Have you ever noticed how challenging it is to spiritually prepare for Christmas? The weeks leading up to Christmas – the Advent season – are intended to be a time of preparation for Christmas, yet our seasonal to-do lists can often get in our way. Checking off all of the items on that list in time for December 25th on top of all of your everyday normal duties can seem like a superhuman task. The stress of navigating the crowds at the store, decorating, keeping the family drama to a minimum, and attending holiday parties can make it difficult to really enjoy what the Advent season is all about.
Every year, the American Psychological Association (APA) conducts research into one particular area of stress. One year, their research focused on the stress that Americans experience during the holiday season. Their findings showed that, while positive emotions (love, happiness, and high spirits) were associated with the holidays, both men and women reported experiencing increased stress during this time. The primary sources of stress that the study identified were time, money, and commercialism or hype surrounding the holidays. People worry about the increase in spending during the holidays and finding the time to get everything done. Work stress is also a factor during the holidays. The research revealed that people become stressed about participating in holiday celebrations at work and balancing work with holiday celebrations. With findings like these, keeping the spiritual aspects of the Advent season and Christmas can seem easier said than done.
The key to keeping the spirit of the Advent season at the center of your Christmas preparations is to recognize potential sources of stress and minimize their effect as much as possible. Taking a preventive approach to warding off stress will allow you to immerse yourself in the wonderful traditions of the Advent season. Here are five ways to manage stress during the holidays so that you can prepare for Christmas peacefully, in both a spiritual and practical sense!
1) Set Realistic Expectations
“Comparison is the thief of joy” is a famous quote by Theodore Roosevelt and it is helpful wisdom to keep in mind this Advent and Christmas season. It’s easy to set unrealistic expectations when it comes putting together the “perfect” Christmas celebration especially because we are surrounding by marketing that is telling what we should aspire to in order to have the perfect holiday. When you start to compare your Christmas lights to the massive display of your neighbor’s, suddenly the time you spent putting them up doesn’t seem like such a good idea. Or what about that DIY Advent calendar you saw on Pinterest? Does your homemade Advent calendar pale in comparison? See how comparison can rob you of your joy? Be at peace with the way you choose to prepare for and celebrate Christmas. Don’t let someone else’s professionally catered Christmas party or abundance of expensive gifts take away from the joy of Christmas.
2) Don’t Forget to Take Care of Yourself
During the Advent season and Christmas preparations, our healthy habits can easily fall by the wayside. For example, you might grab a quick snack from the convenience store on your way to the mall or skimp on sleep in the rush to get everything done. The APA’s stress study found that men and women are more likely to engage in unhealthy eating habits to cope with the stress of the holidays (though, it is more common among women). It’s important not to let your self-care practices slide during the holidays. Yes, your schedule is probably busier than at other points in the year but taking care of yourself (i.e. eating properly, getting enough sleep, exercising) will help you to minimize the negative effects the stress of the holidays can have. Remember that taking care of yourself isn’t being selfish.
3) Schedule Downtime
It can also be helpful to intentionally schedule downtime during the day to help you take a step back from the hectic pace of the holiday season. Whether that’s stopping to take in the Christmas decorations or sitting down for a hot cup of tea or coffee, it’s important to take a break from the rushed pace of the Advent season. Remember that Advent is a season of waiting. Practicing mindfulness can also be a helpful way to reduce stress and prepare you mind to focus on the spiritual part of preparing for the holidays. It can be as simple as taking some deep focused breaths while you are waiting in line at the grocery store or engaging all five sense to observe the world around you. (Dr. Greg Bottaro has a program to help you learn more about integrating mindfulness with Christianity if you are interested in taking a deeper approach to it.) Practicing mindfulness is a wonderful way to slow down the hectic pace of the season, reduce stress, and be able to enjoy all the wonderful traditions of Advent before they are gone all too quickly.
4) Incorporate Spiritual Practices Daily
APA’s report on stress also found that 76% of participants reported using prayer to manage stress during the holidays which is an increase from other times of the year. The study also found that 68% of the study’s participants reported attending religious services as a way to manage stress. While most of us don’t turn to prayer purely as a stress reliever, it is nice to know that you can experience welcome side benefit when you make the time for prayer. Prayer and reflection on a daily basis during the Advent season can help you keep focused and can sustain you during the hectic four weeks of Advent. Yes, it may be hard to set aside time during the day but think of it as embracing a Mary approach in a Martha world. Sign up for daily Advent reflections (like Bishop Robert Barron’s) or make a visit to your local church a few times a week.
5) Keep Everything in Perspective
And finally, remember the real purpose behind all of your Christmas preparations. That way, when the turkey is overcooked or the pile of presents to wrap seems to be growing instead of shrinking, you’ll more easily be able to minimize any stress you might experience when you remember what’s important about the Advent and Christmas seasons. Shifting your perspective can be a game-changer when it comes to reducing stress during the holiday season.
Even though, as Christians, we have a different perspective on Christmas than the marketers and advertisers of our world have, we aren’t immune to experiencing the effects of stress that the Advent and Christmas seasons can bring. But, keeping these five strategies in mind will help you to keep Christ at the center of your preparations despite the hectic and crowded malls, miles and miles of wrapping paper, and long lines at the post office.