I am one of those children for whom Advent calendars meant just one thing: chocolate - a daily dose ahead of a Christmas Day overdose.
I can't remember if those calendars also had religious or secular words of wisdom, but I clearly recall the thrill of peeling back each dated window to reveal that day's delicacy.
In adulthood there is probably no daily nugget which could reproduce the same kind of excited expectancy in the December run-up to Christmas. But given how frenetic those 25 days can be, perhaps a few pointers to a more spiritual approach can make this special time of year less stressful and more enjoyable.
1. Start with stillness. There is always so much to be done between the beginning of December and Christmas, so before starting go somewhere quiet where you can shut out the drumbeat of demands and be still. Gaining a sense of poise might be your greatest gift to family and friends, as well as fellow workers and shoppers and, of course, any harried shop assistants you might encounter! To paraphrase Gandhi, "Be the calm you want to see!"
2. Let love lead you. Once you have gained that inner poise, take opportunities to spread seasonal "peace and goodwill". I have certainly been pleasantly surprised to find how reordering priorities to put love's possibilities first can instill a sense of calmness and control which allows you to get everything done more smoothly.
3. Valuing family and friends. A friend of mine told me how drudgery turned to joy when she realised the humdrum task of sewing name tags on her children's school clothes could be used as a time to cherish the youngsters' unique qualities. As you sign, seal and send your Christmas cards treat each one as an opportunity to value the person you are sending it to.
4. Be kind to yourself and others. Some time ago I read about a sweet, unscientific (and very British!) survey which found that every person the "researcher" deliberately bumped into said "sorry" to him. Irrational? Over polite? Or wise? The fact is research has shown kindness is good for your health. So saying sorry, no matter who causes the collision, might be the way to negotiate crowded streets, transport and busy shopping centres.
5. Shop ethically. While busy trying to avoid bumping into others we can use the ethic of reciprocity (or Golden Rule) to resist the temptation to resent fellow shoppers. "Treat others as you would like to be treated" could translate to "love the Christmas crowds as you would want them to love you". After all you are one of the reasons it is crowded!
6. Embrace spontaneity. The need to balance work, domestic duties and social activities is always more acute at Christmas time. I find it helps if, rather than approach my calendar as a rigid to-do list to be ticked off one by one, I see it more like a work of art, continually appreciating it as it takes shape. I have found keeping an open mind and making room for flexibility as each day unfolds reduces stress and increases joy.
7. Be grateful. Scientists are accumulating evidence which verifies what spiritual thinkers would affirm from experience: a gratitude attitude can reduce anxiety and depression. To those for whom the holiday season exacerbates such problems the good news is we don't have to wait for a big reason to be grateful. A friend's suicidal depression turned around when, during a moment of spiritual clarity, she began appreciating the everyday things of life. She felt impelled to make this a practice until, slowly but surely, she saw more significant things to appreciate. Finally, the permanent lifting of the depression itself became a cause for heartfelt gratitude.
8. Enjoy yourself. Why not? If you're full of gratitude and exuding calmness and kindness why shouldn't you cruise happily towards the kind of Christmas you enjoy? Appreciate the festive lights. Warm your hands on a bag of roast chestnuts. Share in the growing anticipation of small children. Look forward to the Doctor Who Boxing Day special. Meditate on the Christmas story and let the message inspire you.
9. But don't forget others. Okay, it's not all bright lights, warm chestnuts and happy kids. For some reason the season of goodwill seems to bring out the worst in many people's experience. Loneliness feels more lonely. Alcoholism seems to be more obvious. Domestic tensions can spiral. Spare a prayer for those in need and, when you can, make a difference in practical ways. The message of Christmas is that peace and goodwill are God's intention for everyone. We can try to bring out that reality by giving from the heart. The icing on the cake is that research has shown it is good for the giver's health when we do. Altruism is a win-win situation.
10. Peace interludes. Pausing for moments of mental stillness can make all the difference in how you think about yourself and act towards others. In turn that can transform your day. This doesn't need to mean breaking your stride and finding a quiet corner to be by yourself, though sometimes that can help! It means being honestly aware of your thoughts and when they start going round in circles or racing in a wrong direction steering them back to that place of spiritual poise.
11. Forgive even if you can't forget. This is the Nelson Mandela approach to rocky relationships. It is amazing how long family feuds and broken friendships can last if we're not careful. The run-up to Christmas offers an opportunity to review and revise our mental list of grievances before they ruin our holiday break or, even worse, our health. As the Mayo clinic recently put it: "If you don't practice forgiveness, you might be the one who pays most dearly. By embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy. Consider how forgiveness can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being." We can't always change others. But we can change how we think about them and act towards them.
12. Give beyond the gifts. And finally it's Christmas day. Does it need to be religious? Not necessarily. But there is a reason to celebrate Jesus. One way to look at his life is that he showed us how the qualities we choose to express can improve our experience and touch our loved ones and neighbours. Something that moves me each year is a rabbi in my area who volunteers to drive the Mayor around the Borough to all the functions he needs to attend so the regular chauffeur can spend Christmas day at home with his family. Isn't this an example which can inspire us all to give beyond the gifts and not just enjoy Christmas on one day but actually live its spirit throughout the year?
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