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Flourishing During the Holidays

Holiday coffee and dessert

Whether your family celebrates Hanukkah, Christmas or both, this year finds the celebrations coinciding. With its eight days, Hanukkah begins on the evening of December 24 and culminates on the evening of January 1. The traditional Christian celebration of Christmas begins with Advent, starting on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and extending 12 days, ending with Epiphany on January 6. Despite the ever earlier onslaught of commercial messages extolling us to shop-until-we-drop, our cultural Christmas season seems to reach its peak on Christmas Eve and end with the arrival of the new year.

What’s makes these holidays special? What fond memories do we cherish? What makes us cringe? The answers vary, but family seems universal. Yep, God love ‘em, some of our relatives make us cringe. Are our feelings obvious? Are they mutual? In the spirit of the holidays, finding ways to manage our feelings and be inclusive are important. Family does count, and as I recall hearing children say, “you can pick your nose, and you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.” Depend on early school aged kids to “tell it like it is.”

Best way to handle such relatives is beforehand. Think about why you feel the way you do. What might you do or say to lay the foundation for a more amicable encounter. How might you graciously and firmly avoid traps? Rehearsing scenarios in our minds can be useful, not a guarantee of success, but better than being caught off guard.

Living, as we do, in a polarized society, we’re wise to avoid hot button issues in holiday conversations. If one comes up, speak up immediately, reminding everyone of the purpose of the gathering – to celebrate the season, share fond memories and make new ones. Most people will take the hint. Others will keep hammering away. That’s the time to be polite as you firmly refuse to take the bait. Take a walk instead.

Surround yourself with joy. Celebrate the season with a simple afternoon tea with those near and dear to you.

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

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Do As I Do And As I Say

Family gathered for Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving is our most family-centered holiday. We come together to share a meal and spend time with those we cherish, or at least that’s the plan. I’m aware that often friction among relatives mars the experience, and an opportunity to celebrate kinship and strengthen family attachments is lost in a whirlwind of discord. That’s enough to make some folks opt out of future family gatherings. Sad as that is, sometimes it’s the last and best solution.

Other times, however, appealing to “the ties that bind” everyone together as family and friends works wonders. Insist that hot button topics be avoided so that everyone can focus instead on getting to know each other better. However committed we are to our positions on matters of politics or religion, we’re much more than those preferences suggest. We need to keep our hearts open and as our parents’ taught us, to treat others the way we want to be treated. Yes, we must establish boundaries and insist upon being treated the way we’re treating those around us. Our goal is to establish mutual respect and open dialogue that strengthens relationships. Even among siblings who have maintained close ties, there’s always something new to learn from and about each other. We’re all multi-faceted, ever-evolving people capable of surprising and being surprised by those nearest and dearest to us.

When we model the behavior we expect from those around us, we’re teaching our children more than our words alone ever could. This Thanksgiving, let’s adopt an attitude of gratitude for our families and those friends who’ve become family. With grace and sincerity, stress the importance of making fond memories of Thanksgiving for ourselves and our children. And speaking of children, those “little pitchers with big ears,” I recommend sharing your plan and helping them figure out ways to deflect or redirect negative comments in these highly polarized times. Diplomacy counts.

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Keeping Christmas Simple = Less Stress, More Joy

Do the holidays seem more hectic every year? As if we’ll never have time enough to accomplish everything we tell ourselves we absolutely must? Certainly the season starts earlier every year. We’re bombarded with messages and surrounded by decorations before we’ve even consumed our Halloween treats.

I propose a different approach. Start by brewing a pot of tea or pouring a cup of coffee, and sitting awhile, mulling over what the holidays mean to you on a personal level. What do you dislike the most? could take-or-leave? really look forward to and enjoy? What would make this year more meaningful?

How do the holidays affect your family? What memories do you want your children to carry with them? What traditions add meaning? Have any become crazy making? Is your home a haven? Or chaos central? Are the kiddos “swinging from the chandeliers”? Are you biting your tongue to keep from spewing obscenities? Where’s the peace? the joy?

Peace is a hallmark of a joy-filled holiday season. We know that, but we’re human, and, therefore, prone to over extending, too often saying yes when we need or want to say no, and ending up frazzled. If we have kids in our lives, we need to be particularly mindful of the daily routines that keep us grounded and insure we take care to our basic needs to eat, sleep, and exercise.

Jeanette Molineaux, a certified child life specialist and founder of Baby in Mind offers these insights for keeping the peace in families with young children.

For better or for worse, the holidays often throw us out of our normal routines. This can be tough for our kids. When possible, stick to your typical meal times, bedtimes, nap times, and even to that daily trip to the park. A predictable routine will do wonders for your kids. You are the expert when it comes to your own children’s behavior. Enjoy holiday festivities, but know your child’s limits. As soon as you see signs of hunger, fatigue, and overstimulation at the neighborhood holiday party, trust your gut about what your child’s behavior is telling you and call it a night.

The holidays are a great time to focus on giving and thinking about others. Our children learn about generosity and compassion from observing the actions and intentions of the adults in their lives. As a family, bake something special for your child’s bus driver, the next-door neighbor or a community helper. Decorated cookies or crafts made by kids do not have to be picture perfect. Acknowledge the act of helping and giving to others, and don’t worry if the cookies don’t exactly look like the picture in the magazine. Giving kids an active role in making something special for someone else lets them know that they too can be a generous helper.

Family traditions make meaningful memories and are important to children. While the media may want us to believe these traditions need to look like the tree lighting at Rockefeller Center, keep the traditions simple and tailored to your child’s age. You don’t need to spend a lot of money or travel far and wide to make the holidays special for your kids. An afternoon at home, making a special family meal together, decorating handmade cards, or going on a child friendly family hike with a thermos of hot chocolate are simple yet meaningful holiday traditions you can start with you own kids. As they get older, you can expand on these traditions, but for now, keep it simple!

Keeping the holidays simple leaves room for the unexpected and the spontaneous and allows us to savor the moment. My mother loved Christmas and delighted in family and friends. As she grew frail, she expressed her desire to see all her many nieces and nephews, and together we decided on an open house on the first Saturday in December. I rallied the troops, an easy task since almost all consider her their absolutely favorite aunt, the one who never forgot a birthday, even when illness forced her to delegate the writing of the cards.

Mom watched as we decked the halls with her favorite seasonal decorations and insisted we accept all offers from my cousin’s to bring something for the buffet table. She knew that many hands make light work and by welcoming the offers I’d be lightening my load. The morning of the gathering Mom woke too weak to dress and take her place by the living room window. Ever practical and determined – the embodiment of “keep clam and carry on”- she announced that I was to invite everyone to visit her in her room.

And indeed they did. Both surviving sisters, all the nieces, and most of the nephews came from places near and far. Hugs, words of appreciation, comfort, and love were exchanged, memories shared, stories told, promises made amid laughter and tears. Unexpected. Spontaneous. Precious.

Mom died before sunrise 22 December and was buried on Christmas Eve, at the insistence of the minister. Family, friends, and acquaintances surrounded us. The service could not have been more beautiful or deeply heartfelt. Officiants fulfilled promises made and spur-of-the-moment volunteers provided the special music requested. And the church served a delicious lunch to those who could stay, and many did. On Christmas Eve.

Christmas is a season of giving. And the best gifts come from the heart. That so many people gave so generously of themselves speaks volumes. Their gifts epitomized the spirit of Christmas.

We’re sure Mom planned her passing to insure her children spent Christmas together. We siblings are close but with one of us living on the opposite coast, we’re rarely together for the holidays. We were that year. Bleary-eyed and exhausted, we celebrated a quiet, peaceful Christmas, cherishing time together, sharing memories, and taking naps. Ours was a joy-filled Christmas, despite our loss and because of the gifts, valuable beyond measure, that we’d received. Our memories of that different-from-all-previous Christmases are ones we hold dear.

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Our Chief Play Officer at Play


Our Chief Play Officer takes time to play as we approach the holidays, bedecking cardboard cones with feathers from heirloom chickens, ribbons, trims, and yarns, metallic origami paper cut into strips, and beads, beads, and more beads strung into garlands. Later seashells and beach sand “washed ashore” and morphed into a tree.




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Making the Most of the Holi-Daze

Sarah Morrison, a certified child life specialist in private practice and founder of Giggling Goat Child Life Services in Colorado, believes that what we value above all else is time with those we love. Much has been written about the concept of quality time, so much in fact that we rarely think about what the words mean. If we do, we’re likely wondering what that would look like and how we’d make that work during the hustle and bustle of the holidays. Maybe it’s easier than we think. Consider how Sarah approaches the “Holi-daze.”

When the weather starts changing and lights start appearing around town, we all know the Holiday season is upon us. For some, this means a slew of parties, travels, and nonstop events until we ring in the New Year.  For others, we try all year to plan, pin, and keep in mind all those neat ways to save time, money, and sanity, to be able to ‘live in the moment’ and cherish the holiday season.  Just like Jack Frost, we too can ice our cake and eat it too with wonderful tips for creating lasting memories and enjoying this magical time of year.

Blank Slate

Regardless of how many events you have planned or wish to attend, print a clean, fresh, blank slate, literally, a blank December calendar.  Highlight the days that really light up your heart: perhaps a memorable anniversary, a tradition, or a much anticipated event! Focus on those days first, then head back to The 5 W’s: Yep, the Who, What, When, Where and Why!  It’s really back to the basics. Think about  who really wants to go, what day and time is this event? Is it worth rushing to and from where?  What feeling does this bring? This is where you can separate the “attend to” from the “wish to.” If you really wish to take part in something that fills your heart, you will have thought of it first. That’s your why.

Now for the “How”

My favorite part as a Child Life Specialist is finding ways to make something happen!  There are so many amazing ideas out there; it’s just about finding a way to connect.  Often times, we need to pause and ask ourselves, and often our children too, “What would you want, really want, if you could choose?” For many, the answer is so simple it’s often hard to see.  It’s time, time with another loved one, time alone, time to make that cake, string the tree, light the candles, make those pinned crafts together, have a family game night in pajamas and so much more.

Back to that calendar

Highlight all the days your children and grandchildren are off school, those are all very important “wish to” days waiting to be filled with memories and connect in ways only imagined.  Maybe it’s just one simple pleasure a day or something to anticipate and look forward to.  Either way, taking time to plan from the heart sure spreads more love, hope, and joy for this holiday season and many more to come.

I appreciate Sarah sharing her back-to-basics approach. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the expectations of the season that we forget to ask ourselves what is most meaningful to us. Starting there and designing a holiday that nourishes rather than depletes our spirit is the most precious gift we can give ourselves and those we hold dear.

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Gift Giving and Receiving


Gift giving is one of the joys of the holidays. As is receiving. Anticipation builds as Christmas draws near and gifts appear beneath the tree. Children old enough to recognize their name begin keeping track of their packages and working overtime to guess what’s inside. The air is electric with excitement. Ah, but, too much electricity blows fuses and trips breakers, plunging the place into chaos.

We’re like that too. Excited and likely so worn out from doing too much that we can easily blow a fuse. Kids, their routines altered, are both discombobulated and excited. That’s when a fatigue-surge overpowers the breakers. A perfect storm. That can occur any time. And is best avoided on Christmas morning.

Every family has its own traditions surrounding the opening of gifts. Some do so on Christmas Eve, saving the stocking for Christmas morning. Others unload the stockings, then unwrap the gifts on Christmas. For some the process is orderly, one person opening a gift followed by the next person and the next until everyone has opened everything. In other families, everyone digs in together. Still others wait until Epiphany for gift giving.

Many young children (and more than one adult in my observation) like to spend time with one gift before hurrying on to the next. And some soon-to-be beloved gifts temporarily “get lost in the shuffle”. Taking that in account, I propose finding ways to spread out the gift giving and slow down the pace. The goal is to savor the experience.

When our son was a child, we gave him a gift each Sunday of Advent. Usually a book we’d read together when he was young; later on one that fit his current passion. Sometimes favorite music, back in the day when cassette tapes, then compact disks, ruled the air waves. For our family this celebrated the season, the way Advent calendars mark the days until Christmas, and gave time to relish the gift.

When stuffing stockings for Christmas, small gifts fill the bill. When our family gathers, everyone seems most eager to discover what’s hidden in the stockings. Each contains traditions of my childhood – an apple, an orange, and nuts in the toes – as well as carefully chosen small gifts that I wrap before tucking into the appropriate stocking. Although this takes time, it heightens the suspense and makes each small gift distinctive. Keep the wrapping simple. Small gift bags work well.

Stockings are the perfect place to tuck good-for-an-experience cards. Easy to create, these personalized gifts provide the recipient a special indulgence. Choose a favorite activity and make a gift of that. From an afternoon in the park or at the zoo to a trip to an ice cream shop or a favorite cafe for coffee and a decadent pastry, the possibilities for children and adults are broad, and the best part is the invitation to share a leisurely activity together.

We break for breakfast after emptying our stockings. Then we open packages and admire gifts. Many families hurry through the giving and receiving of gifts to get on their way to one or more holiday meals with relatives, and that raises stress levels. I understand the desire (and pressure) to celebrate with extended family, yet I wonder if doing so another day would be more relaxed. Remember the Twelve Days of Christmas? Perhaps choosing one of those days would result in more quality time. Just a thought. For us, living across the country from our birth families, celebrating with parents/grandparents, brothers/uncles has evolved into leisurely telephone calls. We choose to visit our families at less hectic times, and that leisurely, quality time has  created strong bonds.

We made the rounds with our son for five years, negotiating delayed flights, a cracked cockpit windshield, being flown to an adjoining state, the nearest open airport, then driven over the Appalachians in the snow to get where we would have landed but for fog, and lost luggage containing our gifts for the kid. This was when seats were more spacious and the center aisle wide enough to turn sideways and pass the food service cart. Yep, the airlines served meals in coach, snacks were free, and kids got pin-on pilot’s wings. And, in that ever so different time, there were no security lines to navigate. Even so, traveling during the holidays, with the threat of bad weather, delays, cancelled flights, and lost luggage taught us that what worked best for us was celebrating Christmas at home.

One father told me he and his wife have decided to end the craziness of making the rounds to visit grandparents on Christmas. For them, that’s four stops in four different cities, hours of driving with an infant and a preschooler confined to their car seats and little time at each stop. Since all the grandparents get along well, their pre-Christmas celebration serves to honor family ties and allows a relaxed and joy-filled Christmas at home for everyone.

How we celebrate holidays evolves over time. Newly weds, parents of young children, and empty-nesters have different ideas. Creating a joy-filled Christmas requires deciding what is personally most meaningful and focusing our energy there. Simplicity allows us to savor the experiences. That’s a gift only we can give ourselves.

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On How to Dispel a Funk

We all have days that simply do not work out. Maybe the slide into the doldrums begins with waking up late and having to rush out the door before we’re ready. Or during our commute with all its “unexpecteds”. Before we’ve even arrived at work, our spirits are flagging. Sometimes we can shake off the feeling. Others not so easily. What can we do to dispel the blues? Breathe deeply to restore a state of equilibrium? Meditate? Take a brisk walk around the block?

Kids know the feeling. They have difficult days too, wake up “on the wrong side of the bed,” feel on edge, crabby, grouchy, and convinced that everything is “just the pits.” Being around these grinches wears on us and can cause us to get the doldrums too. What can we do to raise their spirits (and ours) and teach our children strategies for turning funky into fun?

There are no magic wands, but one mother of nine, Lisa Pennington, has figured out ways to turn the tide. She shares her techniques in 20 Ways to “Reset” When the Kids Are Having a Hard Day.

While the focus is on kids, a handful of ideas easily work for adults. We have the skills to reset our perspective, and doing so has its rewards. We’ll be happier, healthier, more productive, and everyone around us will breathe easier.


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Reduce the Frenzy – Read

Christmas can be a delightful time, but too often we over schedule, overdo, and end up too frenzied and tired to ENJOY the season. What’s important is spending quality time with those we hold dear, and if that includes children, we have the responsibility for creating such opportunities. One way is setting aside time to read together.

What’s more rewarding than sharing a favorite holiday book? Piling onto the sofa, snuggling together while reading sends a signal to all to mellow out. The length of time is not as important as the quality of the experience, and allowances must be made for the ages and temperaments of the children.

Likely you have favorite children’s books you like to re-visit, and those are the best. Enthusiasm is contagious. Perhaps the children have favorites of their own they’d like you to read or that they’d like to read to you.

Another idea is to introduce a new book, perhaps a twist on an old favorite. Everyone is familiar with the classic English Christmas song Twelve Days of Christmas, but do you know The Australian Twelve Days of Christmas? provides lyrics of three different versions, all featuring the unique animals that live down under.

Gennady Spirin brought to life the English classic with elaborate and elegant illustrations for all ages. Heath McKenzie, in a picture book aimed at preschoolers, drew charming illustrations of the animals in the Aussie version. Sharing both opens opportunities for conversation and learning more together.


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Ways to Become A More Creative Adult

Like children, adults function best when we’re being creative. Question is, how can we become more creative? I’m thinking the answer lies in learning to play more. By that I mean giving ourselves permission to become so engrossed in a pleasurable activity that we lose track of time. We relax and regenerate. We’re then able to pick up where we left off with renewed energy and enthusiasm.

Think about how seldom we do that. We have responsibilities and seemingly endless demands on our time. And yet how well we meet those obligations depends on state of well-being. When we’re exhausted and frazzled – at our wit’s end – we’re hard pressed to accomplish anything.

Call a time-out. Head for the door. Take a walk. Pay attention to the surroundings. The physical activity reduces stress and stimulates the mind. The change of scenery changes our focus and inspires new ways of thinking. Returning relaxed, we’re more productive, better able to deal with the tasks at hand.

Beyond time-outs, we need time off. Time to breathe deeply and sigh away tension. To feel ourselves unwind. To relax deeply.

Consider setting aside blocks of time for play, whether alone or with others whose company brings pleasure. Curl up with a book. Pursue a hobby for the pure pleasure the activity provides.

Play is about having fun, about creating for ourselves a sense of well-being. Worrying about outcomes denies us the restorative benefits of play.

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Twelfth Month: Keep It Simple

Winter Solstice, on December 21, signals the start of winter here in the northern hemisphere. Derived from the Latin word solstitium, meaning sol (sun) + suit (stopped), the word solstice describes the way the sun appears to stand still in the sky for several days before and after each solstice. The shortest day of the day, winter solstice brings 24 hours of darkness above the Arctic Circle. Happily, imperceptibly, the next day heralds the beginning of a gradual lengthening of daylight.

December can become crazy with non-stop commercialism, hustle and bustle, so much so that we forget to savor the season. Whatever our religious and cultural practices, we can find ourselves so caught up in the frenzy of it all that we exhaust ourselves and lose sight of the reasons for those practices. That’s a profound loss. Let’s resolve to consider why we do what we do and what we can do to preserve the essence and let go of the excess. After all, the best way to celebrate is with joy in our hearts. That’s also the best gift we can give others.

 PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play