Healthier Holidays

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By Mark Lundegren

Are the holidays fast approaching? Or are they here already, or just over, and you want advice on how to make your holiday seasons healthier?

We all face an enormous barrage of ideas and icons when major holidays approach. Each year, we are reminded of what to expect, how to act, where to shop, and what to buy or make. Implicit in these reminders is the idea that the holidays should and must be a certain way, even if this ideal is less than ideal and unhealthy in some respects.

Because holidays are in fact so often unhealthy and times of excess, we also are barraged with many ideas on how to mitigate holiday behaviors and get through them with our health intact. I should add that we receive far fewer ideas about how to transform our holidays altogether, so that they are made healthy and restorative, their negative aspects removed entirely, for the future. I will come back to this idea in a moment.

Of course, most of us relish and have high expectations for traditional holidays. Because of this, we are often conflicted about the holidays. They are seemingly special times of the year, but we also know they can slow or even derail our long-term quests for greater health and personal well-being. So what are we to do?

Below are seven steps you can take to make your holidays much healthier. Some are simple ideas to offset the least healthy aspects of traditional holiday rituals. Others go beyond this to help you reconsider your approach to holidays altogether. Have you considered a family trek across Costa Rica or Greece or Japan for your next major holiday? If not, read on:

1. Start a conversation – if your holiday celebrations typically get the better of you, or if holidays are times of stress and negativity, you are probably not alone and it’s time to talk. Naming the parts of your holidays that are unhealthy and undesirable is the first step to improving them. This may seem, and even literally be, sacrilegious in some settings, but you will have to make a start if you want to change your holiday environment. Perhaps there are members of your family and social network you can start the discussion with, building support before you try to influence the more conservative members of your clan and community. Talking about the negative aspects of a holiday ideally should be done well before or right after the holiday, setting a new tone before emotions run high or using events of the recent past as examples. In any case, a discussion of holiday excesses should focus on specific, actionable issues, rather than the holiday in itself. Since many of our major holidays evolved over hundreds of years, their improvement may take more than a year or two.

2. Dematerialize – in the last hundred years, many traditional holidays have become much more commercialized and materially focused than before the industrial age. This development is apparent not just in the size and range of gifts that are given or expected, but also in displays of new wealth and status, both of which can lead to negative, instead of positive, holiday emotions. How did our holidays unravel so in this way? It’s important to understand the origins of our major world holidays and rituals. Most began in earlier times when meeting our basic materials needs was not guaranteed, and even quite uncertain, and when religious traditions were much stronger. Holiday gift giving was therefore a useful source of saving and provisioning. In our more industrialized, secular, and competitive times, these practices have evolved to the point where they now run contrary to the goal of group bonding that initially engendered our holidays. In your family talks, getting out of the rut of obligatory and ostentatious gift giving, and ensuring care with displays of fortune, should figure large. After all, the expense of gifts or lifestyles has little correlation with holiday (or life) satisfaction, while positive interpersonal experiences certainly do.

3. Set new limits – once you have talked your family out of the shopping malls and back to hearth and hamlet, another important step is to set limits on the most negative aspects of your holiday traditions. Depending on where you live and your customs, this can involve a wide range of behaviors and pastimes. Beyond uncontrolled gift-giving, perhaps the most common holiday negatives are excesses with food and alcohol, though by no means does this exhaust a list of possible areas where new limits may be needed. In your family talks, share your concerns and listen to the concerns of others. You may find a willingness to agree to limits and even new ideas for ways to celebrate together, again knowing that not everyone will be receptive to change at first. The act of discussing holidays, after all, is something new itself and should be considered progress. As mentioned before, most holidays emerged and developed without conscious thought, at both the community and family levels. It is only by chance that your holidays will be optimal unless you and others consciously make them so.

4. Chose your company – as you begin to design and optimize your holidays to promote health and well-being, inevitably you will find people around you who share and do not share your goals and views. This can be welcome and painful, and it may force choices and decisions. I do not mean to divide families on the issue of health at the holidays, and the importance of health and well-being generally, but there may be extreme situations that call for extreme actions. If you have people in your family or social network that are abusive at the holidays, for example, or that simply do not share your basic values, it may be time to seek other holiday company or to minimize your time with them (while remaining charitable and open to new beginnings).

5. Eat before dinner – when all else fails, you can always preempt holiday excesses with a bit of dietary inoculation. Remember when you were a child and your parents told you not to eat before dinner because you would spoil your appetite? You get the idea. Filling up on healthy foods before or amidst traditional holiday meals and celebrations can greatly limit your intake of unhealthy food and drink that you would otherwise later regret. As with all steps toward healthier holidays, this step needs to be handled and communicated with care to avoid offending others in your social network.

6. Take a walk or have a talk – in addition to minimizing the health negatives of traditional holidays, you can also begin to add new practices to them that are health promoting and supportive of deeper interpersonal bonds, which again was the purpose of holidays in the first place. Consider planning walks or hikes when you are together, or other fun and guilt-free outdoor activities. Alternatively, you might plan discussions and talks when you and your family and friends are together. These can take the form of sitting together and discussing issues of common concern or recapping the last few months and talking about plans for the future. So often, the holidays are over before we know it and we feel things were left unsaid. Create opportunities for rewarding discussion and sharing. Will this be uncomfortable for some at first? Of course, but setting time for talks can evolve to become among the most memorable aspects of our holidays.

7. Consider reinvention – as I mentioned at the beginning, in addition to correcting the less desirable aspects of traditional holidays, we have the opportunity to reinvent our holidays altogether for the future. Keep in mind that holidays and rituals are important for maintaining our social and community networks, but also that all holidays emerged over time, and rarely by design, to arrive at their present state. Holidays are important, but need not continue in their current form. Imagine new ways and reasons to celebrate the holidays and the gatherings of people we may not normally see or speak with. Perhaps pilgrimages to sacred natural places or other new shared experiences that nurture us and build deeper bonds are in our future.

Wherever and however you celebrate traditional holidays, you probably have more options than you realize for improving the form and function of your holiday gatherings. Consider the many ways you can remove or minimize the negative aspects of your celebrations, while building on the positives and perhaps re-emphasizing to the essence of most of our holiday – deepening and renewing the social networks that are critical to our personal and community health.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

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