As the holiday season rolls in, it can feel like we're supposed to be diving into a constant stream of tinsel-filled parties, big happy family dinners, and presents galore. Well, it's been my experience that some years the holidays are busy and exciting, but some years they're not. Some years the holidays are awfully bittersweet, and some years the season is just flat out difficult. Whether it's financial strain, family issues, illness, loss of a loved one, or something else getting you down, this time of year can be tough!
If holiday season 2012 is looking to be tricky to navigate, here are a few alternatives to feeling blue. They're definitely more fun than sighing into your tea every time a Christmas commercial comes on TV. Yeah, I've been there too. And feel free to share your tips in the comments.
1. Host a holiday potluck. Some years it's just not possible to be with family on a big holiday, and while that can be hard, it doesn't mean you have to be alone. I learned this one Thanksgiving when I was working 1,000 miles away from my family. I couldn't afford a ticket home for the holiday, and as it turned out, neither could many of my co-workers. Rather than spending the day squirreled up in our apartments, we had a group potluck dinner. We were all in our mid-20s and the meal was hilariously hodge podge but the evening was incredibly fun: we ate bizarrely paired food and drank too much wine and played board games. So, if you think you're alone because you can't go home, think again. See what co-workers, neighbors, or friends are up to, and you may be surprised. There could be a communal holiday dinner waiting to happen.
2. Be a merry maker. According to every big box store, as of 12:01 a.m. November 1, we were supposed to start shopping for the holidays. And 10 gazillion commercials say that holiday happiness = buybuybuy. We all know that's not true, but it can still be hard to show up to holiday gatherings empty handed. Some years extra money for gifts is just not there, but that doesn't mean you can't do something special for those you care about. I have a relative who makes stunningly good chocolate confections, packages them up, and hands them out as gifts every year. It's like getting a big box of gourmet candy, but instead of spending a lot of money, she uses her time and skill. Don't be shy about tapping into your skills to make gifts. Maybe you're a baker: offer to bake the pies for a gathering. Maybe you're a gifted artist: paint a portrait of your niece or nephew or print out a particularly great photograph for a friend. Knit something, sew something, frame something, bake something, whatever you're good at, make it and share it.
3. Spruce up your pad. If you're not decorating for the holidays, use your creative energy and extra time off to fix up your place. That's what I did one Christmas Eve. I was living alone, working most of the holidays, my mom was recovering from cancer surgery and there was nothing particularly eventful to mark the days off. Tired of moping around, I decided to repaint my bedroom. I picked up a gallon of paint at a local hardware store and painted late into the night while listening to Christmas music and drinking wine. It turned out to be a great evening of introspection and I woke up on Christmas morning in a fresh and bright, lemon soufflé colored room.
4. Get excited about the year ahead: Make plans! Even if nothing is particularly wrong, some years the holidays are just kind of lackluster and there isn't much going on. Instead of feeling sad because it feels like everyone else is talking about how busy their social calendar is, get excited about things to do and places to go in the coming year. Having a trip, project or goal on the horizon can make those dull New Year's Eves less of a bummer.
5. Giving is better than receiving. Not getting invited to a holiday party is a drag, it definitely stings, but if that's a major concern, it means the basic needs are probably covered. For so many, the holidays are incredibly difficult because their basic needs are not met, and this is where we can help. Countless organizations are looking for volunteers to help with clothes, food, toy drives or meal-related events around the holidays. If you're looking for a volunteer opportunity for the holidays, United We Serve is a great place to start. Type in your zip code for a listing of local opportunities.
6. Be of good cheer. It's easy to fall into a bad mood if the family is giving you fits and money is tight and the boss won't let you have time off, but instead of getting Scroogey, do a 180. Take a look around see who could use a hand or a high five. Then give it to them. Does an elderly neighbor need a meal? Make one and deliver it. Maybe a friend just lost a job or is going through a break-up: take them out to dinner or for a drink. Volunteer to babysit for someone you know needs a night out. Put some extra cash in the barista's tip jar. Wink at the bus driver. Compliment your co-worker's bedazzled holiday sweater they worked so hard on. Smile at a grumpy store clerk, well, that'll probably just annoy them, but you get the gist. Little gestures can make a big impact on another person's day, and you can boost your own spirit just by being thoughtful. It's a phenomenon called helper's high, and it refers to your body's natural release of happy endorphins when you do good deeds. So go ahead and be the one who wears the goofy Santa hat at work.
7. Take a hike. I mean that in the nicest way possible, as in, truly, take a hike! Really, is there anything better than a long, brisk walk in the fading afternoon light to clear your head and lift your spirits? Whether you love to load up your iPod and ramble through your neighborhood, or hike a favorite trail while listening to the rhythm and silence of nature, a brisk walk is a fine way to spend a quiet holiday afternoon.
8. Travel. I recently read an article in The New York Times that promoted the idea of solo leisure travel during the holidays. I love this idea! If you have some extra money but no real plans, why not use the time off to go somewhere new? Adventure is always a good idea, and isn't there something completely charming about hotels during the holidays? I think it's how much they tend to overdo it — it's like x-treme coziness.
9. Re-connect with a handwritten letter, phone call or lunch date. Tis' the season for holiday cards, so why not use this time to truly reconnect with someone you're missing? We may be "friends" with everyone we've ever known on Facebook, but browsing through clever status updates and carefully curated pictures (see: everyone always looks good + smiling) doesn't compare with hearing someone's voice or reading a handwritten letter.
10. Disconnect from the noise. Social media and mobile devices are a major presence in many of our lives and they're wonderful tools to help us communicate and connect; but if the holidays are a time of personal crisis, the noise of social media can create additional stress. Sometimes the last thing we need to be thinking about is what fancy restaurants our friends are "checking in" at, or how drunk our second cousin half-removed got at the holiday work party, or how disappointed a former co-worker is that he didn't get an iPad for Christmas. A holiday break-up with social media might give you some much needed internal respite; I know quieting my life has helped me during stressful times. And remember, you can always get back together in January. Yes, no matter how many times I break up with Facebook and my cell phone, they always get me back.