12 Ways to Have a More Joyful Holiday

Monday November 25, 2019

This season can be particularly tough when childhood cancer or its long term effects loom large for a family or individual.  Retinoblastoma survivor and volunteer CEO, Abby White, shares advice for creating a calmer, more spacious and joyful Holiday, where self-care for all takes priority.

A crimson bauble hangs in focus, golden fairy lights reflected in its shiny surface, one glowing particularly white. The tree and lights are blurred in the background.

Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice – whatever your celebrations, this season should be a beautiful time of year.

Ubiquitous Holiday movies, songs and adverts often leave us feeling our celebration must be perfectly presented and tied up in a glittering bow to pass muster.  But that isn’t realistic for most people.  Relationship conflict, financial worries, poor health, grief, lack of personal security…life challenges intensify emotions, stress, and loneliness at this time of year.

We’re told the Holidays are about having more, doing more, and being more.  When we feel pain and our future is unclear, we can be especially vulnerable to this relentless messaging.  Buy more, give more, eat more, drink more – and in January, owe more (with more stress).

We cannot raise up heart and soul this way.  “More” only amplifies what we already feel – tension, pain and loss.  But we tend to deny and suppress those feelings, while following the crowd through the Holiday routine.  The toll on ourselves and those we love is significant.

There is a healthier way to real festive joy, where less is more.  We can have a very beautiful and fulfilled Holiday by recognising and honouring our needs, and building our plans around them.  By making self-care a central theme of our celebration, a meaningful gift to ourselves and one another.

Maybe your Holiday is impacted by a diagnosis of retinoblastoma.  Maybe you’re a caring professional for whom this year has been particularly tough.  Maybe you’re a survivor, juggling lifelong effects.  Perhaps the seasonal focus on family is painful, or you feel a lack of friends with whom you can celebrate.  This blog is for you, because you deserve to look after yourself this Holiday season.  I hope it helps you bring more light and love into the coming weeks.

1. Create Your Own Holiday Miracles

Life-changing miracles are at the heart of Christmas and Hanukkah.  We tell the stories every year and we’re amazed by their wonder.  Perhaps it’s because of these familiar retellings that so many of us think of miracles as being an awesome and rare event beyond our control and experience.

Yet we all have the capacity within ourselves to create our own Hanukkah or Christmas miracle this year.  It doesn’t have to involve a great light and choirs of angels.  It may simply be a quiet change in perspective that opens the door to new possibilities and greater peace.

2. Accept the Situation

Recalling past joyful Holidays can bring great comfort, but too much focus on those memories can sap life from the present.  They were unique moments, shaped by the company we shared, the conversations, environment and life events of the time.  We can’t recreate them. New wonderful experiences will unfold in their own way to become a distinct treasured memory.

Especially when life is tough, truly embracing the Holidays requires us to choose.  We can indulge present pain by chasing an impossible desire to recapture the past.  Or we can welcome this season with all its unexplored opportunity, different though it may be from what we imagined.

Holding on to an impossible dream serves no one.  Denying the situation only causes distress, and limits our potential to be nourished by the joy, love, and hope of this season.  No matter how much we resist, present reality continues to tap away, preventing us from living fully in the moment.

Accepting reality is not acceptance of defeat.  We merely step away from a cherished past reality, creating space for growth.  Letting go can be tough, particularly if you’ve long held clear visions of happy Holidays with your family.  But doing so can be very liberating.

Take a few minutes to consider any situations that you are struggling with this year.  Can you imagine how you would feel if you let go of those burdens?  Can you accept the situation for what it is this Holiday, and allow yourself the freedom to find a new way forward that relieves some of the stress?

Writing an affirmation to say aloud can help nurture hope, confidence and peace as you continue to work through acceptance.  For example: “This Holiday isn’t what I expected, It is no one’s fault, and I accept it as it is, We can have a wonderful celebration, and I am OK with it being different from how I imagined.”

Deep fresh snow covers a community park, heavily coating conifers, and giving a new glow to bare branches.

3. Define Your Expectations

As we accept the present situation, and let go of ideals based on past experiences, it is also vital we create realistic expectations for this Holiday.

If everyone around you is in the throes of extravagant celebration, or you’ve had clear Holiday visions, downsizing may cause you to feel cheap, inadequate or wrong.  But there is no rule-book.  What is joyful for one person or family may be discomfort for another, and what is practical one year may be unattainable the next.

Plan and do what feels right for you and yours, not because you think others will approve – they aren’t celebrating your Holiday.  Recognise that expectations may be unnecessary burdens, potential pressure points and avoidable disappointments.  Evaluate each, and choose wisely, so you can enjoy less, more completely.

Take some time to think about the values you want this season to nourish in yourself and your home.  Ask your family what they hope for, and brainstorm how you can cultivate those blessings.

This is a good time to look at what needs to be done, and who can do it.  Not all responsibilities hinge on you.  If you are shaking your head here, is it time to find a different solution that allows you more breathing space?  Don’t feel guilty or embarrassed about delegating and asking for help.  If others in your family can’t step up, tell them clearly that certain items or activities may not happen this year so you all have more rest.  You can’t do everything, and it’s important you leave guilt-free room to enjoy the festivities too.

4. Do Your Best With What You Have, Then Stop!

Enjoy buying the gifts, decorating the tree, cooking the meals and sharing in the parties. But do so within your means.  If you run your resources – financial and human – into debt, you’ll pay a higher price in physical and mental wellbeing.

The Holidays don’t have to be all about shopping, doing and being.  Take time to set your expectations and goals, identify your limits and discuss all of this with your family to be sure everyone understands and agrees.  You’re worth investing this time in to ensure you all get the most from this most wonderful time of the year.

5. Ask for What You Need

If this time of year is challenging for you, please reach out to those around you.  Human connection is the best way through difficult times, especially during the Holidays.  People want to help but often aren’t aware their help is needed, or they don’t know how to offer or give help effectively.  So ask for what you need – specific support, company, a friend by your side at an event you’d like to attend, a chat over a slice of cake and a cup of tea, time to listen, a hug…

Whatever you need, your first step is to ask.  Don’t worry that people will be too busy. They may be, but let them decide.  Just explain honestly what you are feeling, what you need, and how it will help.  That first small ask is always the hardest step.

Four Christmas candles glow brightly against a black background, nestled in an Advent wreath of foliage, pine cones, and berries.

6. Practice Gratitude

Thoughts powerfully influence our mood.  A single thought can quickly leach colour away, and the gathering grey mood separates us from potential to experience joy.

Yet we can fundamentally shift our outlook by simply appreciating what we have in that moment.  Gratitude disciplines us to stop wishing for something else, to value the blessings we have right now, and the experiences we have already had.  Gratitude helps us to be more content.

This seems ridiculously simple.  But research shows that genuine gratitude has transformational impact on our lives. Daily practice can reduce symptoms of or risk for depression, improve sleep, physical health, well-being, outlook and relationships, boost concentration and productivity.

In times of busyness and intense stress, daily gratitude can greatly improve quality of life.  Yet we tend to give the least mind to gratitude at these times.  We’re so caught up in the demands on us that we fail to recognise the gifts blessing us every day.

Consider creating a gratitude tradition this Holiday. Here are three suggestions:

  • Keep a gratitude journal: Reflect on three positive experiences, their genesis, and how they impacted your day. Consider writing your journal on pieces of paper you can place in a jar, creating a Gratitude Advent Jar to read through next year.
  • Thank someone every day: Perhaps a thank you note to a friend or loved one, an extra-special hug for your partner, attentive words to your children, a card for the postie or dustman. As you share your words, be truly present with the person, savour your thoughts of what they have done, and how your words will make them feel.  A Thank you said well goes a very long way.
  • Do a random act of kindness every day: This is a selfless act of giving in which you expect nothing in return. Create a list of small actions you can do alone or together as a family. You could write each one on piece of paper, place them in a jar and pull one out each day to do.

7. Enjoy the Giving Season

Gift-giving is a language, conveying an array of feelings from love and gratitude to sadness and regret.  A gift may say hello or goodbye, encourage, comfort, congratulate, and much more.

When we witness a friend’s trauma, we want to banish their pain, but often feel impotent to do so.  Gift-giving is an easy fix. We delight in choosing the gift, imagining its impact, and sharing joy when it is received.  For a while, the gift displaces everyone’s helpless suffering.

Holiday gifts can bring great blessing, but gift clutter can quickly overwhelm a stressed family.  Gifts can also cause unnecessary upset if siblings feel side-lined, or a diagnosed child worries about why they receive more gifts.

Plan ahead to help friends and family make their gift truly meaningful, and reduce the headache of mounting clutter.

De-Clutter: remove possessions you no longer need or want.  Consider asking your children to help you declutter.  Start with the rooms you expect will attract the most Holiday clutter.  You can begin with just a few minutes each day in one room.

List and Plan: What will be most valuable to you?  Do you need specific items, services, or supports?  Would you prefer experiences over physical items, or gifts to charity on your behalf?  How will you manage unwanted gifts or clutter – will you donate, freecycle, or sell?

Share Your Gift List: Post it on your social media feed or website, if you have one. Explain that you’re sharing it to help reduce clutter, and ensure gifts are truly valuable.

Explain Gift Requests: Buying services or gifting time may be a new concept for some.  They may feel uncomfortable and prefer to buy a physical item they can wrap and present.  Clearly explaining your need, and what the gift will mean to you, can change a person’s understanding, and the feelings that guide their choice.

Explain Charity Requests: Include all the information people need so they won’t have to ask you later.  Share your personal story of why you’re asking for donations – don’t just say “this charity is very important to me”.

Giving is about the giver as much as the gift and its recipient.  It’s the motivations and reactions, the joy of a shared experience.  The knowledge that we are loved, that we make a difference.  Perhaps then, our best gifts are those we most deeply need ourselves – love, joy, hope, peace, and kindness.

8. Manage Difficult Emotions

Holiday busyness – it’s inevitable we encounter small irritations throughout each day. We can’t find things we need, traffic is bad, plans go awry, people are rude or uncooperative, kids bicker… Those small stressors can compound into challenging emotions if we don’t properly manage them.  Learning to cope with Holiday triggering emotions is vital for everyone’s comfort and joy.

We can’t always change the triggers – events unfold beyond our control, and other people make their own choices.  But we can work from within to manage our own emotions and feel less frustrated.  Follow these five steps for more peace:

  1. Identify: What triggers you, and how do you respond? What do you think and say to yourself? How does it make you feel, physically and emotionally?  Name those sensations and feelings, for example “I am angry”, “my hands feel clammy”. Powerful emotions control us when we don’t give them close attention.  Actively focusing on the emotion, and how it makes you think and feel, reduces its power.
  1. Step Back: Emotions are not who we are. Think of them as waves of experience we can choose to surf. If you notice an emotion or thought process pulling you down, disrupt it by saying something like “this is making me unhappy. I am not doing this anymore. I deserve to treat myself more kindly”.
  1. Release: How can you view the situation more positively and relieve your tension in this moment? For example, using gratitude, or a deep breathing exercise.
  1. Replace: Focus on replacing the negative emotion with positive ones. Perhaps listen to a happy playlist, or a funny recording of your children.  Laughter, smiles and singing aloud create some of the best emotional healing.  Do you have to continue with the task at hand, or can you take a brief mental reset break, and return with a clearer, calmer mind?
  1. Observe: What are you thinking and saying to yourself now? How do you feel, physically and emotionally?  Name those sensations and feelings, for example “I am calm”, “my muscles feel relaxed”. Paying close attention will reinforce the value of this approach, and help you adjust your action responses as you go along, to discover what works best for you.

You will need to practice over and over again before managing your emotions in this way becomes natural, but doing so will be worthwhile.

9. Celebrate Mistakes With A Laugh And A Hug

When everyone’s busy, and reconnecting after long absences, mistakes happen.  More than any other time of year, this is the season of goodwill.  So forgive quickly and don’t let good cheer or relationships suffer.  Forgiveness is one of the greatest freedoms we can give ourselves, and others.

Remember too that some of the best Holiday memories are rooted in genuine errors that end in kind laughter.  We’ve probably all experienced a Christmas dinner mishap, or gifts without a tag…  If things go wrong, pause, take a breath before you jump on the wave of upset and recrimination (especially self-recrimination).  Can you find a funny side to it?  Can you let others know it’s ok to laugh, and ease the tension?  Chances are your response will add more grace and light to the occasion.

10. Switch Off From Social Media

Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms can be hugely competitive. They are filled with photo and video-posts showcasing beautifully decorated trees, gorgeous party outfits, sumptuous feasts, and perfectly wrapped gifts.  They look amazing, but they can have a dark side too.

Each post stealthily shifts our focus away from what we identify as important and within our capacity, to question whether we should have or do something more in order to be something more.  They can quickly fuel feelings of inadequacy, failure, isolation and loss.

If you notice that happening, or simply an awareness that your enjoyment of social media is waning, make an active choice to ignore the content.  Remind yourself that most photos and video shared on social media are staged, distorted view of the reality.  If necessary, stop checking your newsfeed during the Holidays, and instead directly visit the profiles and groups you wish to interact with. Or take a complete social media break for a few weeks to create more breathing space.

The same is true of TV and other advertising clutter.  Consider looking for ad-free viewing options like online streaming, or mute the sound during commercial breaks.  This can dramatically reduce the messaging and constant low-level pressure you may feel to conform to something that goes against your own needs.

11. Say No When You Need To

How much of the Holidays do you truly deeply enjoy as you run around trying to do everything?  How much do your children really enjoy and remember?  How much does growing fatigue impact everyone’s enjoyment of the main event?

Festive burnout is horrid. Saying No to some things creates space to love more and enjoy more.  But choosing what to say No to can be hard.  So take time to do so with love and understanding.

Ask what is important to each family member this season.  Think back to the values you chose to cultivate this year, if you identified them in Point 3 (Expectations).

List all festive activities and commitments you think will arise, including religious events, parties, meals, playdates, visits to friends or family, shopping trips, experiences like Santa’s Grotto, concert and theatre visits.

Identify all events everyone is happy to say No to, and work outwards from there.  Do events resonate with your identified values?  Allow each person time to calmly explain why an event is important to them.  When each person understands more about another person’s feelings, and feels involved in the decision-making, they are likely to be more accepting and supportive.

Discuss how events could happen without burdening the family. For example, could your child car-share with another family to attend a party?  Could you visit Santa’s Grotto only, rather than adding it to a tiring shopping trip?

When declining an invitation, don’t feel guilty, embarrassed, or burdened to explain.  Just smile warmly and say “thank you. I’m so sorry we can’t come this year, but I hope you have a wonderful celebration.”  Remember you are freeing yourself to be more present and energised for the entire season, for those you love, and for your own well-being.

Take a few minutes to review your plans for the day each morning, or the night before.  Can you still do everything?  If not, what’s most important, and what can be shelved?  Be gentle with yourself and remain open to change.

You may fear that by saying no, or encouraging your children to say no, you will have fewer experiences.  But far from losing lustre, your Holiday will likely glow brighter with more peace, time and energy to soak in its most precious delights.

12. Sprinkle Liberally With Magic Moments

Real magic can happen in the quiet space we give ourselves.  We can rest, breathe, notice one another.  We can take a long candlelit bath, cuddle close with those we love (human or furry) while watching Holiday movies, enjoy Holiday baking and its warm spicy aromas, savour a delicious mug of hot chocolate and our favourite music by firelight or a fairy-lit tree, escape into a novel, or take a long walk in nature.

List 10-15 things you truly enjoy, that cleanse your body, mind and soul.  Ask your family to do the same. Identify simple activities you can enjoy together (e.g. a movie, game, making a spiced apple drink, singing Christmas Carols, reading a seasonal book, going for a walk).

Don’t fill space mindlessly.  Treat yourself to a gift from your list.  You’re more likely to do it if you’ve already thought about it and have any necessary supplies to hand.

Really focus on those activities – what you’re doing, who you’re with, and how you’re interacting. What each of your senses experiences, how you feel.  Paying close attention helps us stay in the moment and be enriched by it, rather than letting intrusive thoughts take over.

When you’re out and about, use simple breathing techniques to ease any tension that arises, and bring your focus to sparks of light in the moment. Perhaps while queueing at a busy store, or waiting in traffic.  Let your inner Christmas Angel shine and help you lighten your experience.

Have you ever noticed a surreal feeling at the end of a long festive day, when you look back, and wonder if you dreamed it all?  Perhaps this happens when we experience a radical shift in emotional positioning, and maybe it’s more acute when we truly pay attention to our experiences.  Festive days bring an uncommon mix of frenetic activity and intense human connection.  Gradually that activity shifts our mood from nervous anticipation to (hopefully) peace, comfort, and joy.

If you experience such a feeling this year, take a few minutes to really notice how your body and mind feels.  Perhaps write down your experience of this moment, so you can look back in the New Year and remember it.

Savour the moments of joy you experience this Holiday.  When you do, you can take them courageously forward with you as bright gems of hope into the New Year.

A close up image of a star hanging below a glowing golden garland, among Christmas Tree foliage.

Final Words

The Holidays don’t have to be a perfectly decorated hive of activity.  More comfort and joy can be found in the open spaces and quiet moments we give ourselves by slowing down, looking after ourselves and paying attention to the present moment.

Remember the maxim about putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others?  That applies equally now.  Everyone’s enjoyment of the Holiday experience begins with you.  When you invest more time and energy in self-care, you and everyone around you benefits.

So take time to ask yourself and your family what really matters this year, and how you can reduce your burdens and responsibilities.  Consider how you can change your focus to create your own healing Holiday miracles, and how you can open up space where true seasonal magic may thrive.

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About the Author

Abby’s father was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma in Kenya in 1946. Abby was also born with cancer in both eyes. She has an artificial eye and limited vision in her left eye that is now failing due to late effects of radiotherapy in infancy.

Abby studied geography at university, with emphasis on development in sub-Saharan Africa. She co-founded WE C Hope with Brenda Gallie, responding to the needs of one child and the desire to help many in developing countries.  After receiving many requests for help from American families and adult survivors, she co-founded the US chapter to bring hope and encourage action across the country.

Abby enjoys listening to audio books, creative writing, open water swimming and long country walks.

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