Yuletide Cheering Up

by Cait Johnson

The days are short. The nights are cold. The world looks dead. We need cheering up. And so we have Pagan Yule logs and flickering menorahs and glistening Christmas trees and Kwanzaa feasts. But even though many of us treasure magical childhood memories of softly-falling snow and brightly-wrapped gifts and Santa on his sleigh, the adult reality of the winter holidays is often a reindeer of a very different color.

This is supposed to be a time of fun and joy, right? The operative words are “supposed to be.” Oh, the pressure. Take children jacked up on sugar and greedy for moremoremore, add difficult relatives with drinking problems and weird food preferences, mobs of people at the mall trampling each other for a bargain, gift buying, gift wrapping, gift giving (did I give enough? too much? will they still love me? am I going to go bankrupt?), and an endless round of cooking, parties, and other social obligations, along with the laudable but crazy intention to make it perfect for everybody—and what do you find balled up at the very bottom of your Yuletide stocking? You guessed it: stress.

It’s enough to make you empathize with Scrooge and want to hurl a bitter “Bah, humbug!” at anyone who wishes you a chirpy “Happy Holidays!” Or at least yearn to pull the covers over your head til after New Year.

Part of the problem is that our bodies crave more rest when the nights are long—but rest is the last thing we get. As a friend recently remarked, “All I want is darkness and quiet and long naps, and instead the whole world is lit up like Las Vegas with carols blaring relentlessly from every street corner and my To Do list is roughly the length of Moby-Dick.”

Well, take heart. There are many antidotes for holiday stress (besides that Caribbean getaway that would conveniently remove you from the scene altogether). For those of us doggedly determined to love the (possible) snow and the pretty lights and at least the idea of holiday cheer, these can help you to have a happier holiday.

Not-so-coincidentally, some of the things we normally associate with the winter holidays turn out to be effective remedies for depression and stress. Who knew? Take the ubiquitous candy cane, for example. Surprise: peppermint is a known stress-and-anxiety reliever, and it also soothes stomachs upset by over-indulgence in holiday treats. You can get all the benefits of the herb without the added stress of sugary candy by drinking an occasional cup of peppermint tea or sprinkling a few drops of peppermint essential oil on a hanky to sniff whenever you need to calm down.

Traditional holiday spices are also helpful allies in the quest for a saner, more peaceful holiday, and many of the oils they contain are proven to kill nasty microbes, too. Think of it this way: when you comfort yourself with the scent and flavor of cinnamon, ginger, or cloves, you’re also warding off Uncle Fred’s cold after he sneezed all over the roast goose. Add a few spice-laden dishes to your holiday menu, or keep a pot of cider with cinnamon and cloves simmering on the stove (served in a mug with or without a splash of whisky, this makes a great holiday warmer-up).

Citrus is another holiday helper: the scent of oranges and lemons is uplifting and the vitamin C is an immune-booster, so add fresh-squeezed juice to your beverages, salad dressings, and soups, or use the hanky method with citrus essential oils. You can also make pomanders, a heavenly-scented combination of oranges, cloves, and cinnamon. Making pomanders has been part of my family holiday tradition for years and a bowl of them placed on a table makes my whole house smell wonderful. Just poke holes in a fresh orange (or lemon or lime) and insert whole cloves in the holes, then roll the whole thing in ground cinnamon and allow to dry in a warm place (like over a radiator or on top of the fridge). Once upon a time, pomanders were carried by nobles to mitigate the stench of people who bathed a total of maybe two or three times in their lives. Little did they know they were also lifting their spirits and fending off infection.

Then there are the Action Antidotes. Make “NO” your new mantra. Try the Two Column Approach to Life espoused by my friend Jo, who says Column A is all the things we have to do (like laundry, paying bills, eating) and Column B is the things we love to do (which varies). Most of us waste our days doing things that fall into a time-sucking sinkhole in the middle because we think we should do them, especially at holiday-time. Stop. If it’s not in Column A or Column B, love yourself and your health and sanity enough to say no. Take a nap instead, or do something from Column B and enjoy the heck out of it.

Buy less. Several years ago, I decided I didn’t need to bolster the mall economy for one more nanosecond, so now I make gifts (which is Column B for me) or buy them from any of the adorable shops within walking distance of my house. You can also give gifts of time spent together doing things your recipient and you both enjoy, or give each other the gift of No Gifts This Year. What a relief!

Minimize your consumption of white sugar. ‘Tis the season of cookies and candies and other deadly little goodies, and believe me, I know: my parents were feeding me Grannie’s high-octane Bourbon Balls when I was still in diapers. But all that sugar is hard on the system. Just saying. Go easy.

So, bring on the cinnamon and peppermint, buy less, say NO more, and may your Yuletide be magical, peaceful, and relaxed!