Admit it, there are times when you would like to spend Christmas hiding out in a cave. But put away that scowl, because our Grinch-busting guide will raise your yuletide spirits faster than you can say Cindy Lou Who.
'Tis the season to be jolly! Except you're anything but. Instead, you're sulky, resentful, cranky -- in short, a Grinch of the first order. And who wouldn't be? You have to:
• Host your husband's family for Christmas dinner yet again (doesn't anybody else own an oven and poinsettia candleholders?);
• Find the perfect gift for everyone on your list -- on budget;
• Attend an office party, on your own time, and bring a cheesy gift (like you need one more person -- and one you hardly know -- to shop for);
• Be cheery with, or at least civil to, your sister-in-law (nephew, cousin, uncle), with whom you had a falling-out last Easter and who you never could stand anyway;
• Shop not only for your own family but also for your partner's; and
• Enthuse over Auntie Lois the Aged Hippie's yearly politically correct gift -- this year, handwoven Peruvian pillowcases;
• Attend more concerts and recitals than the Queen does on a royal tour.
It's all enough to give even Bob Cratchit a nasty case of the humbugs. No wonder 68 per cent of Canadian Living Magazine readers polled on Canadian Living Online admitted they suffer from seasonally induced Grinchiness. However, as the original Grinch found out in Dr. Seuss's classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (Random House, 1957, hardcover, $20), you can't stop Christmas from coming -- so you might as well get on with it. But how do you transform overwhelmed into overjoyed?
We consulted some expert Grinchproofers, among them Mrs. Santa herself -- at least, that's how Virginia Brucker, an author and teacher, is known to her Nanoose Bay, B.C., elementary-school colleagues. Her book Gifts from the Heart: 500 Simple Ways to Make Your Family's Christmas More Meaningful (Insomniac Press, 2006) provides inspiring alternatives to the yuletide frenzy, and the sales of the book have so far raised more than over $98,500 for the Canadian Cancer Society.
"I think people feel like Grinches because of a lack of time, a belief that we must give and receive expensive gifts in order to be happy, a feeling that the holiday has been commercialized, excessive and unrealistic expectations of what the holiday can do for us, a lack of connection to family and friends, and family problems," says Virginia. Careful reflection and thoughtful planning, she says, are the keys to coping. "I make a conscious and deliberate choice to think of it as a season of opportunities rather than obligations."
Let's get started.
Who do I look like -- the Naked Chef?
How was it that your dining room got to be the Christmas Diner for the entire extended family? Or that you became chief cook and bottle washer? As Darlene Sandquist from Calgary told us online, "I love Christmas. I love every bit of it except for one thing: the mess. I would like to know who declared me chief of the cleanup crew. I clean for days before and then all day on Christmas Day. I try to stay cheery about it, but by the end of the day I am usually steaming because I am doing dishes once again -- knowing I will be doing it all over again on Boxing Day."
"Cleaning...well, I hate doing it, so I make up a list and choose one major chore each week, starting in mid-November. Then I select a couple of small chores for each day as it gets closer to company arriving. I love checking off my list: it makes me feel totally accomplished instead of dragged out."
- Mary Meister, St. Albert, Alta.
• Virginia suggests that you start by looking at why it's always your turn. "Many families get locked into doing it 'the way we've always done it,'" she says. Suggest a family meeting or conference call long before Christmas to put the host issue on the table, as it were. Who knows -- you might even discover that somebody else has been longing to play host.
• Maybe there are good reasons why you're always "it" when it comes to hosting dinner: perhaps your home is the most central or the most spacious. Or maybe you just can't bring yourself to ask someone else to take a turn. Whatever the reason, consider asking each guest to contribute one item to the menu. Explain that you're determined this year to spend more of the day enjoying family rather than cooking.
• How about launching a new "labour law"? In some families, all the females prepare the big dinner together and all of the males clean up afterward.
• Remind yourself, as Darlene MacLean of Halifax does, that your family and friends are "really there to see you and not just your home and food. The basic thought of keeping it simple works so well if you just take the time to realize it."
The Grinch is a trademark of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, LLP
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Yes, Mrs. Santa knows how tempted you are to simply announce that you won't be doing gifts this year. She also knows that, for many of us, the ensuing guilt would be more stressful than the money, time and pressure involved in buying or making presents. Fess up: you know it's not just a matter of having a little something for everybody -- it's having the perfect something. You also know how hard it is to make dreams come true on a budget, and to shop for 87 people on your half-hour lunch breaks. No wonder you're pushing the panic button by the middle of December.
"I create a shopping list on my computer and list the presents as I buy them so I don't overspend or, worse, forget someone. My shopping list has been shortened by getting various groups of family and friends to draw names early in the year."
- Judy Schofield, Beaumont, Alta.
• Many of our Canadian Living Online visitors recommended shopping for gifts all year round to take the pressure off during the holiday season. But if you haven't, make a shopping list right now. Consider carefully whether there are individuals with whom you would like to stop exchanging gifts. Invite them for a cookie bake or movie date instead. Or group some recipients together: instead of buying for each nephew and niece, give family gifts of concert tickets, magazine subscriptions or games.
• Shop early in December on a low-key weekday to avoid the crowds of other panicking, cranky Grinches.
• Fight the "gimmies," a pervasive ailment many kids catch from a combination of peer pressure and media hype. Give them a reality check by explaining your financial situation. A lesson in managing money well is a great gift to give your children. Ask them to give you their final wish lists by December 1 and to highlight the two items they really want. And instead of letting them watch TV -- and high-pressure commercials -- keep them busy making ornaments, gifts and cookies and choosing toys to give away to local shelters.
• Follow the example of Sheila McDonnell of Hornby Island, B.C., and forget about gifts altogether. Instead, make a donation to your favourite charity. "If people judge me for the amount I spend on a gift they don't really need anyway, I don't want them as friends," she says.
Grinchy business: The office party
What's the last thing that any Grinch up to her mistletoe in yuletide preparations needs? OK, it's a long list, but near the top of it is holiday jollity with the folks you see every day.
• If you have any say in the planning of your office party, "Why not have a lunch-hour party rather than an evening event?" suggests Virginia. Even if the budget doesn't permit a restaurant outing, put on Christmas music in the office and serve cookies and hot chocolate.
• If your office traditions include a gift exchange, think of (or propose) replacing it with a more meaningful charitable initiative, such as collecting items for a local shelter or transition house. For example, organize a collection of pyjamas or nightgowns (Haven House in Nanaimo, B.C., says nightclothes are the most needed items because families often leave unsafe situations with just the clothes they're wearing); mittens and hats; baby items; toiletries, such as shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste; books; or nonperishable food items.
• Important reminder: If your office party is after hours and alcohol is served, never attempt to assuage your inner Grinch by overindulging. Apart from making you even crankier the next day, who knows what promotions or raises you could scuttle while under the influence?
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How to be relatively cheerful
In spite of pervasive images of joyful storybook family Christmases, "Your actual family may be more like a soap opera," says Virginia. In fact, Dr. Janet Dowsling, a general practitioner-psychotherapist in Toronto, says conflict is inevitable in most families. Dowsling's advice: try to live in the present, focus on the day and make this an opportunity to let go of grudges.
"When we find things are getting to be too much, we stop and remember what Christmas is really all about -- Jesus. I'm sure even Jesus had hard-to-handle relatives."
- Patricia Landry, Bible Hill, N.S.
• "If the relationship is important to you, don't leave unresolved grievances until Christmas," suggests Virginia. Invite the person to have coffee with you privately and discuss your feelings ahead of time. Remember that hateful thoughts won't make your day pleasant, says Dowsling. Repeat the Serenity Prayer to yourself: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference."
• Before you walk into the room where your sister-in-law (or whoever) is lurking, pause a moment, close your eyes and take some deep breaths, exhaling the negative feelings and imagining them draining out of your body. Picture her smiling at you and smile back.
• Virginia suggests inviting a much-loved family friend to the family festivities. "Difficult people are less likely to misbehave when there is someone other than family there," she says.
• Do a little diplomatic work ahead of time. Organize kitchen and cleanup crews carefully, separating the potential feuders. Give everyone a little job to do: sometimes people are cranky because they don't feel appreciated or useful.
Shopping for two
It just sort of happens -- one year you're exchanging a few carefully chosen gifts with friends and loved ones, the next (usually the first after your wedding) you're shopping for a list that reads like the Canadian Census.
• Divide the labour along gender, not family, lines: you shop for the women and girls on both sides; he for the guys.
• Suggest your partner execute a specific assignment: for instance, he could buy all the gifts of wine or liqueurs, CDs, etc.
• If shopping is simply not for your mate, give him some of the other chores to do while you're at the mall: get the cars serviced, put up the decorations, stock the pantry, wrap packages for out-of-town mailing or deal with the dry cleaning.
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If it's the thought that counts, what was she thinking?
If most Grinchifying situations make you resentful, this one leaves you feeling guilty: dreading or despairing over a loved one's annual incongruous offering.
"Whenever I start to feel that yuletide feeling leaving me, a good ole dose of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" is the key to getting me back in the spirit. Or I take a child to a children's party where Santa will make a surprise appearance, to a holiday movie or to a tree lighting ceremony; there are lots of events in every community."
- Andrea Atwood, Dartmouth, N.S.
• Remember that while in some cases your profuse and heartfelt thanks will be for the gifts themselves, in many others they will be for the giver's thoughtfulness, generosity and love.
• There is no law that says you must keep every gift forever. "Everyone has a cupboard full of gifts that will end up in garage sales or thrift stores," says Virginia.
• Teach your children how to open and acknowledge gifts. "I remember giving our five-year-old niece Christine some knitted mitts and a hat," says Virginia. "I had run out of boxes and tucked them into a cracker box. When she removed the paper, she said, 'Oh goodie, I love this kind of cracker!'"
• If you suspect your own gifts are falling shy of the mark, give a gift that won't last: candles, lovely paper napkins, a fir or cedar wreath, baked goods, gift certificates for movies, home preserves or gourmet coffee or tea.
If it's Tuesday, it must be The Nutcracker
Concerts, recitals, ballets... every child in the world, it seems, is enjoying her 15 minutes of Christmas fame, and your attendance is required at every second. Sorry, Mrs. Santa will brook no dodging -- unless two events are scheduled for the same time. Instead, Virginia reminds you to "reframe" or replace your resentment with positive thoughts to make the event more meaningful and memorable.
• Take an elderly friend or relative. He'll love the outing, it's flattering to the young performer and you'll enjoy the visit.
• Start a holiday-concert memory book containing snaps of the children involved and family members in attendance, the programs, tickets and words or music to the songs performed. What a great keepsake in years to come!
• Reflect for a moment on the friends and family members you have lost who are not able to be in the audience today. It puts it in perspective.
• Pick up a copy of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (HarperCollins Canada, 1988) by Barbara Robinson. "You will never ever look at a Christmas concert in the same way," says Virginia. "This year will mark the 26th time I've read it. And each time is as wonderful as the first!"
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