I made it through Thanksgiving with no permanent damage. Instead of focusing on what was missing, my family, I focused on gratitude and the art of cooking, which is normally a little chaotic, comes together on a wing and a prayer, and where something usually doesn’t come out quite right. This year, the food was almost perfect. I even conquered my grandmother’s roll recipe after years of not quite edible baseballs made of flour and water. I didn’t even need my list. It was no problem to remember all of the dishes, the recipes and the cooking times, without the distractions of laughter and conversation, and frankly, no free-flowing wine. It was a quiet day, mostly silent, very mindful and I guess best described as a pleasant day.
I also discovered that whether you make a traditional Thanksgiving feast for 2 or 10, the dishes and clean-up are just as horrific. So, if I’m going to have to do all of that cooking and cleaning, I’d of course prefer that the meal come out a little less spectacular and have the laughter, conversation and frankly, free-flowing wine. But we’re in unusual circumstances and it wasn’t hard to remember that this too shall pass and hopefully by next Thanksgiving, things will be back to normal, whatever that means in the future.
What did come to mind was that if I had skipped Thanksgiving, I think I would have been depressed. In pre-pandemic times, I confess that I had my complaints about all of the hub-bub around the holidays. The planning, cooking, baking, shopping, party-going and crowded stores felt stressful, so a few years ago, I cut way back on hub-bub. But I still have my traditions, my rituals, and even though I can’t have company in the foreseeable future, my instinct was to follow my traditions to the extent possible. So, I cooked a full-on Thanksgiving dinner for two and we enjoyed it. Not as much as if we were with the kids and grandkids, but it was fine. And I began my Christmas decorating the next day, which is another one of my rituals.
I normally do most of my decorating outside. Large ornaments in all of the trees, lights on timers so that as I return home from a long day at work, I get that childish excitement each evening as I pull in the driveway. I pulled out all of the decoration bins from the storage shed and realized that isn’t going to happen this year. I barely leave my house and won’t see any of my decorations if outside for the whole season. So, I switched it out. I hung colorful strings of outdoor lights in the studio so that I can look up at the ceiling early in the morning or once the sun goes down and have my twinkle. I added more sparkle to my living room. I decorated the bathroom. I added lots and lots of candles in every room. Christmas is moving indoors this year, where I spend most of my time now thanks to COVID-19.
It turns out, that’s a good idea for our mental health. According to psychologist Deborah Serani, lights, sparkle, scents, sentimental things and pretty much anything else that isn’t around the rest of the year, all increase our serotonin and dopamine levels – the feel-good hormones. Getting into a holiday spirit and enjoying seasonal pleasures boosts our mood. We can all use some of that. Like everything in 2020, hanging outdoor lights above my desk is not normal for me, but what is these days? Whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah or Kwanzaa, make the effort to decorate or cook or do whatever you did pre-pandemic, but modify it to the new reality. Whatever it takes to help you feel like it’s a special time or special day.
Don’t celebrate any of the traditional December holidays? There is actually a holiday every day of the year, so pick one in December that resonates for you and go for it. December 10th is Chanukah, December 25 is Christmas and December 26 is Kwanzaa, but did you know December 10th is Human Rights Day? December 14th is International Monkey Day? December 17th is National Syrup Day? December 21 is Crossword Puzzle Day. And December 28th is Card Playing Day. And there’s lots more – at least one for every day of the month.
In researching some pretty crazy holidays, like Brown Shoe Day on December 4th, I came across Boxing Day, which is the day after Christmas. I’ve always completely ignored Boxing Day as a) I thought it was a Canadian holiday and b) I thought it was about physical boxing. Punching people in the face has never appealed to me. But I discovered that’s not what Boxing Day is at all. It’s a day of giving to those who have been of service or those in need. It’s celebrated in countries all over the world. And yes, I feel a little foolish and uninformed. But reading about Boxing Day gave me little thrill bumps. Is there a more perfect holiday for the end of 2020?
Origin stories vary, but there is evidence that this tradition existed in Europe clear back in the Middle Ages. It may have started with the Alms boxes placed in churches to collect offerings or could be tied to the Feast of Saint Stephen which included opening the alms boxes and distributing the money to the poor. The Oxford English Dictionary states that it began in Britain in the 1830s, as a holiday “on which postmen, errand boys and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas box.” Get it? Boxing day.
There is evidence that in the 1600s in Britain, it was a custom for tradesmen to collect “Christmas boxes” of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year and an even older tradition where the servants of wealthy families were allowed the day after Christmas to visit their families since they would have to serve their masters on Christmas day. They were given a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses and sometimes leftover food. So, Boxing Day is a holiday of thanks; of showing gratitude for those who have served us. And although there may be some link to churches 400 years ago, it appears to be a non-religious holiday now, so anyone can participate.
How many people have served us this year, through this terrible pandemic? The doctors, nurses, hospital staff and volunteers, firefighters, ambulance drivers, policemen, teachers, grocery store workers, delivery drivers, postal workers, fast food workers, priests and ministers, neighbors, friends, family, researchers, vaccine study participants…I’m sure I have no idea how many people have indirectly supported me. So, let’s do Boxing Day this year!
Spend some time thinking about someone who has served you this year, helped you in some way get through the struggles that you’ve encountered. What can you do to say thank you? If you’re struggling financially this year, like so many are, a thank-you card or note could substitute for a box. I don’t think it matters at all what’s in the box. What matters is that we give thanks to those who have helped us get through this challenging year.
Boxing Day could also be considered a day to help those in need and there are a lot of people in need right now. Could you help a neighbor or friend out of work right now? Perhaps someone living alone who could use some cheer? What about someone ill, whether COVID-related or not, who needs to know someone cares? And then, of course, there are all of the charitable organizations trying to meet the increased needs of their communities who can always put a donation to good use.
Now we have two ways to improve our mental health during this holiday season. One is sparkles and smells and the other is to show gratitude to someone for their service to you or to the greater good or who might be in need of support. We know from research that the person who gives receives more health benefits from that act that the receiver does, so you’re giving yourself a gift as well by reaching out and doing what you can. It may be 2020, but hey, tis the season anyway.
While we can choose to celebrate a holiday any day of the year, “the season” is an important time to celebrate something. We need to feel good and we need to safeguard our mental health, which frankly has been really overtaxed for almost a year, and we’re not done yet. I know it’s tempting to convince ourselves that it will be okay to get together with our loved ones for just a day or even for just a few hours, but with the pandemic raging out of control, most of us can find other ways to feel the delights of the season without risking making someone we love sick. Or risking our own health. There will be many more Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa celebrations in the future, where we’re all together with those we love and/or have to tolerate. But this year, we could choose to celebrate the season through gratitude and love to those who have helped us make it this far despite the unbelievable conditions we’re living in or by helping those who are suffering. Give it some thought. Spend a mindful moment thinking about who you are grateful for and how you can show your gratitude. Consider how much you have to be grateful for and what you might share with someone in need. What a wonderful way to end a year that most of us can’t wait to be over. I’m so glad I found Boxing Day. It might just become my favorite holiday of the season!
Finally, keep in mind that holidays or not, we can all contribute toward improving our conditions by following relatively simple health guidelines to keep everyone safer. Wear a mask, stay home as much as possible, stay physically distanced from others when out in public and wash your hands frequently. We’re so close to feeling relief, we just have to hang in there a little longer. We just have to be mindful of our own behavior and the impact it can have on others. We just have to remember that as with everything in life, this too will pass. And while the first half of 2021 may not appear to be much better than 2020, it will lay the groundwork for what will hopefully be a joyful holiday season next year where we can smother those we love with all of the hugs and kisses we can muster. In the meantime, go for all of the glitter, sparkle, lights, good smells, sentimentality and giving to others that you can. You’ll be improving your own mental health and you’ll be contributing to improved conditions for others. Happy Holiday season. And happy Boxing Day!