Holidays With Grace

A friend of mine once asked a 6-year-old girl what she wanted to be when she grew up.

"A person with really long arms," the child answered.

"Why?" my friend asked.

"So I can reach across the table and eat all the chocolate chip cookies before my brother gets any."

"So, when you are 25, do you think you will still want all the chocolate chip cookies?"

"Yes," the girl said.

"Do you think that adults want the same things they did when they were children?"


When I heard this story, I thought about my friend Minnie who, when I started teaching her to eat intuitively, bought six packages of Sara Lee brownies and ate them all, even though she didn't really like brownies. Why, I then asked, did she choose to gorge on something that didn't even thrill her?

"Because," she said, "I wasn't allowed to eat them when I was a kid, and now that I can eat what I want, I'm making up for lost time."

Makes sense. But only if you believe that you are still that same kid. Only if you believe that you can make up for deprivation in the past by eating everything you want now.

Which brings us to the holiday season, when the child you used to be is in full command, ordering you to give her all the things she wasn't allowed to eat — fruitcake or Sara Lee brownies or sugar cookies with red and green sprinkles or anything else she wants. And while we are eating, we will feel free, which we never truly felt as children because the big people were lording it over us, telling us what to do.

The truth that we didn't want to admit back then is that kids do need adults to set limits, to say, "No, honey, you'll be sick if you eat the whole plate of cookies and then drink three glasses of eggnog." During the holidays, if we make decisions about what to eat based on the desires of the children we were, we get lost and dazed and fatter. It's as if we are possessed by so many desires, memories, and needs from the past that we can't figure out what the adult in us truly wants right then.

Mention the word Christmas or Hanukkah and a panoply of childhood images floods your mind: the food, the family gatherings, the beliefs about what needs to happen to make this a successful holiday. And then of course, there is the current stress — the hours of shopping, cooking, traveling — as you try to make this holiday fit your picture of the perfect celebration. But because nothing in the present moment can actually be perfect, you collapse on the bed exhausted and turn to butter cookies with colored sprinkles for comfort.

Although I realize I am treading on sacred ground here — no one wants to admit that they don't love the holidays as much as they are supposed to — I'd like to express two thoughts that could make you feel less calorically uncomfortable this season.

The first is that if you remember past holidays as perfect and glorious, most likely your brain has chosen to retain the Disney version of events rather than the truth of what really happened. Which is this: During the holidays, someone's feelings always get hurt, someone ends up with a cheap necklace instead of a beautiful amethyst ring, someone walks out in a huff. There is no such thing as an all-good season. We're imperfect beings and mistakes are made.

Don't try for perfection. Do the best you can within your limits and let the rest take care of itself. Despite the voice that tells you otherwise, you are not in control of the immediate universe. And since you can't achieve world domination, maybe you should try to control what you can control, which is what you eat.

My second thought is that you might ask yourself what you want now. If the answer is that you want long arms so that you can grab all the cookies or that you want to hide the plum pudding in your bedroom so you can eat it all before bed tonight, you know that the child in you is directing the show. That child is opening your mouth, putting the food in, grabbing for more.

Take a moment, take 15 moments, and write down some notes about your ideal holiday. Mention people's names and particular things you want to give (and what you'd like to receive). Name the foods you want to have. Now, read over your words and notice where you got those ideas. Are they the longings of a lonely child or of a satisfied adult? Do they resemble feelings you had the year your mother died or the year you got divorced or had your first child?

Notice if what you want now, from this holiday, has to do with this year, or does it relate to a holiday celebration that happened — or that you wish had happened — 20 years ago. Ask yourself if this vision is relevant to your life and desires now. Allow yourself to hear the child in your longing, if she is there. And if your longing is really a child's longing, be tender with that child. But don't confuse her with your adult self.

If, for instance, you find yourself alone one day of the holidays, it doesn't have to mean you are unlovable. A child might equate being alone with being lonely, but you don't have to see it that way. You can be alone and still be aware of the love that is around and in you.

If you are surrounded by people on the holiday, notice their faces, their laughter, their idiosyncrasies, but then also be conscious that you, the adult, may need to take care of yourself in ways that you normally don't when guests are around. You might need to take a walk or a nap. Or push away the last piece of cake. Or not automatically give that last piece away if you really want it.

Holidays can be illuminated, tender, horrible, painful, fragile, glorious times because they exaggerate our longings, our love, our generosity, and our selfishness — and they evoke dreamy dreams of angels and peace and miracles. But if we are aware that the holidays, like life, are often more messy than magical, and if we can combine our childlike longings with the tenderness and power of our adult selves, then we are more likely to ride through this season with a measure of grace in our lives and ease in our bodies. And that's what I call a mini miracle.


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