So, it’s that time of the year again. Almost like a ride at an amusement park, we are heading into the holiday season like a roller coaster just about to top that first clackety-clack ascent. A moment to take in a breath as the panorama of the park opens up below us, just before the cars plunge down that very first, often scary steep drop, up and down, around and around, until the culmination of the ride at New Year’s.
Some of us absolutely love this part of the year, throwing ourselves into the spirit of it with reckless abandon. Yet, for many, there is an almost overwhelming pressure; an underlying drive to perform, to put on airs, to not be lonely. In a word:
Which has become a cultural imperative.
I say that because the three or so months marking the holiday season (I include the appearance of Halloween items in September, sometimes Christmas stuff as well, as the beginning of the season.) has become an American cultural period with four distinct time anchors that are driven by our marketing ‘friends’ collectively known as Madison Avenue.
Let’s consider the psychology of it, if you will, starting with the opening of the season towards the middle or end of September.
Halloween is the opener. Once, just a night of candy gathering by children, it is becoming more and more an adult ‘night of fun’, especially for those of us that really enjoyed it as kids. As adults, we are encouraged to begin engaging in a bit of fantasy, or dissociation from our everyday lives as we begin decorating our domiciles and workplaces with spooky schemes. It is a throwback to our childhood, when we were more carefree and limited only by our imaginations. I say it is an ‘opener’ because, on the holiday scale, it generally doesn’t rank very high among the larger population (Yes, there are those for whom this is their favorite ‘holiday’). The décor blends nicely into the first of the two ‘major’ holidays. Marketing is geared towards costumes, decorations, and food (SWEETS).
Thanksgiving. Yes, family get togethers, lots of food, some decorations, and (relatively new) football. This holiday in particular is a high pressure situation as we are sometimes socially guilted into family togetherness that requires a particular, and socially driven, pomp. It’s time to bring out the good ‘china’, cook the perfect turkey or ham, invite the relatives, even the ones we don’t associate with, and engage in a modern feast. Unlike, Halloween, there is a serious undertone at work which is generally directed towards the female gender bias . . . showcasing cooking, entertaining, and decorating skills while the males of the species engage in less . . . cough . . . important activities. This is also where we see the drive to ‘help the poor’ begin its yearly course, as if being indigent was a seasonal thing as well. I tend to believe this is an unconscious need to allay guilt at such shows of prosperity (even if we really aren’t that ‘prosperous’). Primarily, the marketing drive is food, but the resultant social pressure is perfection. Hmmm . . . .
And then there’s Christmas. Yes, that extravaganza of all things ‘Holiday’, touted as a full scale, religiously and spiritually driven ideal of the best nature of man and many, many gifts to mark your importance to others day. This one combines the fantasy of Halloween with the seriousness of Thanksgiving and is, by far, the most important holiday of our culture. The pressure here is tremendous. Is it any wonder that some stores are getting a jump on it in September? And is it any wonder that many Americans go into serious debt during this time of year? Christmas is the marketers dream and the importance of Christmas has always been driven by said marketing industry.
And, last but not least, is New Year’s Eve. This cleverly packaged holiday is the aspirin to the headaches of the previous few months. Not only is it the release of tension through alcohol imbued revelry, but it is both the closure and the opener to the new year, a year of new possibilities and . . . another cough . . . resolution. (Sounds like the alcoholic’s mantra, “Ugh . . . I’ll never do that again. . . .”)
Okay, so it does sound like I’m coming completely down on the whole holiday thing.
And I am a bit.
But look at the pattern. (And I already know you know the pressure and stress of the season.)
Halloween acts as a ‘let loose, just a little’ phase which prepares you for the family value focus, which, incidentally helps loosen those purse strings, of Thanksgiving. The true marketing focus of this funnel is Christmas, where the pressure to deliver is equal to the warm glow effect of ‘giving’. New Years is the justification of the spending over the holidays, the medication of the stress, and the ‘reset’ button for the discipline that (should) drives us through the first several months of the year. It restarts the cycle of behavior for us.
Now, what do you do with all this information?
Stop celebrating the holidays?
That’s one way. (By the way, it is the way I discovered how stressful the holidays actually were. Several years ago, and for various reasons, my wife and l decided we were tired of the hassle and scaled down on our Usual Holiday Routine, extensive as it was. No Halloween, a small, informal Thanksgiving, Christmas minus decorations and other accoutrements with onlly a few gifts for the kids, and no New Years. It was the most relaxed and inexpensive season ever. We still do it.)
Other ways to reduce the stress of the holidays is through planning, discipline, and reducing the investiture of emotional content in these time anchors.
One of the largest stressors of the holidays is: “Lastminuteitus”. Successful planning is the first part of not suffering Lastminuteitus. One of the key issues with this stress is that feeling of urgency (sometimes panic) that comes with this time of year. It always seems like there is no time to do it all, so our time traveling minds try to get it all done in one fell swoop. Planning a little ahead of time can and will help alleviate some of this nonsense.
Of course, unless you have the discipline to follow through, you aren’t going to get anything but more stress, since you will not only be fully into Lastminuteitus, but also be kicking yourself for not following through with your planning. (Take a look at the A.R.C.A. method I talk about in other places in the site.) Discipline means Action. If you plan to buy Christmas presents every month starting in July, then do it. Don’t get into justifying why it’s no big deal if you start in August . . . and then September . . . and then . . . .
The biggest help here, in my opinion, is divesting yourself of the emotional strength of the time anchor. This can also be one of the most difficult, because, like personal growth in general, it is a ‘Cross grain’ behavior, meaning other people are not going to understand it and, sometimes, outright disagree with it. Take Christmas, for example. This holiday has huge social, cultural, and financial conventions attached to it that will cause brows to furrow and invitations to trickle off (among other things) if you suddenly stop doing what you have done in the past, especially, if you are like I was, a ‘Christmas Nut’. If you don’t think it is hard, just try getting away with not sending cards out to your family and friends. (This is, of course, assuming that you engage in this custom. If you don’t, then don’t do something you normally do.) You will probably experience external pressure, like, say from your wife or husband, but also internal pressure from guilt and even avarice. (I.e. “If I don’t send Aunt Gertrud a card, she will stop sending that nice, cash enclosed one she does every year”. Now, now, don’t tell me you would never think that.)
Time anchors, like Christmas, not only have emotional content, but translatable behaviors to express those emotions, even if it is just politeness that drives them.
Alright, alright, I’m done bashing on the holiday season. You may call me Grinch if you like. But in actuality, I still enjoy the holiday season, though not as feverishly as Madison Avenue would like me to.
Now, the real question is: What will you do?