Seeking Connection: ‘Tis the season to be overwhelmed

The Dance Fever of 1518 was a month-long plague of inexplicable dance mania in Strasbourg.

Hundreds of people danced without stopping for weeks on end, with several of them dancing themselves to death.

Some historians suspect mass hysteria. Others blame hallucinations from food poisoning. Some scholars say the event was staged by a large religious cult in order to attract new members.

Whatever the reason, hundreds of people twirled night and day until they collapsed or died from exhaustion.

As a species, we don’t do moderation well. We’re overworked, overfed, overstimulated, overwhelmed and often over it all with only the vaguest awareness of our dissatisfaction. And at no time is this more evident than the holidays, especially for moms.

We dash from one event to the next, spend more money than we can afford, gorge ourselves with too-rich food and then vow every New Year’s we will never do any of that again.

Mothers report more stress at the holidays than any other time of year and have higher holiday stress levels than any other demographic. It has become for too many of us a season of unreasonable expectations, obligations and impositions.

We force ourselves to plan more, do more, stuff as much as possible into our days until Jan. 1.

We try to honor all the old rituals while simultaneously forging new traditions.

We get caught up in the family-making ideas of Pinterest-ready tablescapes and handmade wrapping paper and caroling and sledding and Christmas pageants and elaborate decorations and Elf on the Shelf and homemade cards and watching 140 different Hallmark movies.

I’m overwhelmed just thinking about it all.

We mistake consumption, commercialism and endless busyness for meaning.

We think going to all the events and doing all the things and giving all the stuff is the same as giving of ourselves.

But we cannot create a memorable and joyful holiday if we aren’t present. And we cannot be present if we’re exhausted, overwhelmed and overscheduled.

If we place all of our energy into creating a “perfect” holiday, then we have no energy left to actually enjoy it.

We cannot buy or cook or decorate our way to a meaningful holiday.

How do we turn overwhelmed into overjoyed? We cannot force others out of the hustle and bustle; we can only make credible plans for our own families.

It’s particularly important to prioritize things during the holiday season, because there’s no way to do it all without losing your mind.

My family has an annual family meeting in mid-November called Ho Ho Ho/Oh No No.

Every family member gets to talk about the traditions that are most meaningful to him or her (our Ho Ho Hos) and we write them on the calendar. We also add new events or experiences we might like to try.

Then we discuss as a family what is reasonable energetically and financially and mark some as Oh No Nos.

We use the word “no” with compassion and honesty. Often saying “no” to a commitment means saying “yes” to delight and downtime. No is a complete sentence; it cultivates reasonable expectations and more joyful experiences.

Saying yes to events that don’t hold meaning for us leaves us too exhausted to enjoy the ones that do.

Before you agree to something, take a beat and mindfully remember who and what is most important to you this season.

Pre-planning also helps me personally avoid stressful last-minute decisions. If I am stressed, I tend to react instead of respond. And my knee-jerk reaction is people pleasing.

In the moment, I will always agree to more than is good for me. If it’s not on my Ho Ho Ho schedule, I feel fine saying I have a prior engagement (even if that is just a block of family free time).     

So for us, it’s Ho Ho Ho to watching “Elf,” completing a holiday jigsaw puzzle, going ice skating, getting a live tree, buying matching pajamas, putting up the crèche and attending the Christmas parade.

What’s new this year? We’re all writing a gratitude letter to Santa, ones filled with thank yous instead of requests.

Our Oh No Nos are hosting Thanksgiving, making a gingerbread house, buying each other gifts, putting up elaborate outdoor decorations and working up a guitar duet to play at the church Christmas Eve service.

While all the Oh No Nos are fun, my family needs plentiful down time to stay connected to the magic of the season.

We need to give ourselves permission to stop dancing to be delighted by the holidays again. 

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness” and the online host of the OM channel. Follow her on Twitter @erinsmithauthor.