it’s easy to turn into a lunatic, overindulging in shopping, eating, and consuming. The New York Post recently wrote that Americans throw away 16 billion worth of Christmas presents every year. It’s sickening. How can we avoid getting caught up in the madness? I like to focus on giving practical and inspirational presents, something that people can use or draw sustenance from—socks, gloves, scarves, books, a small piece of special jewelry, a carefully chosen scented candle or perfume.
We also need to be mindful of the danger of rampant holiday eating when food is literally on offer everywhere. If you strategize that you won’t stray from the food plan, you’ll see that you don’t really need extra snacks to enjoy the holidays. You can choose your indulgence—like one very good chocolate with a cup of coffee, for instance. We need to remember that eating isn’t really an activity, not like solving puzzles, playing board games, going for walks with grateful pets or just taking time to enjoy catching up with old friends and family. Eating too many Christmas cookies is never as wonderful as venturing out ice skating or bowling or going to a museum to have lunch and spend the day. Even if you’re not active in a religion you can attend a holiday service or choral concert. Holiday cooking can be joyful, as long as it’s mindful—a creative expression to nurture others, instead of just an excuse to overindulge.
The holidays can also be a little lonely at times, especially for those going through tough times or separated from the ones they love. Instead of falling into a dark place of isolation, it’s important in these instances to reach out and stay engaged. There are many ways to volunteer, help others, or invite someone over who might be feeling lonely too. The holiday spirit is fed by being mindful of others and acknowledging and cherishing that we’re all having the human experience together.
What holiday activities and traditions do you treasure? Do you do different things over the holidays than you used to? How do you anchor yourself and stay mindful and spirited without falling into overindulgence?
Leave your response below in the comments.