I (John Lovell) love Christmas and, like most folks, we want to have a great time celebrating this season and to enjoy it as a time that's supposed to be filled with joy. But if we’re really brutally honest with ourselves about it, a lot of us would admit that the month of December normally just kind of sucks? The holidays seem to turn a striving for joy and togetherness into more debt and exhaustion. But does it have to be this way? Absolutely not.
This is a long post, but I think it's a rather important one, because there is a serious problem with Christmas in America.
We incur terrible amounts of stress—traveling, waiting in traffic, standing in long shopping lines at retail stores, and enduring family drama.
And for what?
To spend money we don't have on people we hardly ever see to buy them presents that they don't really like? And by the end of the mad dash of December, we're utterly burned out and get to start the year broke, disappointed, and exhausted.
Maybe It's Time for a Hostile Takeover of Christmas
Is this really what Christmas is supposed to do to us? Unfortunately this has just become kind of a normal American thing, right? Of course I realize this isn't the case for all American families, but it certainly tended to be that way for ours. Now we actually enjoy Christmas. It's become wonderful for us, but it wasn't always that way.
We began to make a shift at Christmas because we wanted to be able to establish our own traditions and norms and not succumb to the cultural and social pressures that result in misery and burnout. Just like everybody else, though, we were being sucked into that same miserable rat race.
That's why we had to have a sort of hostile takeover of Christmas.
Now that we've done it, we don't view the holiday with dread and a desire simply to "survive" the trudge toward January.
It didn't come without some heartache and difficult decisions and boundaries. The hard limits we've set and the traditions we've established certainly took some work, and there was a price to pay, in the immediate, for bucking the system.
But the payout has been worth the little bit of hardship we faced.
I know it might even sound selfish, so let's think this through together. I think if you read on, you'll see that I'm not simply trying to make the holidays just about me and my family.
If my priority is to lead my family well, then it's more selfish to simply go along to get along. I believe that doing that—taking the path of least resistance at Christmas—equates to allowing others to dictate my family's well-being, which, I contend, is actually the more selfish route.
Let's think through this and consider some of the ways we reclaimed our enjoyment of Christmas and a December that we actually cherish.
#1: Reclaim Christmas by Guarding Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
We started simply and small. This began with protecting Christmas Day and Christmas Eve. First of all, we decided there'd be no travel on either of these days.
So this does NOT mean zero travel the entire month. That would be a little ridiculous. We still do some family visitation and travel to see her parents, my parents, siblings, friends, etc.
But on those two days, and some days before, we are locked in and it's just us. In addition to Christmas Eve and Christmas day, we aren't going to go chasing holiday events in the days leading up to Christmas, because we don't want to enter Christmas Day exhausted and up tight.
Of course, initially at least, there's going to be some internal and external shaming, so you have to battle that shame. Maybe this means that if you saw them at Thanksgiving, you probably don't need to kill yourself and your family trying to schedule a visit at Christmas—and definitely not a day or two before Christmas Eve.
If you prepare yourself for the guilt complex of "Aunt Teak's last Christmas alive" and if you, say, visit Aunt Teak sometime the other 11 months of the year, and if you have your reasons firmly set in place, then the initial ire will die down. People who love you will respect what you respect, and if they don't then they'll just have to live with it.
What I don't want is for shame to be wielded against you so that you're always just reacting to someone else's Christmas traditions instead of building your own for your family. Don't fall for it. It's OK to set some hard limits and to risk upsetting some family members so that you can keep your real immediate family healthy and well-balanced.
Trust me. This is not disrespecting your parents and extended family. It's choosing to respect your immediately family in a very specific way that others should understand.
PRO TIP: If it REALLY seems that Aunt Teak has one foot in the grave, you can make an exception. But don't allow yourself to be so easily manipulated by well-meaning assaults if you can help it.
#2: Reclaim Christmas by Guarding Your Budget
I remember the brokest of Christmases. We've had quite a few of them. I remember one specifically though. It was right after we'd moved up north of Atlanta and were just a couple years into building the Warrior Poet Society. We were so dead broke but we allowed ourselves to go to Goodwill with a limit to spend on each other.
Some of my purchases that day were a Barbie Doll with a missing leg, a pitiful stuffed animal, and a shoe without its pair. It was terrible, but we laughed ourselves to tears opening the most craptastic gifts ever. Guess what? We had a great Christmas.
We learned a lot about Christmas and gifts, like that you don't need a bunch of money and junk to have a memorable holiday. I think if you require expensive gifts, something else is highly, highly broken in your relationship.
A lot of people have broke Christmases. It's just reality. But it doesn't mean your Christmas won't still be special. Jesus wasn't born in a manger so that we could amass a pile of material goods and call it joy.
So, don't break your budget trying to make everyone happy with stuff they don't need or want. It's ludicrous. It's a lie. It's probably more the result of retailer propaganda that it is an actual expression of your love.
Make some memories, do some traditions, maybe even make some gifts, but don't overspend and cause yourself severe amounts of stress.
While we're on the subject of gift buying, here's a pro tip you might find helpful. PRO TIP: If you're married with kids, communicate to the children that your wife is number one. If, for example, she goes out for a bit during Christmas tree time to replace the lights, invite your kids to wrap her presents with you so that by the time she returns, there's a few stacked under the tree. Showing your wife and your kids that you value her relationship communicates volumes to her and to them about how they should treat their spouse.
#3: Reclaim Christmas by Managing Expectations with Relationships
Each year, this is what happens. We have certain expectations of our relationships. We so badly want our relationships with brother, sister, mother, father, son, daughter, grandkids, whatever, to be as they should be. Maybe this expectation is the result of the Hallmark Channel or something. But time and time again, they let us down.
This is a real joy killer.
So try something else this year. Remind yourself that broken relationships aren't suddenly fixed because it's Christmas. If anything, they get worse because of all the aforementioned reasons.
Instead of expecting Currier and Ives, expect circumstances and people for who they are. Sometimes it just is what it is and we need to love our loved ones despite themselves. People certainly have to overlook a few disappointments in us as well.
So, anyway, review the historical data and ask yourself whether the trend supports your lofty, dreamy vision for the holidays, then allow yourself to adjust accordingly in advance of gatherings.
Whereas before, again and again, every year, you and your bride are completely blindsided by it, now you'll be more prepared. In some instances, for protection of your family, it might be better to lovingly distance from certain individuals during the holidays, and work on the relationship other times of the year or holiday season.
Maybe you can see them and love them in creative ways all throughout the year or for a couple of hours in November without allowing them to torpedo Christmas every year.
"Hey, here's your Christmas present early. We were thinking about you." Etc. And then you can have a small, controlled, in and out visit rather than the prolonged Christmas festivities they tend to sabotage.
#4: Reclaim Christmas by Setting Your Own Traditions
I'll talk about this just by naming a few of our own Christmas traditions we've set for our family.
Christmas Parades. We might incorporate a few into our holiday schedule, especially the ones that are close by and free.
Helping Others. On Christmas Eve we'll eat a big meal out at Waffle House and leave an extra generous tip. Then we'll head to Walmart and Goodwill together and basically troll the aisles to see if we can help someone who's obviously struggling. We'll meet them at the register after they've scanned and pay for the whole thing. Use discernment on this. Not all who look poor are poor. I'll leave that there. And not everyone appreciates these charitable gestures.
Reaching Out to the Hurting and Lonely. The holidays can bring loss into stark relief as people observe these family days in the wake of losing a spouse, parent, or other loved one. This can include the recently divorced neighbor or family member as well.
Christmastime can be extremely difficult as it churns up all kinds of painful memories. If you're reading this, and that describes you, please know that I love you and I am sorry. I just want to encourage you to honor the memories and to feel no pressure to avoid, ignore, or mask your grief, because that hurt you're experiencing is why God's Son, our Savior, came to earth as a baby in a manger. He is acquainted with our suffering, sorrow, and our grief. He knows what you are dealing with and invites you to find comfort in Him.
This is why it's important to be aware and to reach out to people who are hurting during the holidays. I'm thankful that my wife is always scanning the room, and not just for threats. She's scanning the room wherever we go, also looking for people who might need a kind word or even someone to sit with.
At Thanksgiving she pointed out an elderly man at Cracker Barrel eating alone and so I popped up and invited him over to eat with us, and he did. It turns out he'd lost his wife of 50 years just a few weeks before. He was chatty and wonderful but definitely hurting, and that's why it's become so important to reach out, especially during the holidays.
Reaching Out into the Community. With all my aversion to traveling across the world and back at Christmas, I do get on the road to visit some people in our community just to remind them that someone is thinking about them. Take the attendant at our landfill, for instance. Each year around Christmas, we make a point of visiting her at her work to give her a gift. We also make a point of visiting people in the area who may not have family nearby or any family at all.
Fill the Mind with the Meaning of Christmas. At my church, we have a 6 p.m. Christmas Eve service. We light candles, turn down the lights, and sing some favorite Advent hymns and read scriptures that remind us that we are celebrating the birth of a Savior, not the getting of stuff and the chaos of malls and traffic. Back home, we'll do Bible reading and each open one gift—it'll be pajamas. Matching pajamas, of course.
In addition to services and Bible reading, we'll be watching "The Chosen" Christmas special at some point before Christmas. This 30-minute program tells the story of Jesus' miraculous birth. And by the way, if you haven't seen the series "The Chosen," I'd highly recommend this as well.
Christmas Day Traditions. On Christmas, when the sun is up, the boys wake us up (very early) and open their stockings along with a bigger gift that they can play with that morning. We make an epic breakfast later in the morning or even around lunchtime. Then we let the boys open a second gift.
In other words, we all work slowly through the unwrapping of gifts, kind of like a 12 days of Christmas but spread throughout a single day. This way we're not doing a mad dash on the presents and then scrolling screens the rest of the day. We spread the magic out, hopefully so that we have something to look forward to, spend time together throughout the day, and allow everyone to enjoy each gift for a while.
A New Tradition. This year we're adding another tradition to our Christmas day celebration. We're going to do a family communion. I mean, it's Christmas. It's about the birth of our Savior, and He told us to do communion "often in remembrance of Me." I'm pretty excited about this one because it brings our minds back to why any of this matters–the Creator of everything came into the world to restore what humans have messed up by living lives contrary to the way He intended. So I think that'll be a pretty special time for us.
And of course no Warrior Poet post is complete without reminding you to practice a little more situational awareness, both toward those in need and toward those wolves out there. Just because we're celebrating the birth of the Lamb of God doesn't mean we need to be sheep.
And whatever boundaries you decide to set in place, establishing lasting boundaries requires discipline. And of course training.
Train Hard. Train Smart. Live Free. And if you really need to visit your Aunt Teak, I understand. Merry Christmas.