Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Splendor and the Struggle of Holiday Gatherings

'Tis the season once again. The menorahs are being lit, the radio stations are running 24/7 Christmas music and the season of parties is just ramping up. Front porches have zoomed from the pumpkins to scarecrows to the holiday wreaths in record time. With the upcoming buzz of office holiday parties, neighborhood cookie swaps and extended family celebrations, how do we juggle the joys of gathering with the struggles?

Humans are not that much different from squirrels, I have come to believe. In my neck of the woods, squirrels at this time of year are truly insane. They scramble around collecting the last acorns and nuts to shove in their nests (far more than they can ever eat), make mad bomber dashes across the street just missing a passing tire, and chatter at each other from tree branches like clucking hens.

Modern humans are not much different during December. Instead of preparing our cellars with food for the winter, we take that "nesting energy" and use it to race from store to store and come home with bags of gifts, bottles of wine, sweet treats and more decorations for the house. We look forward to the excitement of getting together, yet we also feel burned out by the over-stimulation.

Let's explore that collective tension here. We have a longing to gather together in the winter via ancient rituals like the solstice, Hanukkah and Christmas. The people of most cultures share a love of lighting candles, singing songs, spending time with our friends and family, acknowledging our faith and our blessings and gifting one another in various ways.

This desire is fundamental to our internal balance and wellness. Human beings are wired for community and clan-style gatherings. Think of one of your favorite memories in life -- what is it about? Most of our cherished memories are of the times we spent with people we love, and not the things we accomplished or purchased.

Sometimes the struggle of the holidays is balancing our inner picture with reality. Our memories of perfect holidays past may be pretty fuzzy and devoid of the pre-dinner fights, whining over gifts or burned crowned roast that we all know are classic year after year. Despite the stresses of the moment, most people reflect on the season with fondness and often forget the petty stresses that seem so important right now.

The secret to holiday madness is to remember that it is about cherishing and not about charging. It is about sharing and not about giving. Sometimes the silly expectations we set up for having the perfect house, perfect outfit, perfect gift or perfect meal usurp the original intention, and the magic of the moment is lost in anger, tension, frustration or sadness.

This season, adopt a "go with the flow" attitude, and remember that what makes a truly satisfying gathering or memorable gift is your ability to be present. Everyone is happier, and magic can flow out of unplanned moments. The economic fallout has left everyone with less money to spend, but does this have to ruin the holiday? Only if material gifts were all that mattered. We don't have to store our nests with iPads and diamond watches but with love, support and happy memories gathered around a tree a table or a candle flame.

It is known that general anxiety and stress can be remedied by the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is fast becoming the hot shot of neuroscience. Once thought to be relegated to lactating women, oxytocin plays a much larger role in increasing our sense of altruism, connections to other people and even a sense of trusting our government. Think of that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when imagining a perfect "Norman Rockwell" moment -- that is oxytocin flowing through your veins, and it is a powerful healer.

It has been found that oxytocin helps to counter-balance the affect of stress in our bodies. However, oxytocin is not released unless we are together, or unless it is triggered by nurturing images and memories. Think of the genius! When we are stressed out, we often turn to our partners, our family or friends to help us by taking a walk, talking it out or doing something fun to take our minds off of it. Instinctively we understand that we need contact with others to keep ourselves sane.

Gathering with others has a tension of splendor and struggle. Just know that. We want to go to the office party, and then we come home disenchanted. It happens. The pressures to hit the mall, keep up with the Joneses and complete our to-do list amplifies this time of year, making it harder for that gentle oxytocin to flow. How do we create a season of peace?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Focus on the moments. Let's face it: the holidays are stressful. No doubt about it. Traffic jams, irritated people, lines, pushing and shoving -- the whole shebang. Focus on the sweet old lady bagging your sweater or the soft hand holding yours while you pick out a tree -- keep those safe.
  • Don't do too much. Be realistic with your time, budget and energy. If a holiday fundraiser auction is stressing out the wallet, make a polite excuse and stay home with cozy jammies and old TV reruns.
  • Make time to be with others you love. If all your obligations are for work, create some time to have a gathering with the people who make you happy. Share some wine, food and a few laughs.
  • Make time to be with yourself. As the season darkens, the time for being internal, quiet and reflective begins. Take some time for long bubble baths, journaling, meditation and inspirational reading.

As always, I love to hear from you, my friends here at The Huffington Post. Our online conversations are oxytocin starters for me! I appreciate those of you who stop by week after week and count you as my blessings this year! Feel free to drop a note below and let us know how you are balancing the season. Cheers!

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