It’s the day before Christmas Eve. The family is still tucked away in their beds, and I’m enjoying watching the sky slowly turn from dark blue, to grey, to golden. The steam is rising from my cup of coffee (this time of year, sweetened with a dash of eggnog), and life feels pretty perfect in this moment. This is my gift to myself as we head into the Christmas festivities. This quiet time centers me and fills me up. I’m a high school teacher, and I’m always looking for ways to make these next two weeks of Winter Break last as long as possible. This year, I’ve taken inspiration from – where else—France. The French are so good at taking things plus lentement, more slowly, and taking the time for les petits choses, the little things. Slowing down and noticing the details around you can actually slow down your perception of time. Knowing that, here are some ways that I’m making this holiday season last a little longer…
We Americans think we can do it all, right? Well, I’ve got news for you—we can’t. No one can. And thinking you can, and more importantly, thinking you must, is a prescription for misery. It’s also a prescription for moving too fast and missing les petitis choses. It may mean missing the look on your child’s face on Christmas morning, the feel of your pet’s soft fur as they snuggle next to you, the warmth of the fire in the fireplace, or the glow of a candle in the dark days of winter. Those are the simple pleasures of life, but if you are too busy trying to do “it all”, you will surely miss them.
This time of year can be overwhelming with various obligations, but you can be unapologetically choosy about those, too. Pick one or two holiday parties that really fill your spirit, and politely say “no” to the rest. Pare down your shopping to just a few gifts, or none at all. Think about it: what did you get last year for Christmas? What did you give? Can you even remember? It all seemed so important just one year ago, and now I bet you struggle to remember. I know I do. Would it really be so terrible to exchange your undivided time and attention with those you love, rather than store-bought gifts?
This year, I was even choosy with my Christmas decorations. I have a ton of them, and some years I enjoy really going “all out” on the décor. Other years, I keep it simple. This year was a simple year: not a ton of ornaments on the trees (yes, I have two artificial skinny trees, the only kind that will fit in my small house that we managed to squeeze a grand piano into), some simple decorations on the mantel, and lots of candles. This saved me time, taking just around an hour to get my house in the Christmas mood, rather than an entire day. What did I do with my extra time? I invited a few neighbors over for what ended up being a wonderful kickoff to the season.
The bottom line is, decide what things and activities will truly fill your spirit this year, and forget the rest of it. If there’s anything positive about life in the 21st Century, it’s that pretty much anything goes. We are not tradition-bound anymore. So, we are free to choose the traditions that mean something to us, and let the meaningless ones go.
Stop and Smell the Christmas Tree
Or the fresh bread, or the bonfire, or whatever it is that will slow you down. Did you know that the part of our brain that processes smell is right next to the part that processes memory and emotion? This is why certain smells can trigger such vivid memories. For me, it’s the smell of a pine tree, of cloves and orange, of wood burning in the fireplace. All of those smells were part of Christmas time when I was young. We always had a fresh tree; we used to make pomanders by sticking whole cloves into oranges and putting them in a pretty bowl on the table; and my dad loved to light a fire in the fireplace on winter nights.
Taking time to stop and smell the proverbial roses forces your mind to slow down. You can’t possibly be in a rush while also fully taking in the sensory details around you. Again, be choosy. Which will it be: rushing around, trying to get it all done, or fully immersing yourself in the simple joys of the season? Another thing that happens when you stop to take in a beautiful scent is that you also stop to take a deep breath. Deep breaths slow your heart, which slows your mind, which calms your soul, which slows time. It’s like a micro meditation. You mind, body, and spirit will thank you for it.
Put It Down
“It” is probably a screen. But “it” might also be your credit card, or your pen, or your fork. It’s the thing you are using mindlessly; it’s the thing you use to distract. It’s the thing that is taking you out of the moment, and actually making time speed up.
Learning to use our screens wisely, and not be used by them, will be one of the greatest challenges of our generation. Screens can be wonderful—you are reading this on a screen, and I thank you for it. But know when to put it down. Know when to say “enough”. Know when it’s time to join the living.
The holidays can be especially screen-heavy as we take photos, post them to 100 different social media accounts, text all our friends and relatives, and catch up on what everyone else is posting. Resist. Go ahead, take your photos. But will it make much difference if they get posted a couple days later, when you can do it with intention, rather than having to do it in the moment? Maybe you can group text everyone a holiday message, adding that you will take the time to reach out to them individually in a couple days, when you both have time to devote to each other.
This year, I put down my pen and didn’t send Christmas cards. I plan to do New Year’s cards instead. My schedule just did not give me the time to do cards before Christmas, and I decided not to stress about it. I have a week off after New Year’s, and that is when I’m going to write my cards. It will be more enjoyable for me, and maybe it will extend the holiday season for the recipients. In France, Christmas starts at the beginning of December, and goes all the way until February 2nd! Here in the U.S., I don’t understand why we start putting out Christmas decorations in the middle of October, but one day after Christmas day, it’s all over. Lights come down, Christmas music no longer plays, and it’s like everyone is so sick of Christmas by the 26th, they can’t wait to just be done with it. It makes me sad. So, I choose to make the season last well into January, and sending New Year’s cards is one way I plan to do that.
Another thing we can all stand to put down around the holidays is our forks. Overindulging is part of the holidays, and now and then, it’s fun to treat ourselves. What isn’t fun is when we rush through our food, shoveling it in as fast as we can. The French are known for their long meals all year round, but at Christmas, they take it to a whole new level. Christmas dinner can easily last six to eight hours. Yes, really! In that time, they are not constantly eating. They are savoring. Not only food, but conversation as well. They are putting down their forks and talking. There really isn’t anything they won’t discuss over dinner. They pride themselves on good, heady debate, and they grow up being part of it. We Americans have so many conversational taboos that it becomes difficult to have a real, honest conversation. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. But I try. One tradition I have with my friends is a New Year’s fondue party. We make 3 types of fondue—cheese, broth, and chocolate—and enjoy them over the course of several hours. I look forward to it every year, especially because the friends around the table are ones I don’t see as much as I’d like. We eat, talk, laugh, talk some more, and savor every bite.
Qui court deux lievres a la fois, n’en prend aucun.
This French proverb means, “Those who go after two rabbits at a time will end up with none.” Don’t go after two rabbits this season. Be choosy, take your time, and put down the meaningless distractions. The result will be a more joyful, healthier, saner, and longer holiday season. Cheers. Joyeux Noel.