In case the acres of tinsel jamming the shelves of local retailers haven’t kicked your brain into holiday high gear, let me break the news to you: The American holiday season is officially here. Toss the last of those molding pumpkins and swipe the final Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup from Junior’s trick-or-treat bag. This is not a drill, people. Fire up your Google calendar and finalize the 12 million holiday parties you need to make appearances at, rummage around Pinterest for gifts for your hard-to-shop-for father-in-law, double check that credit card balance and prepare for total credit-limit annihilation.
Actually, on second thought, maybe don’t.
Over the past decade or so, scholarly research has churned out findings that “mindfulness”—the practice of simply striving to be in the moment—is the key to happiness, health and mental well-being. Speaking only for myself, the rush-rush-rush of the holiday season threatens my sanity, and completely negates my attempts to stop and smell the cinnamon pinecones. The holiday season can sometimes feel like a people-pleasing Iditarod rather than a sacred time to pause and reflect with gratitude for the many people and circumstances that make my life so rich.
Perhaps this seems counterintuitive, but becoming a mom has actually lessened the feelings of obligation and busyness that previously dominated my mental state during the holiday season. As Liam’s mommy, my number one priority is to create simple memories of time with friends and family: Sharing in the wonder of first snowfalls, crackling fires and homemade treats.
Growing up, I split my holidays shuffling between my divorced parents’ respective homes, trying to act appropriately merry while feeling emotionally wrung out. Both my mom and dad survived fairly crappy childhoods, and they broke their necks trying to create picture-perfect holidays that drastically contrasted with their dismal childhood celebrations. Despite the breakneck blitz of zoo lights and cookie decorating and the Nutcracker Ballet (to which I went without missing a year from ages 4 months to 21), my memories of holiday seasons past have little to do with the gifts and glitz, and everything to do with the people who were part of my life when I was little—the extended networks of friends who became family over years and years of shared Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas Eve get-togethers.
Having the benefit of hindsight from my own formative years as we ramp up for Thanksgiving, I am striving to focus on the “thanks” and the “giving” more than the turkey and its delicious carb-y accoutrements. This past March, I celebrated 10 years in a recovery program. Day by day for over a decade now, I’ve had a daily practice of reflecting with gratitude on the many blessings in my life. In that span of time, I’ve built a life I’m proud of, filled with friends and family and work I treasure and find meaningful. I’ve found that gratitude begets gratitude; the more I stop to recognize the good in my life, the more adept I become at letting go of that which no longer serves me. Instead, I run full-tilt toward opportunities to pay forward the good fortune I have found. There are days I wake up overwhelmed with appreciation for the abundance and love that surrounds me. I’ll take that feeling over Martha Stewart-worthy tablescapes any day.
Infusing the holiday season with gratitude is my mission this year. My son will turn two-and-a-half the week before Thanksgiving, and I’m looking forward to sharing with him all the “big boy” activities he wasn’t quite old enough for last year. I can’t wait to draw holiday cards and make my great-grandmother’s snowball cookie recipe and carve up harvest’s last pumpkins into homemade pie. But more than these things, I’m looking forward to finding ways to incorporate mindfulness and thankfulness into each of these activities. Before we sit down to our own Thanksgiving meal, we’ll be bringing plats of those first slices of turkey to the homeless men and women that camp at the intersection near our row home. We’ll be wrapping up gifts as part of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance’s 9th annual Adopt-A-Family program. We’ll be talking about the family members who first stirred up the recipes we are making, and taking time to have Skype-dates with loved ones who can’t travel. I hope these small practices become the moments Liam remembers years from now as he wrangles his own toddler onto Santa’s lap.
Our kids pick up on more than we think they do, and they will notice our harried stress and strain as we dodge Black Friday crowds to snag the newest “must have” gizmo for a holiday gift. So let’s not do that crap this year. Because they can just as easily pick up on our appreciation for all the things big and small that sprinkle our lives with joy. Look around at your life, your friends and neighbors and family (by choice or by circumstance) who make you grateful. Take time to point out the little things that have meaning for you, and encourage them to open their eyes to the wonders all around them. Relax, slow down. Breathe deeply. Make this a season of joy, a season of gratitude, a season for giving thanks.
Elizabeth Mount is the executive director of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance.