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The gift of love that can unwrap a less stressed Christmas

By MelvynHowe  |  Posted: December 19, 2012

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"'Tis the season to be stressed, Fa la la la la la la la la."

Yes, I know, it doesn't really say stressed, it says jolly. But we could be forgiven for thinking this could be a more accurate version of the carol.

Christmas shopping, the card-sending ritual, the de rigeur tree and its fiddly baubles, seeing relatives you wished lived a lot further away,
the prospect of presents so useless you can't even give them to somebody else - it can seem like a conspiracy designed to send your stress levels soaring.

If that wasn't enough, parents have become the targets of almost wall-to-wall TV advertisements creating the "must-have terrors" - the presents kids are enticed to see as their raison d'être. 

All this on an apparently ever-tightening budget bedevilled by spiralling food and fuel costs amid a national debt crisis.

There is, of course, lots of well-meaning advice available about beating the Christmas blues - everything from scheduled "me times" to changing your diet and getting enough sleep. I don't doubt many people have been helped by these tips.

But there are other ways.

Some years ago, I found myself feeling somewhat bereft when it dawned on me the Christmas joy I'd always regarded as a given was no longer there.

For a long time the deeper meaning of Christmas had occupied centre stage in my thought as I prepared for it. But the focus had faded as I increasingly allowed myself to be seduced by the glitzy consumerism that has increasingly encroached on this time of year.

I remember being burdened by a lethargy and depression so weighty it was almost disabling as the juggernaut-like approach of December 25th appeared both unfeeling and unrelenting.

I guess I could have gone along to my local GP and perhaps returned with a prescription for antidepressants. And they might have helped. But only to the degree I believed they would, according to Irving Kirsch, Associate Director of the Programme in Placebo Studies at Harvard University.

He caused a stir in the medical world earlier this year when he appeared on primetime TV and made it clear the efficacy of such medications in mild and moderate forms of depression had little to do with their chemical ingredients, but was "largely" the result of the placebo effect.

And that, say experts, is when a chemically inert pill lookalike or a sham medical procedure is as effective - and sometimes more so - than
the actual medication or operation. The common factor in the placebos and the prescribed medicine was the expectancy that they would make a difference.

That points to what I knew needed to change for me: my attitude.

So as I pondered the pile of Christmas cards I felt obliged to despatch around the globe, I began to ask myself what I was actually sending.

If it was just a piece of card bearing the formulaic "Dear Aunt So-and-so...Much love to you and Uncle Whatever xxx" I was wasting my ink writing it, the stamp money sending it and their time opening it.

But if I really meant what I wrote when I penned "lots of love" then I could see that it would be worthwhile. So I began mentally listing and genuinely valuing all the cherished qualities of those on my mailing list: one person's endless patience, another person's unconditional love, a third's irrepressible joy. You get the idea.

At the same time I realised all those sterling attributes remained constant in those people - and that proved vital for me when grappling with the feeling that so much had changed. It helped me realise nothing was really different. By the time I finished writing the cards I was smiling broadly. I felt renewed.

A couple of days later, I began to shop for presents. For the first time in years the "crowd crush" no longer bothered me. All I seemed to be aware of was a shared love to give.

As I mentally treasured the opportunities I had to give meaningfully, what seemed to be very much the right gifts were found - and well within budget. Putting up the Christmas tree and decorating the house was accompanied by the sort of unalloyed excitement I'd last experienced as a kid.

I began to value, again, those deeper qualities associated with Christmas - the love, joy and, yes, the patience, too, which I just mentioned. There was also generosity, that precious sense of family unity, unspoken forgiveness for past perceived slights and the sheer "feel good" factor that is meant to hallmark this time of year. The Christmas story in the Bible, which I had so loved as a kid, spoke to me again with renewed meaning.

You don't, of course, have to be religious to love others, celebrate the good in them and benefit from doing so. After all, researchers have been finding evidence that love, gratitude, altruism and forgiveness can directly benefit health, whatever your faith or lack of it.

But for me the spiritual dimension of Christmas had long been pivotal. And by celebrating it anew, that Christmas turned out to be the most harmonious, stress-free and enjoyable that I could remember.

Interestingly, this change of thought not only ensured each Christmas since has also been wonderful but enriched my year round experience, too.

So do I still get useless presents?

You bet.

But it is the love they come with that I now recognise is the real gift.

About Melvyn Howe: Following a 40-year career in journalism in news and court reporting, I have been turning my pen to writing about health. My specific focus is the relationship between consciousness and wellbeing and between spirituality and health. My own practice is Christian Science and I am also a media and legislative representative for Christian Science in the UK.


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