Could the holidays possibly present us with a more of a confusing mish-mash of messages, expectations, and emotions? Sadly, that seems to be the nature of the beast. We turn on the TV and there’s George Bailey saving his depression-era town from financial ruin while simultaneously making new angels every time a bell rings. Change the channel and there’s little Virginia learning that there really is a Santa Clause. Switch the station again and we’ve got Charlie Brown’s friends deciding the woeful tree he chose for the Christmas play isn’t such a bad little tree after all. And while viewing these shows we can’t help but think: “Yes, this really is a wonderful time of the year.” But thinking this is not the same as experiencing it, and, given all the cooking, shopping, work, emails, bills, lists, gifts, etc., that we have to deal with throughout the holidays, what most adults seem to actually feel is, in no particular order: tired, overwhelmed, restless, stressed-out, impatient, and pressured. Did I mention tired? As adults, instead of focusing on the twinkling lights and pretty figure skaters like we should, we tend to mull over things like mortgages, taxes, and credit card bills, not to mention our snarling in-laws, while the whole world shrieks: “Give and now receive. Receive and now give. Now repeat.” By mid-December, even the most optimistic among us can find ourselves thinking, while waiting in yet another line in yet another store, “Gee, this kind of sucks,” or, employing the language of a bygone era, “Bah, Humbug!”
But don’t lose heart. In addition to the many frustrations that tend to haunt the overstuffed days between Halloween and New Year’s, the holiday season is also guaranteed to bring moments of genuine connection and intimacy, meaning real flashes of actual joy, as long as we are sharp enough to notice them. Maybe your holiday moment occurs when your spouse walks in the front door after a long day at work, laden with groceries, and upon seeing your face he or she says with a tiny smile, “Oh, thank God,” simply because you are there to greet and help unload. Maybe your gay neighbors, together some 40 years now, decide to tie the knot this holiday season because legally they finally can, and you get to celebrate this with them. Or maybe, if you’re very, very lucky, one of your kids takes a moment away from his or her favorite digital device long enough to look into your eyes with undisguised sincerity and say “I love you” or “Thanks.” It is in these small, precious, very real moments of being with others and feeling connected that the season comes alive, with all the peace, love, and goodwill toward man that we are seeking. But to find these small moments we have to be looking for them.
That said, and I promise this, no matter how hard we try to narrow our disconnection and draw closer to loved ones, no holiday season is ever going to be flawless. Regardless of age, gender, race, or creed, the season will be laced with imperfections and dashed expectations, plenty enough for one and all. Simply put, none of us is perfect and neither are those around us. As such, it is important to prepare ourselves for a few Grinch-like bursts mixed in with those shining moments of connection.
Take a Moment and Genuinely Connect
Regardless of your religious or spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof), what gives the holidays meaning is ultimately defined by our willingness to intimately bond, however briefly, with those around us, especially those we care deeply about. It’s a guarantee that the more you seek to connect in a heartfelt, honest way this time of year, the more joy you will feel – provided you watch your expectations, as not every heart is open in this or any other December. That said, there are a few things that can tip the scales in your favor, thereby improving the chances you will experience at least a few joyful moments.
- Get Grateful. After more than a dozen years of research into courageous and wholehearted living, Dr. Brené Brown writes that a primary difference between happy and unhappy people is that happy people are grateful. Essentially, joy and gratitude are inexorably linked. As such, the most effective, healthy, short-term antidote for almost any type or degree of emotional discomfort is gratitude. So if you find yourself struggling with the holidays, try mixing up your fear/sadness/anger/whatever with just a tinge of gratitude to see where you land. This won’t entirely dismiss your despair, but it will blend some positive reality in with it. Gratitude goes something like this: “I hate that I don’t have enough money to buy the kinds gifts my kids want, but I am grateful they are healthy, vibrant, and loving.” Or “I wish my parents were alive to see the family together, but when we tell stories about them and laugh, I know that I carry them with me forever.” Etc. Some people make gratitude lists. This is a very solid recommendation for New Year’s morning, by the way. “I am grateful that we have a roof over our heads and a stable life. I am grateful that I have a job. I am grateful for good friends who will always be there. I am grateful that I am married to someone I love who loves me back.” In simplest terms, it is flat-out impossible to be grateful and completely unhappy at the same time. That’ a fact!
- Engage in holiday activities that involve other people. Even though it’s usually faster and easier to do the shopping, bake the cookies, and get those gifts wrapped while you have a moment alone, the holiday season is always more meaningful if you do these simple chores with others. If you have kids, a good tactic is to schedule family play dates several days in advance so your kids know what’s coming and don’t make other plans, but you’ll still need to be flexible, as things that seem much more important (in your kids’ minds) will often pop up at the last minute. Another good tactic is to have some ideas that can be implemented spontaneously, when nothing else is going on. Even “too cool” teenagers will give in to the holiday spirit when they’re snowed in and there’s nothing happening online. Decorating, cooking, creating handmade gifts, and all the rest will give you and your family a whole lot of fun stories to tell later if you do these things together.
- Spend time and engage in holiday activities with your significant other. For those who have kids, spending time with them is obviously very important, especially during the holidays, but it is equally important to not neglect your spouse. Both of you are likely experiencing a lot of holiday stress and anxiety, and a great way to escape from that, at least temporarily, is for you and your partner to PLAN a few intimate hours focused solely on one another. And don’t break these dates no matter what. Take a bubble bath together, give each other massages, dress up like Santa and his favorite sexy elf, or whatever. Just remember to take a few moments somewhere along the way to tell each other what and how you are feeling about life, the holidays, and the importance of your relationship. These intimate conversational moments, more than actual sex, are the way to maintain lasting connections with a lifelong partner.
- Spend time with close friends. If you’re single and childless this is especially important. After all, you don’t need to have an “official family” to be with loved ones at the holidays. Families made by choice are every bit as good as families made by marriage and blood. This is just as true during the holidays as it is at other times of year, and don’t let anyone tell you different. And even if you are married with children, friends are still important because they are the people who often provide the balance you need in life, so don’t forget about them during the holidays.
- Volunteer and/or give to charity. Giving is a concept that ties directly into gratitude. People who are grateful for what they have are much more likely to share with others, and vice versa. So if your kids are asking for way too much Christmas swag, take them to the mall or go online with them and ask them to pick out one really good present for a child who otherwise won’t receive anything at all. Encourage them to purchase that wonderful toy, and help them donate it wherever they find need. No matter how cynical or clueless kids usually are, they get this. They completely understand what they are doing, and why they are doing it, and a beautiful lesson about living life and caring about other people is learned. If you don’t have kids, that doesn’t mean you can’t donate to a toy drive or otherwise volunteer your time and/or financial resources. I can’t stress this enough: Being charitable and being grateful are linked, and gratitude is linked to joy; as such, charity is also linked to joy.
- Accept other people exactly as they are, warts and all. Other people are who they are – sometimes even more so during the holidays – and there is nothing that any of us can do about that. If a loved one puts way too much butter on his or her roll at dinner, or spends way too much money on gifts, or whatever, so be it. That’s just the way that he or she is. If we choose to fight this fact, hoping we can convince this person to behave as we think that he or she should, we will make ourselves nuts. However, if and when we learn to accept that other people, especially our loved ones, are quirky and don’t always see eye-to-eye with us, we’re usually a whole lot happier. And if we learn to be grateful for the imperfections of others (perhaps viewing those supposed flaws as entertaining), then we’ve really got something.
If you are able to actively incorporate the tips provided above for developing intimate emotional connections and having a happy, fulfilling holiday season, you almost certainly will experience positive results. Be willing, of course, to experiment with and adapt as needed these suggestions, as every person and family is a little bit different. What works for others may not work for you, and vice versa. Nevertheless, with a little effort you can find the recipe that cooks with you and yours, and when you do, you’re guaranteed to have an absolutely perfect, oh, sorry, I mean a mostly fun and, more importantly, a more meaningful holiday season.
Mr. Weiss is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters.