A journey to stress-free joy in the holiday season

If we’re aware of our bad habits, can we avoid family dust-ups? Only if we’re wearing halos and wings.

GRAFTON — It must be an epidemic.

Google “coping with holiday stress,” and you'll find enough advice from psychologists, life coaches, health clinics, etiquette mavens, and other “experts” to keep you in reading material for all the holidays of your life.

My cursory research has revealed that the experts have boarded the same bus headed toward the elusive destination called sanity.

Get organized. Don't overindulge in food, alcohol, or spending. Avoid shopping malls. Make time to exercise and rest. Learn to say no. Lower your expectations. Put aside differences. Remember the reason for the season.

It looks good on paper, doesn't it?

* * *

Some people are stressed about conveying seasonal greetings. “I don't know what to say anymore,” a woman told me recently. “Merry Christmas or the generic 'Happy Holidays?' Whatever I say, it seems I'm bound to offend somebody.”

Her story activated my own stress meter. Prone to worrying about imagined difficulties, I fear a future when the word “happy,” uttered in December, will be forbidden in our excruciatingly correct, tightly bound vocabularies.

Then, there are the family stories.

The born-again son who came home to his parents and demanded that they dismantle the Christmas tree because it's a pagan symbol. (He was right about the tree's origins, but short on graciousness.)

The middle-aged sisters who argued vociferously about how to make the gravy. (Giblets or no giblets?)

The militant vegan who pouted at the table, picking at bread and green beans. (Bring your own tofu turkey.)

There are darker stories, too - the ones that hurt the heart.

Is the tension really about the tree or the gravy? When we feel stressed, we tend to revert to our old bad habits of thought and deed unless we have worked diligently to correct them. If we're aware of them, we should be able to avoid dust-ups and conflagrations, right?

Only if we're wearing halos and wings.

* * *

When I was a child, I believed that I was tethered to the only wacky family in the history of the world.

My mother was particular about the way the lights were strung on the tree. They couldn't all be bunched on the outer branches, and there couldn't be two of the same color next to each other.

She stood close by the tree, gesticulating at my father, who was tangled in the branches as he struggled to follow her decorating rules.

“Bob! There are too many red ones on that front branch, and not enough blue ones close to the trunk.”

Tension mounted as an hour passed, and my father's face took on the same hue as Rudolph's nose.

I rolled my eyes and recited my lines as if I were following a preordained script: “Who has ever seen an ugly Christmas tree? And why are we all so tense?”

“Nobody's tense,” my mother said, talking through her teeth. From under the tree my father glanced my way and pressed a finger to his lips.

* * *

On Christmas Day, my mother's bossy cousin Mary swooped through the door and insisted that we children parade across the living room so “I can see how you've grown.” I felt like a heifer going to the auction block.

Uncle Jack arrived from New York with a fifth of Smirnoff, extended his personal cocktail hour through dessert, and told a lot of stupid Irish jokes.

My father agreed that yes, they were stupid jokes, but Jack was Irish through and through, and he was genetically compelled to tell them.

I had to get out in the world and listen to lots of stories before I realized that, compared to many other families, ours was a paragon of peace and virtue.

Men didn't hunker down in front of the TV to watch football and bellow to the women for more drinks and snacks.

At the table, discussions about politics and religion occurred without rancor or spontaneous combustion.

In the kitchen, several cooks contributed to the flavor of the broth, and deviations from the traditional menu were encouraged.

So what if my mother was over-invested in the flawless placement of lights? Did it really matter that Uncle Jack's jokes weren't up to my standards for entertainment?

Who did I think I was? The scriptwriter? The director of the pageant?

Somewhere in my slow, arduous evolution, I discovered that I had a very big investment in wanting my family to behave the way I thought it should. The persistent buzz in my mind was more irritating than cousin Mary's annual parade.

The antidote was to delete my part of the script, improvise, and just laugh. In the grand cosmic scheme, this was a minor epiphany, but I mistakenly believed that I was on the path to enlightenment.

* * *

I was long-grown and married when circumstances divested me of self-congratulation.

On Christmas Day, my husband E.B. and I went off for the afternoon to visit friends. We left our 13-month-old Labrador, Lily, at home. Lily had been the easiest, smartest puppy I'd ever trained. She'd been perfect in every way, so perfect that we didn't own a crate.

We came home to terrible carnage.

Lily had removed all the feathered bird ornaments from the tree - she was a bird dog, after all - and had scattered them over the floor in various forms of mutilation.

Normally, I didn't get upset about the destruction of material goods. Accidents happen. Things break.

But the delicate cardinals, blue jays, robins, orioles, and sparrows had adorned my father's boyhood tree. These birds were symbols of my family history: a grandfather who had died before I was born, a loving grandmother who had passed too soon.

The sight of the killing floor sent me into hysterics. I wailed. E.B. swept up the remains, took them outside, and buried them. I was too bereft to attend the service.

When I reported the tragedy to my father, he laughed and said, “Those birds didn't owe us anything.”

His response lightened me up, as if he'd pinned a pair of loaner wings to my shoulders.

Many moons have passed since the demise of the birds. Real life-and-death tragedies have happened. Grief has been my teacher.

My criteria for a happy holiday, or any day, have been dramatically altered. If nobody is dead, paralyzed, or brain damaged, it's a good-enough day.

The memory of the ornaments is as sweet as their actual presence. The birds are underground, but the love and laughter can't be buried.

They remain in the air, eternal.

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