Great Expectations

They sneak up on us. They get even the best of us.

Great expectations.

And no, I’m not taking about the novel by Charles Dickens. I’m talking about what we expect of ourselves, our families and the general holiday season. This year everyone will be happy. This year everyone will be ecstatic with their gifts. No one will be sick. No one will have travel problems. No one will forget something terribly important, like Uncle Fester’s present, the rolls still in the oven or the lines for the Christmas eve drama.

This year, you think, will be different. This year it will snow at the right time, bringing atmosphere but not treacherous driving conditions. This year you’re going to hit a home run worthy of jewelry store commercials with your gift. This year you’ll make all of the holiday events you’ve always wanted to attend and enjoy every one. This year the cat will leave the tree alone and the dogs will not ingest tinsel. This year you’ll take the family picture and everyone’s eyes will be open and you will all look like you’re enjoying the exercise… and each other.

This year it will be perfect.

Or maybe not. Who knew she was kidding when she said she wanted oven mitts for Christmas?

I’m no soothsayer, but I suspect you won’t have the perfect Christmas. Mainly because there’s never been one. That is, if your expectation is for everything to go according to your best plans, for no detours, no slip-ups, no unexpected thing to mar your heavenly peace.

Holding to hopes and dreams is a fine thing but they have to be held lightly. If you hold tightly to your expectation that things must be one certain way then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and unhappiness. Things happen. Germs spread. Gift givers cannot read minds. Cats cannot resist reaching for the star(s).

So enjoy this holiday season in the best way you are able. You may decide to cut back on some commitments. You may decide that it’s the year for trying new things. Whatever you do and however you celebrate, hold it lightly. Hold to your hopes and dreams but leave room for the serendipity of the unexpected. Sometimes it’s the things you didn’t plan that become the memories you treasure most.

Or, in the cases of the germs… maybe not.



Family Rituals Come in All Flavors

My niece had moved back after college. My mother reasoned that the best way to ensure that she’d be able to see her busy granddaughter on a regular basis would be to plan for it. So family dinner night at Mayberry’s, a local sandwich and ice cream place, was born. Over the years as family members have moved back and new people have been added to the family, they’ve joined them. Or should  I say “us,” because when I moved back I joined them as well.

It’s been an ever-changing group. First we lost my mom and then my dad. Along the way we’ve added three children. For a while we were blessed to have four generations gather together every single week.

Mayberry’s is a big deal. The other week my niece explained to her five year old son that they couldn’t go because he had open house at his new school that night. He wailed that he didn’t care about open house – it was Mayberry’s night. His friends there (the staff) would miss him. And besides, “How will Aunt Peggy go on?” (I managed to soldier on.)

The importance of Mayberry’s demonstrates the importance of rituals for children. They create a boundaries, a place in which they can feel safe. It is a routine that can be counted on, even when one is faced with new schools or siblings or a fight with a friend. Structure is important for children, and while they may protest structures like bedtimes and chore expectations, the truth is that they thrive with them.

Actually, adults need rituals as well. Do you get up and make a cup of coffee first thing in the morning? That’s a ritual (and for many of us, a life saving necessity.) I am one of the dinosaurs for whom reading the morning paper is a ritual.

The problem for we adults is that sometimes we find ourselves adopting rituals that aren’t so helpful to us. Like using food or alcohol or drugs to self-soothe when we’re upset. Or starting our days in a way that puts us behind and agitated before we’ve even really started. Or staying up too late which sabotages our attempts to get up early to have time to walk, read or journal.

What are some of your rituals? Are they helping you or hurting you?

The 12 Days of Christmas: Day Two: There’s no time! Handling the stress of too much to do and too little time

handling Christmas stressMost people I knew are somewhat busy. If you’re not retired, you’re working. If you’re retired, you’re working even more. Children and pets and homes and yards and bills that have to be paid and laundry that has to get done… well, you get the picture.

Then along comes the Christmas season, and on top of all of the everyday things you have to add shopping, cooking and baking, sending cards, decorating, parties, special events… well, you get the picture.

It’s no wonder that many people find themselves greeting Christmas morning with illness. There’s a lot of stress mixed in with those holiday greetings.

Here’s a few tips for dealing with the stress of too much to do and not enough time for doing.

1. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. You really cannot make a quilt in three days. You cannot make personalized ornaments for each child in both of your children’s classes at the same time that you have a major project due at work. You cannot perfectly replicate Martha Stewart’s Christmas decorations and menu. I know you like to think you’re the exception, but you’re not. Just let it go.

2. Do triage. If you’ve ever been to the Emergency Room, you’ve been seen by a triage nurse. Triage nurses decide who is most critical and must be seen first.

Do triage for your holiday commitments. For example, I love receiving and sending Christmas cards. What I really love is connecting and catching up with old friends. One year sending out cards didn’t make it to the top of the list, so I sent out a New Year’s letter instead. Have you always done something because you’ve loved it or because you’ve always done it?

I know a pastor who told his congregation that if he and his wife attended every Sunday School class Christmas party they would have no evenings at home with their own family. So they started a rotation system. Maybe you need one as well. One year you’ll go see “The Nutcracker” and the next year you’ll see “A Christmas Carol.”

3. Have a plan. Do you need to ship presents to out-of-town family members? Put the needed shipping date on your calendar. Then a week or two before that date add a note about buying the presents. Sit down and look at your calendar and figure out when you can decorate or cook ahead. Fill in the special events you want to attend. Look at the month as a whole.

4. Abandon your plan. Stuff happens. Roll with it. One of the greatest stresses people create for themselves is when they insist that things have to go a certain way and that everything is ruined if that doesn’t happen.

So you forgot to put the sweet potatoes out. You can have them later. So the cat knocked over the Christmas tree. You can put it back up. One year my brother and his wife were unable to make it for Christmas because of a snowstorm that grounded flights. We had a wonderful visit a week later when they were able to get to our house. Stuff happens, and most of the time it’s really not a tragedy.

5. Decide what’s important to you and honor that. It’s kind of a triage on a deeper level. If you do indeed believe that the real meaning of Christmas is to celebrate God’s gift to us, then make room for honoring that. Make room for your spirit. Many years I make it a ritual to find time each week to listen to Christmas music while sitting by my tree or by the fire. This year I’m going to the Candle Tea in Old Salem. In addition to coffee and sugercake (which is not small things in itself!), I know I’ll be able to sing Christmas carols by the old organ. And it will be a good thing for my spirit.

Next time: Day Three: Present-Day decisions