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December 20, 2017

The case for slowing down this Christmas

The holidays often feel always on the go, but here are good three reasons to resist the rush

According to legend, one December night in 1816, a young Austrian Roman Catholic priest named Joseph Mohr went walking alone along the paths connecting his rectory to his grandfather’s home nearby. It was quiet. It was still. It was nearly Christmas.

In solitude, Father Mohr journeyed through the cold air in Mariapfarr, Austria. Upon returning home, he penned a few verses of a poem that, once set to music, would become known and loved around the world. Two centuries later, in 2011, UNESCO lauded Father Mohr’s poem, “Silent Night,” as “an intangible cultural heritage.”

The lyrics of “Silent Night” came to Father Mohr in quietude and a good majority of the more than 2 billion Christians celebrating Christmas around the world will sing Father Mohr’s poem at some point this season.

Much of the emphasis on candles and lights strung on trees seems to promise that many will have a “bright” Christmas, but how silent and calm will the holiday season be for most of us?

In a gratuitously commercialized world, where the number of presents received is often the signifying feature of whether or not one had a “good” Christmas, we would be wise to step back and pause. We would be wise to step back and simplify so as to intuit the quiet beauty and wisdom of the holiday season.

Here are three suggestions on how to do this.

1. Make time to be alone. When Father Mohr penned “Silent Night” in 1816, our habitual practice of bringing an iPhone on a walk to check multiple times, take pictures, reply to emails, send texts, and listen to voice messages wasn’t an option. We live in a digitally obese age, constantly busy – constantly plugged in. What would it be like to leave all screens at home and go for a walk alone one evening this holiday season? What would it be like to purposefully integrate moments of solitude into one’s celebrations? Even if “all” one does is sit in front of a decorated Christmas tree quietly at night while the household sleeps, taking the time to be alone ensures the silent and calm dimensions of this beautiful time of year aren’t lost. Simplify and give yourself the gift of solitude. 

2. Spend less on presents and double up the offering of one’s presence this season. What would it be like to buy less this year? What if your family decided to give a gift to charity as a collective Christmas present instead of adding to the “stuff” in the home? While well thought out gifts are treasures, especially for children, it is our presence that counts. Focus on being present with loved ones and consider giving gifts of membership to museums and gardens. Or, plan a family trip. Twenty years of research confirms we are happier when we spend our money on experiences, not things.

3. Create meaningful family rituals that are repeated yearly to mark the special nature of the season. Whether this means camping out by the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve or baking cookies for one’s neighbors, crafting meaningful rituals, for one’s children, in particular, is a wonderful way to mark the holidays with intention. Such rituals offer a needed counter balance to the hustle and bustle of a Christmas “to do” list, complete with packed holiday schedules and over-tired little ones. With mindfulness, rituals can be crafted that connect families to what matters most. For example, as a girl, my father often purchased a potted (still living) Christmas tree. Though smaller in size than the cut variety, we decorated it with love knowing that my father (with our help) would plant the tree once winter’s chill waned. Today, when I visit my childhood home, I look at a long row of huge pine trees gracing the yard. So many of our Christmas trees live still.

The oft-quoted Christmas description: “Blessed is the season that engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love” by Hamilton Wright Mabie reminds us of why it makes good sense to slow our pace this holiday season. Mabie didn’t write that the season is blessed because it engages the world in a conspiracy of charging up our credit cards, or amassing present after present. While the cynics amongst us may note that Christmas has been co-opted by a conspiracy of capitalism, the choice to buy into this narrative is ours. We can engage in a conspiracy of love.

The power to choose a simpler way of approaching the season -- one that is far more mindful -- exists in each family. So, slow it down this Christmas. Nurture what is bright, yes -- but also what is silent, holy, and calm. 

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