I noticed recently, in the flurry of self-reflection that accumulates with the first snowfall, that Christmas morning is the only day of the year that my family will make it a mandatory thing to sit down and eat breakfast together.  Not watery waffles or charred bacon.  There’s as much care in Christmas breakfast as there is in the Christmas feast that will soon follow.  The bacon has a perfect crunch to chew ratio, the eggs are fluffy clouds, and there’s toast, hash browns, coffee, orange juice, and a cookie Santa left behind.

There’s always been a special kind of magic that exists only on Christmas morning.  This magic is separate from presents.  Separate from the holiday, even.  It’s a magic that exists within the expectation, in the anticipation that something is coming.  Something is about to happen.  That Christmas day is going to be different from all the other days of the year.

And then, one Christmas morning, I woke up, and the magic was gone… what happened?

The holidays can be stressful.  There are plenty of times that we make them more stressful than they need to be.  And between shopping for presents, cooking for family and extended family, trying to mediate long-held feuds between uncles who usually stay at a safe distance from each other, we spend very little time with our own thoughts.  We’ve come to dread a holiday that feels as though it has been sucked of its meaning and tacked with the jolly message, “just be happy.”

If you’re already depressed heading into the holidays, the constant seasonal message of cheerfulness probably isn’t going to help.  In fact, feeling like you need to be happy all the time might just seem like additional stress in a holiday you already weren’t looking forward to.

And we all know that it’s impossible to make everyone happy.  Not with giant trees or glittering ornaments or merry carols or lights that make us feel like we’re walking down starlit streets.  We can’t all be happy.  Not everybody is going to look at the holiday season the same way.  Every issue comes with contrasting viewpoints, and I’ve noticed this year that I seem to know more people who are “secretly” dreading the holiday season than those who are actually enjoying it.  People rushing to put up their trees, trying to pull together enough money to buy presents, trying to keep up with the competition that Christmas presents.

I enjoy the decorations.  I like the music, window shopping with friends, and the feel of snowflakes on my skin.  But the extreme shopping, congested highways, and grumpy customers I could do without.  When I take the time to reflect on what all of this craziness issupposed to be about, and when I take a step back to choose my own approach to holiday participation, the stress of the holiday swirls away.

I’ve come up with some of my own ways to celebrate, but I don’t rigidly hold myself to them.  I celebrate when I feel like celebrating.  I do my own thing when I don’t.  I focus on my friends and my family and volunteering, when possible.  I reflect on my individuality—who I am and where I’m headed and what I want out of life—but I take that and apply it to the broader community.  Because more than anything, the holiday season is about coming together, whether it’s with your family or friends or an organization that means something to you.

I’ve found that the holidays hold a lot more meaning if you try to do something meaningful.

I think we all need to be aware that “just be happy” isn’t necessarily the norm.  An article published by Psychology Today references a study in which 45% of North American respondents said that they dread the holidays.  I’m a writer, so I’m not great at math, but I know 45% is pretty close to 50%.  So whether it’s the commercialism or the stress or the remembrance of a loved one or something else beyond our control that’s got so many of us down this holiday season, connecting with a broader community is a nice way to remind each other, and ourselves, that we’re not alone.

The holiday season is all about kindness, compassion, and connection.  Sometimes we need to take a break from all the decorations and figure out our own needs.  But there’s another holiday message that’s more applicable to whatever mood we’re in, and that’s the sense of togetherness, of relating to one another and sharing in each other’s experiences.  When I focus on that, and I sit down for breakfast with my family, I’m able to forget the seasonal stresses, and the holidays don’t look so gloomy anymore.

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