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Five choices to bring more celebration to your holidays

Last Modified: November 22, 2023

Healthy Mind


This post was written by Jon Swanson, chaplain, Parkview Chaplaincy.

When we think about holidays, we often dwell on what we’re missing or what isn’t going right. This holiday season, if we instead focus on what is going right, how we’re inventing our traditions for a new generation, and the family all around us, we can celebrate. 

I’d like to share five choices you can make this holiday season to bring more celebrations to your holiday gatherings.

Choose people over dates

In August, we visited friends in another state. On the last day of our visit, their 13-year-old daughter had scheduled her own birthday party. All her siblings were present, her aunt and cousin, her grandparents, and us. But it wasn’t her birthday. Instead, she was teaching us all an important lesson for holiday gatherings.

She knew that on her actual birthday in October some of her loved ones would be away—at college and other places. Being together for the event was more important to her than being together on the exact date. So much so that she didn’t even expect birthday presents, she just wanted to celebrate with those she cared about. We can choose to be as wise as this tween when it comes to deciding on when holiday events happen, too.

Choose to loosely define family

That birthday party in August reminded me of another lesson for holiday gatherings—your family can be who you choose. My family and I are not part of that girl’s biological family. In fact, we first met her family over the internet. But we’ve spent time together and we feel like family.

Get together with the people who need family, who need gatherings, who need hope, who offer sustenance and support. This doesn't exclude biological family, but it suggests that when inviting people for holiday gatherings, we can cast a larger net than we'd expect.

When Jesus was talked about inviting people to feasts, he suggested starting with the people who can't invite us back. When I was growing up, we lived far from biological family. Thanksgiving dinners often included people who were also far from family. It expanded my thinking, and my heart.

Choose healthy laughter

The last three years have been tough. Restrictions, unexpected and excessive deaths, economic challenges and other disruptions all have made it feel hard to laugh. Some people have gotten caught up in various arguments and have fallen into rejecting the positions others hold. Sometimes, what sounds like laughter, is actually more like mocking.

But we know that laughter is healthy. I’ve sat next to deathbeds and laughed as family members told stories (we’ve cried some, too). If holiday gatherings can move from mocking and hesitant whispering into tear-causing laughter, that will be healing.

Choose lower expectations

We’ve likely all felt disappointment over the holiday season. Many of us have felt disappointed by the toys we received at Christmas. We wanted the cake to be perfect, but the icing ran. We wanted the clothes to match for the family picture and two people had outfits that clashed horribly. We wanted everything to be perfect for just this once, and it wasn’t. Because it can’t be.

So, rethink the standards. Adjust your expectations and see if you find more satisfaction from the season. Getting people into the picture may be more important that matching shirts. A frozen dinner which allowed conversation may be more fun that the migraine my mom had every year getting the Thanksgiving feast ready.

Choose to embrace your grief

There’s no statute of limitations on grief. Once, after a workshop, while waiting in line for a drink I thanked the person next to me for something she had shared. She said, “that death happened 10 years ago. I didn’t think it would affect me.” I reminded her that her grief defense shields were down, and that the topic of the workshop stirred up memories. Months, years, even decades after someone stopped being part of our gatherings, we will still miss their food contributions and their face. That’s perfectly natural and normal.

So, as you eat the deviled eggs someone made in a loved one’s memory, go ahead and shed the tears. If someone thinks it’s from the paprika, that’s fine. You know it’s love.

Have some happy in your holidays.

If we take the time to think about what’s really important at our holiday gatherings—spending quality time with the people we care about—and choose to be present with joy and love we can all have a happier, more satisfied holiday season.

See what Jon has to say about permission to adjust your expectations around the holidays here

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