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Each year during the holiday season, it seems that events and obligations stack up at such a rate that before my family and I even realize it, we’re committed to one gathering or another (and sometimes more than one!) just about every day from Thanksgiving through the New Year. It’s always fun but it’s also exhausting, and can end up feeling like a distraction from the connection and togetherness that we truly value during the holidays. This year, things are a bit different for our family.

A close relative of mine recently received a terminal diagnosis and was admitted into hospice care shortly before Thanksgiving. After watching his condition change rapidly each day, we began to prepare for the possibility that he may not live until Christmas. The weekend after Thanksgiving, we were all spending time together and we decided on the spur of the moment that we should celebrate Christmas that day. A few hours of excitement ensued while everyone picked up a few presents, popped up a small tree, and placed a few decorations around the house.

We all agreed it was one of the best Christmases we could remember. There was no extended build up, no pressure to have the most festive house on the block, no labor-intensive party preparation. As a result, we weren’t exhausted and burnt out and were able to be present with one another, creating quality connection. The gifts we purchased for each other were simple, which kept the focus on the real gift of spending time together laughing, chatting, and enjoying Christmas cheer. Although it was a time of great sadness, we were able to tap into the joy of the season in a deeper, more meaningful way.

After this experience with my family, I’m more motivated than ever to set aside the typical holiday chaos. It makes sense—for folks in the northern hemisphere, the low light and cold temperatures of the winter season actually call us to slow down, cozy up by the fire, do less, and connect with self and others on a deeper level. Even if we enjoy winter outdoor activities like skiing and snowshoeing, it’s still a natural time to retreat inward at the end of the day.

In the end, my experience this year with my family served as reminder that this is the season for gratitude, joy, and meaningful connection. For me, those things are best cultivated in the slower pace of self-reflection and authentic interactions. I want to make sure to keep the holiday traditions that are important to me, my husband, and our three young boys, but I also want to try to resist some of the urges to over-consume, over-shop, and give for the wrong reasons. I yearn for a holiday filled with heart and soul, with love and connection like I experienced with my family after Thanksgiving. Here are some of the ways I’m hoping to get there:

Practice gratitude. Profound in its simplicity, the act of appreciating the blessings in our lives is one of the quickest ways to tune out the static of consumer-focused holidays. At our house, we try to share something we’re grateful for before eating dinner each night.

Give to others. Volunteer opportunities and ways to give to charity abound this time of year. I hope to get my kids involved in some activities we can all do together that will help those less fortunate, like donating to a coat or toy drive, or helping out at our local food bank.

Spread love. The holidays are a free pass to get as cheesy as you want with your affection! Whether it’s sending out cards or making time for a phone call with a friend, I try not to hold back when telling the people in my life how much I love them. Life is too short not to share!

Make it your own. Our family does a different spin on the “elf on the shelf”—focused on kindness. Our elf sends a short letter to the kids each day inspiring them to work on specific family values like respect, sharing, compassion, and gratitude. The kids love getting their personal notes and work hard to practice the daily challenges. This simple tradition has helped us weave a deeper spirit of Christmas into the entire month.