May God’s Gift of Peace and Hope be your best Christmas gift ever.
I love the Christmas season: the smell of burning candles and pine boughs, Christmas cards that continue to connect me with old friends and music that fills all the tattered and worn places of the heart and spirit. I love the afterglow when family and friends have returned home after a special day of celebration.
It is the day after Christmas. Christmas cards that proclaim our desire for peace and hope are displayed on my mantle. Yet, as it has for centuries, the world remains in rebellion, revolts and war. Peace – Hope: are these things truly possible?
Each year, we are given the opportunity to pause and reflect on what Christmas means to us. For Christmas isn’t just about pretty bows, celestial music and lights that decorate trees and houses; it is about a gift given to us by God, a gift that involved sacrifice and love. Who can fathom such a God who loves us so much He would be willing to send His Son to die for us.
As we gather the wrapping paper strewn about and put away our presents, what will we do with the gift God has given us? Will we put it on a shelf somewhere with other gifts we don’t know what to do with? Or will we choose to continue to unwrap its many layers throughout the year.
The peace and hope we long for doesn’t begin with negotiations to end wars on foreign fronts. It isn’t found in governments that write peace treaties. But it can be found in the gift God gave us, which when applied, has the ability to transform our hearts and lives. The choice is ours. Do we use the gift given to each of us or discard it?
Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
Part of the grieving process is not only letting go of the life that was, but involves creating a new reality. Throughout our lifetime we experience losses that require new adjustments. For most of our losses, the momentary twinges of sadness give way to exciting new possibilities.
But when we have experienced the death of someone we loved as much as life itself, our life shuts down, in shock. The world we knew has been irretrievably altered. One minute we are happily going about the business of life – the next we are trying to absorb what has happened.
With any loss, life does not allow us to remain frozen in time, hoping that events will reverse itself and everything will be okay again. Even before the shock wears off, we are required to go back to work and provide for our families. And in-between going about the business of life, we try to reconcile our grief and transition into a new reality.
Holidays and other important dates can be extremely difficult especially in the early stages of a loss. Here are some things that might help the process.
- Accept invitations of family and friends. We may want to just retreat from the world. Yet it is precisely at these times when we need the support of others; even if we don’t think we will be good company. Share stories about the person who is no longer with you. Help friends join a conversation about good times and good memories. It’s okay to laugh through the tears.
- Take personal time to grieve. It’s okay to hold personal conversations with the person you loved. Write a special letter to him or her. Hang a special ornament on the tree. Journal, opening your heart and emotions onto paper. Allow yourself to cry. Then do something positive and pleasant.
- Make peace with what has happened. It is okay to be angry about events; but use anger to propel you forward in a constructive way. Part of grief work may be forgiveness as you let go.
- Find something good every day. It could be the recognition of good friends or people who reach out to you. Perhaps it is a new awareness of the strengths you have. Good things can occur even from the worst of tragedies if we remain open to them.
- Honor your grief. Remember, it takes time to heal – don’t be on someone else’s time frame for grief. Resist using drugs or alcohol to keep from feeling pain. We heal as we go through the pain. Create new positive traditions that represent your new life.
At this Christmas time, allow God to reveal all the little blessings currently smothered by pain. Immerse yourself in the good memories. May His love and peace heal your wounded heart. Merry Christmas.
Marlene Anderson, LMHC, NCC
What traditions create special meaning for your Christmas?
All of us have family traditions that we value and treasure. When I was growing up the magic of Christmas was candlight church services, traditional German meals and opening presents on Christmas Eve. When my children were growing up, Christmas was the wonderful feeling I had as I watched my children’s faces light up as they opened their presents and found their longed for gift. Later as our family grew, we created some new traditions while keeping some of the old.
Traditions. It is a continuation of practices and beliefs we want to keep because they symbolize what is important in our life. When we grow up and leave our family of origin, continuing to celebrate and honor those childhood traditions hold special meaning.
When we get married however, family traditions can create a lot of contention. Whose traditions do we follow? If the traditions brought to the marriage are drastically different, how you celebrate Christmas can create a lot of tension, hurt feelings and resentment.
How do you pick and choose? How do you respect your spouse’s background while honoring your own? And if you spend Christmas at relatives, how do you handle the different traditions.
Let your Partner know what is important to you
Talk to each other about what was important to you as a kid and why Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without some of those childhood traditions. Not all of them will be as important. Which would you be willing to give up? Which would you like to make a part of your own family’s tradition?
Experience a different tradition
Be willing to try on your partners traditions one year and then agree to follow yours the next. Maybe your family opened presents Christmas Eve and your spouse opened them Christmas morning. Be willing to “try on” the different tradition.
Pick and choose the parts of traditions that you can combine. Again, choosing from the above example, you might have celebrated Christmas Eve with extended family and friends who come for a special meal, opening of presents and attending candlelight church services. Your mate may have spent Christmas Eve wrapping presents with the family gathering on Christmas Day. Choose parts of both that are especially important to each of you and combine them.
Make your own traditions
Perhaps this year you want to put in place more meaningful traditions; such as spending time helping out at a food bank, or helping serve meals for shut ins, or sponsoring a child. As you experiment with what is important to your family, these can become important new traditions. Explain to in-laws or extended family why these are important to you. Let them know how much you appreciate the family traditions you grew up with but these new ones are right for you today.
Whatever traditions you follow, it is important that they have meaning and value for you and your family. Compromise, combine and create traditions that are right for you.
Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
Love and acceptance heals. Have you received the healing grace of love from others?
Its Christmas and you are expected to spend it with extended family, some of whom you really don’t like. You remember Christmases past where quarrelling and disagreements escalated or words unspoken left a pall of tension in the room. Perhaps unresolved family history hangs like murky smog enveloping everyone. You are dreading the time spent with relatives – your own and those of your spouse. But you see it as a duty, an obligation, something you have to do to keep peace in the family.
We can’t change in-laws or family members. They are who they are and we are who we are. But we can reduce the tension and apprehension of times together. And perhaps in the process, we might find some pleasant surprises. Here are some tips that might help.
Check your attitude
Attitudes reflect our personal view of how we think the world should and ought to operate. So, before leaving home to attend family functions, check your attitude. We reveal what we think of others not only by the words we use but by our physical posture. When our attitude suggests superiority, others see it as a challenge – a threat to be defended.
Respect your differences
While it sounds old and trite, accepting our differences allows us to respect another without having to agree with ideology or beliefs. Acceptance goes a long way in opening the door to understanding.
Be nice – make it a decision
We are often nicer to strangers than we are to members of our own family. Being nice to people even if they are not nice to us is a personal decision based on principles we have chosen to live by. It doesn’t depend on another being nice first. Set aside old grievances.
Look beyond behaviors
Often people are grumpy or unpleasant because they don’t feel appreciated or believe anyone cares. Like a lot of behaviors, being grumpy or prickly can become a habit. Everyone has a history that has shaped and molded them. We are seldom privy to the background influences that are now acted out on the stage of life. Make a decision to look at the world from another’s perspective. God loves each of us – even those we think are despicable and not nice. We can accept people without accepting bad behavior. You can extend grace to individuals as God extends grace to us. Set personal feelings aside and focus on the other. Avoid contentious discussions that trigger anger or defensiveness.
“For God so loved the world, He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16.
Christmas is a time to enjoy each other’s company. God loves you – He loves me – He loves the members of your family. Hate perpetuates destructive behavior. Love heals, but also demands a sacrifice of setting self aside long enough to tune into others.
Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
When money is tight, the holiday season can seem bleak and depressive. While budgets may have been stretched in the past, this year it is hovering on zero. The temptation to use credit cards already maxed out is great.
It has been reported that every year people overspend at Christmas resulting in taking half of the following year to pay off the debt. We have been conditioned to spend now and pay later. However, to continue to spend when we may or may not have a job next year, or when our budgets really can’t handle it, is playing a dangerous game with reality.
It is difficult to resist the temptation of spontaneous spending. Stores encourage spending by creating moods with lights, music and pleasant smells. It is easy to get lulled into spending more than you can afford because after all, aren’t we buying things for our loved ones? However, while it may make you feel good at the moment to spend more than you have, like drinking in excess, the hangover isn’t very pleasant.
I believe we can find a blessing or something positive in each and every situation. Perhaps the blessing hidden in our financial downturn is the opportunity to focus on what Christmas is all about – the birth of a Savior. Perhaps this year new traditions can be established for our family.
Talk to your kids about Christmas
Sit down with your children and talk about how this Christmas will be special because as a family you will be focusing on others rather than buying expensive gifts. Explain that limited funds will not keep you from having a wonderful Christmas. Together plan ways you can reach out to someone in need; offer assistance to an elderly person or bake some cookies for a stressed neighbor. Tell them how much their homemade cards and messages of love mean to you. Indicate that this year, there may be fewer gifts but they will be given out of love rather than meeting the demands of an “I want” list. Give them a gift of “time” that they can redeem throughout the next year. Perhaps it can be in the form of a coupon book or predetermined with their special interests in mind.
Years ago there were many lean years when raising my family. One year I made stuffed animals for each of my kids. That year my daughter more than anything else wanted a beautiful ballerina doll. It was outside our budget but her grandmother was able to purchase it for her. She was so thrilled when she opened her present that she cried. Yet, she reflected to her daughter and me that it had not given her all the hours of pleasure she had envisioned and it soon ended in the back of her closet. Instead, the stuffed toy became a treasured gift that was kept long after it had become worn and raggedy.
What does Christmas mean to you and why?
Check your own expectations. Which presents received in the past have given you the long term anticipated joy and happiness you thought they would? Which ones did not? What made the difference?
Christmas is more than money spent on Christmas gifts. It is about what we value and love. We give gifts because God gave us the gift of His Son. Attached to that gift was love and sacrifice.
Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
Change Produces Stress
We resist change because we are comfortable in well established habits – whether good or bad. We know what to expect. Yet, without change, life would be dull and boring. However, we want to be in control of what is changed.
But often, we are not in control of making those decisions. A divorce and a family breaking up, downsizing due to financial concerns, loss of a job, unexpected death or health issues drastically changes life as usual. And with those changes comes the stress of starting over and creating a new reality we do not like or want.
During the holiday season, drastic and unpleasant changes make it difficult to find anything to celebrate or be happy about. Our lives are stressed by the loss, picking up the pieces while we try to survive.
Change takes time and energy. It requires letting go of what was and turning our focus on what we can do. What is required to survive? How can we feel better while adjusting? What can we do to find some joy in the holiday season? Here are some suggestions that might help:
This is the hardest part.
We don’t want to let go of what we had. We don’t want this change. In acceptance our energy is freed. Acceptance puts us back in the driver’s seat. But it requires a deliberate decision to let go of what was and accept what is happening. This is especially difficult with a divorce.
Put yourself back in charge
Visualize yourself in charge of the situation. We may not be able to alter what is happening, but we have the ability to choose how we will respond to it. After the initial shock, anger and anxiety, purposefully focus on taking charge.
Find something pleasing every day
Find one thing every day that is pleasing or uplifting. Post motivational and encouraging sayings where you can see them during the day – on the bathroom mirror, on the refrigerator door, on the dashboard of your car. Post a list of all your blessings. Keep a pencil handy to add to the list.
Write out affirmative “I” statements. Take them with you wherever you go and repeat them often. These statements celebrate your strengths. “I am capable of handling this situation.”
Focus on God’s Gifts
Focus on the gifts God has given us: His son, His love, His hope, His strength. Ask God for courage and wisdom and faith to believe He will never leave us.
Christmas is what we celebrate in our hearts. Re-set your spirit with God’s special blessings. You will experience renewed energy, creativity and hope.
Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
You are putting up holiday decorations and instead of feeling happy, you feel sad and depressed. Holidays can be stressful – not only because of all the extra demands on our time, but because sometimes they represent a painful past; a loss of someone we shared our life, a childhood we never had or a life filled with pain and disappointment.
Emotions – sometimes we wish we didn’t feel so much. We medicate ourselves with drugs or alcohol or endless shopping sprees to dull the ache. We lose ourselves in parties rather than enjoying friendships. We push away feelings of sadness or try to run away from them. But deep inside a tiny voice pleads, “I am tired of feeling sad. I want to feel peace and happiness. I want to experience that childlike wonder of expectation and anticipation this Christmas.”
How do we get beyond old painful feelings that are triggered this time of year?
1. Allow yourself to feel. Walling off, pushing away or somehow trying to contain our past can be stressful and exhausting. Only when we work through painful issues can we be free from their grip. If you continue to experience intrusive emotions from your past, gift yourself time with a good therapist who can help you process the pain so you can move on.
2. Acceptance. The losses from our past continue to haunt us because we have not accepted them. Acceptance stops the cycle of resistance, resentment, anger and helplessness. While the losses in our life will always be a defining part of who we are, grieving allows painful memories to heal.
3. Focus on blessings. Even in the darkest of times when we are struggling to survive, there are things to be thankful for. Focusing on blessings changes our internal chemical system allowing us to respond differently to life. Thankfulness releases new energy.
4. Reach out. It has been said many times, but we need to be reminded again and again that when we reach out to others in need we feel better. Reaching out puts a new perspective on our own troubles. And it takes so little time and effort. A smile and empathy for the frazzled clerk, choosing not to get angry or grumpy when standing in long lines, giving grace to others who are having a tough day are small ways we can reach out that don’t cost a penny.
5. Stay in the here and now. When you become aware your thoughts are constantly tuning into the negative, tell yourself “stop.” Listening to old negative messages from the past is a habit. We can choose to shut off our internal critic. You are in charge of the control button.
Christmas is a time to rejoice in a new beginning. It is the time a Savior was born and in Him we find the peace and healing that our heart longs for. He came because He loves us. Reach out and take His healing grace and allow Him to be a part of your daily life.
©Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC