Over the years, I’ve steadily simplified my activities and responsibilities throughout the Christmas season, and truly benefited from slowing down and focusing this time on meaningful connection, reflection and self care.
There is a magic to the holidays that touches my inner child. I love the ritual of decorating the tree and making the house festive. I have favourite Christmas music and films that we bring out just for the holidays. My daughter and I make our own ornaments and Christmas cards and I love shopping for just the right gifts for family and friends.
Most of all this is a time when I touch base with the feeling from childhood of the holidays stretched out before me…so much time to expand into and so many wonderful experiences to look forward to…time to relax with family and friends, time to potter and just be.
But this year feels different. Following nearly a year of social isolation, the impact of unfamiliar stresses has affected each of us in unique and unexpected ways, and I am acutely aware of how burned out and stressed many people are feeling as we draw closer to the holidays.
I have friends who have spent the last nine months working harder and longer hours than they ever have in their life, and others who lost their jobs and had to go into survival mode. I have friends who are retired or furloughed, who have spent the last nine months completely alone, while others haven’t had a minute alone…literally. On the other hand, I also have friends for whom the pandemic offered the gift of a much needed extended holiday, where they caught up on reading, picked up new hobbies and enjoyed socially distanced gatherings with friends in the park.
Whether we have found personal peace through the ups and downs of this time or not, the accumulated stress on the fabric of our social connectivity, and society as a whole, has been undeniable. Many people are simply too stressed and exhausted to contemplate festivities, and others need human connection and happy times more than ever.
Who would have imagined that a single year could bring so much change to our rhythms of being, our relationships with others and, in many cases, our home and work lives, and in such varying ways?
In light of such diverse needs and circumstances during this time, I’ve gathered some thoughts below on ways to reestablish healthy rhythms, destress, ground and take care of ourselves…and make the coming holiday an opportunity to ‘reset’ for the new year. As we reach the longest night of the year, ‘stand still’ and then step towards a new year, let’s also think of the deepest needs of those we care for. This has been a tough year and perhaps you know someone who truly needs your love and support.
As the weeks of lockdown turned into months, keeping a regular routine became increasingly difficult for many. Work seeped into our personal lives, then took over, or isolation and lack of structure led to every day becoming a pyjama day. A regular routine is a vital part of living a healthy, productive and meaningful life and if you feel like you’ve lost touch with healthy habits, then this is an excellent place to start.
Begin the day by drinking a full glass of water. This will activate healthy elimination, will immediately increase your mental alertness and will also boost your metabolism and immunity. During the winter when we are inside with central heating, our skin can easily become dehydrated and lose its glow. Drinking pure cool water will help to wake up your mind and body and set you off on a positive start to the day.
Head straight to the shower! While you sleep your skin releases toxins and it is important to remove them upon rising. The sooner you shower upon rising the better, and you will notice the difference in how you feel, not only physically, but emotionally and mentally too. Start with a hot shower to cleanse, then complete with a cold shower for at least a few seconds, but ideally for a full minute. This has a wide range of healthful benefits as it increases circulation and oxygenation of the blood, improves cognition, immunity, metabolism and energy levels, and also significant improves your ability to tolerate the cold in winter.
Once dressed, head straight out the door and take a walk. Exercise and exposure to sunlight is especially important in winter, and breathing fresh air in the morning will further energise you for the day. Exercise releases endorphins, which help to reduce stress and walking stimulates the lymphatic system, which will support its role in cleansing body tissues while also boosting your immune system.
While walking, be mindful of the nature that you see. Attend to the colours of the sky, the light on the leaves, the patterns of the rain and the shades of the colours that you see. Notice the scents and sounds that surround you, the feel of the air against your skin and the warmth of your hands in your pockets. Remember that you are a part of nature, part of this world, and that your connection with it can be deeply healing.
This morning routine is a simple way to make a positive and healthful start to the day. If you have the inclination, and the time, you can extend this time with a yoga session, meditation, journalling, or another activity that you enjoy, but even these simple steps can make all the difference to how the rest of your day unfolds.
Note too that in winter, midday is the best time to spend at least 20 minutes outdoors as this is when the light is brightest. A short lunchtime walk outside will help to boost your Vitamin D levels and is a great support for reducing or preventing the affects of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
A regular evening routine is also an important part of a balanced and healthy lifestyle. A simple structure that allows one to disconnect with work and wind down from the day is one of the secrets to longevity and emotional wellness. In winter it becomes dark so early that one can lose touch with regular schedules and get into the habit of working into the night or spending hours in front of the television. Consider the following suggestions to help create an evening routine that allows you to relax, while also allowing for space to get in touch with facets of life that nourish and inspire you.
Remove the dust of the day! Set a time where the work day ends and home life begins. Mark this moment with a shower or bath and fresh clothes or pyjamas. Again ending the shower or bath with cold water is a great support for health and wellness.
Set a time for dinner at least four hours prior to bedtime. The evening meal should be smaller than the midday meal, as eating larger meals in the evening is hard on digestion and, especially when eaten fewer than four hours before sleep, will impact circadian rhythms, leading to weight gain, emotional instability and lowered cognition.
Create a list of activities that you enjoy and that are suitable for the evening hours. On my own list is hand sewing, reading, journalling, bathing, candlelit conversations, swapping foot, head and hand massages, watering the plants and meditation. In the build up to the holidays, I also like making Christmas cards and other Yuletide craft activities. When I’m overly tired, it is tempting to turn on the television (I’m particularly fond of historical Korean and Bollywood dramas), but although this may seem easiest, it isn’t what actually feels good if it becomes a regular habit. By creating a list of activities and having the resources for these activities prepared in advance, it is easier to establish an evening routine that is more fulfilling.
Establish a regular bedtime and use the hour before bed to completely wind down. Ideally turn off the television, computer and/or mobile phone two full hours before bedtime, as the light from electronic devices also effects our circadian rhythms. If you struggle with going to bed early enough to feel refreshed in the morning, you may need to reset your circadian rhythms. This rhythm is actually very personal and the best way to find out your own natural rhythm is to go camping in nature without an alarm clock for a week or more. Soon your body will establish its own natural waking and sleeping times that leave you fully refreshed, and these will vary a little at different times of the year. Given that it’s winter, you can reset your circadian rhythms at home by simply not using an alarm clock, but it will usually take a week or two longer than if you are sleeping in outside. Consider taking advantage of the holidays to find your own healthy sleep rhythm.
This may seem counter to the feasting spirit…but a shift from thinking of Christmas as a ‘consumer’ towards remembering that it is, first and foremost, a HOLIDAY, will help to get your mind on a different tangent!
How often do we get holidays…not just a break from work, but a break from work as a community?
If we don’t take the time now to actually relax, then a profound opportunity for you, your friends and family is lost.
Create a Christmas menu that has a single main dish, an abundance of vegetables, and a single dessert. Since when does a festive meal have to be complicated? Your digestion will thank you, you won’t waste food, and you will spend far less time shopping and in the kitchen.
Too often I’ve seen a single person slogging away in the kitchen for most of the Christmas holidays, while others are relaxing…this isn’t right whether it is you alone in the kitchen, or a loved one.Rather than making meals on your own, make them with your family and/or friends. Kids can join in too. My daughter and I love making festive meals together and she has been an active participant in making Christmas meals since she was three years old. Give children a job that they can do, assist them if needed…and enjoy the process.
The experience of preparing a meal is greatly enhanced by preparing the meal slowly, giving time for everyone to bond over conversation. When it comes time to clean up, many hands make light work…so do it together!
If it’s impractical to have a group of family and friends in the kitchen, consider having a potluck…just make sure to do this in an organised way so you don’t end up with a table full of desserts!
If you are unable to spend time with your family or friends this Christmas, consider a Skype or Zoom feast where you share the whole process of preparing and eating a festive meal, or opening presents around the tree…from a distance. I learned this trick when I was living in Devon and my daughter was studying in New Zealand. We would spend entire evenings together, chatting, watching films (she would watch the film on her side, and I would watch it on mine…pausing and starting at the same time if we wanted to chat), and enjoying meals, and it truly was a bonding experience where we didn’t feel so far apart from one another!
Many people equate the Christmas season with giving and receiving gifts, but not only can spending money on gifts lead to financial stress, purchasing things that people really don’t need, at a time when there are so many who are not getting their needs met, feels very much out of sync with the times. Rather than giving gifts, consider giving something that a friend really needs. Perhaps run some errands for them, or volunteer to take care of their kids for a few hours so they can have some space. Or simply spend time with those you care about. People don’t need gifts, they need connection.
Another gift to consider is sharing stories! This can be done just as easily through Zoom or Skype as it can be done in person. Let your family or guests know in advance that each person should come prepared with a true story about a time in their life that had a significant impact on making them who they are today. A story they haven’t shared before.
As the host, or the instigator of this idea, it is important to be the first to share a story so that everyone can get a feel for the authenticity and depth expected of them. This is a beautiful way to learn about your loved ones and share quality time together.
One of the challenges of a ‘normal’ Christmas is finding gifts for those hard to please relatives who have everything. This year, with so many people people in need after losing their jobs and even their homes, it’s the perfect time to expand our circle of compassion and giving. Our relatives will understand and appreciate our choice to dedicate gift funds to community giving, and through making this choice we have the opportunity to lift the heart and ease the hardship of those who truly need to feel that society cares. One of my favourite sayings is, if you have more than you need, build a bigger table, not a higher wall. Those of us who have made it through this year and still have a cosy home and a secure income are truly blessed. Sharing this blessing with others is the gift that keeps on giving.
Giving to charities is a quick stop way to do this, but I highly encourage you to find a means to help your local community. Also, if you have a friend or acquaintance that needs your help, there is no better time to embody the true meaning of friendship. Many hands make light work and if someone you know is struggling in ways beyond your personal means to help, gather friends and family together to make the difference you want to see in their life.
I hope that some of these suggestions are inspiring for you and I’d love to hear how you make the holidays truly a holiday. Meanwhile, I wish you a peaceful, nourishing and festive holiday, with deep connection to loved ones, even if from afar, and the space to touch base with what really makes you happy.