A Grinch’s survival guide for holiday haters

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site  |  December 22, 2011  |  Circulation: 100,000 average monthly readers.

Okay, so you might not hate Christmas or Hanukkah.

Or maybe you just won’t admit it. Perhaps you’re grieving a loss or trauma, have issues with your homophobic family, are frustrated by Christian ethnocentrism, or are just flat-out depressed. There’s lots of decent, though still socially unacceptable, reasons to get irritated this time of the year.

Good news is, you’re not alone.

I will readily admit my dismay when I heard a jazzed-up, Muzak version of ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ playing in a store the day before Halloween. It’s bad enough that Hallmark and the Gods of Commerce decided that winter holidays begin on November 1. Hey, why don’t we just suffer through Christmas all year round?

Even for festive fanatics out there, most have felt frustrated at one point or another: getting stuck in traffic downtown because of the Santa Claus parade; steeling ourselves for stressful family visits; leaving shopping too late; or forgetting the cranberry sauce and facing complaints from the family asshole.

Have no fear: The Vancouver Observer offers this how-to guide for you holidayGrinches – and those that know them.

How to insulate yourself from the madness

It’s almost impossible to find anywhere to totally block out the sounds of those proverbial overjoyed Whos down in Who-ville. No matter where you go this week, there will be some vestige of Jingle Bell jolliness. But if you want some down-time, one of the finest (and least busy) places in the city is the BloedelConservatory.

Located at the top of Queen Elizabeth Park, this is one of Vancouver’s gems – and one of the few last refuges from Christmas mayhem. The conservatory calms me down, recharges my sense of hope, and, most importantly, offers a blast of warmth in an often-chilly and grey city.

If you haven’t been – or are traumatized by memories of Pauly Shore in the film Biodome – the conservatory hosts 100 free-flying tropical birds, 500 varieties of tropical and desert plants, and Koi fish swimming in a waterfall-fed pond.

Despite a cheesy Santa-Claus-with-surfboard display near the entrance, the conservatory’s low-key holiday decorations only add to the warming tropical effect. Its exotic rain forest foliage is adorned with colourful lights, but fear not: there is no strain of Christmas music or over-the-top flashing colours. You can meander through its pathways, or simply grab a bench under a papaya tree and relax.

Located east of Cambie at 33rd Avenue – closest to Prince Edward Skytrainstation – the Bloedel is the perfect get-away and is open until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until January 2 (it’s closed Christmas Day).

Steveston Buddhist Temple
An alternative holiday escape might include Richmond’s Steveston Buddhist Temple (4360 Garry St., off Steveston Highway). This sprawling meditative complex features a Buddha statue with thousands of arms, a small restaurant and tea shop, and lots of places to sit quietly. It also has a New Year’s service at 11:30 p.m. on December 31.
How to survive the winter woes

Vancouver’s perpetually cloudy, grey winter skies can bring doldrums to anyone. Lacking nature’s best anti-depressant – sunshine – or the summer’s outdoor activities for exercise, it’s no wonder so many Vancouverites suffer from depression and the appropriately acronymed Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

For many, the winter holidays often trigger their own bout of depression or anxiety – but the stress of family conflict, remembering deceased or estranged loved ones, and the pressure for a perfect get-together can kill almostanyone’s mood.

Many faith communities offer “Blue Christmas” services (such ashere and here), which honour difficult times and offer a place for those not in the mood for festivities. (if you know of any coming up, add them below).

I’ve found a source of quiet inspiration in the St. Paul’s Labyrinth (1130 Jervis Street).

Copied from an ancient meditation tool discovered on the floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France, the floor-painted pattern is an interfaith tool for spiritual grounding and reflection.

“The labyrinth is a spiritual form that is open to people of all faiths and spiritual disciplines as a resource for meditation, reflection, and prayer,” states the project’s website. “People come to walk its winding path for countless reasons. For many, it is a way of centering themselves or of seeking insight during times of transition in their lives. For others, it is a channel for relating to the Divine.”

Don’t worry – you can’t get lost. That’s the difference between mazes (which have dead-ends) and labyrinths (a single, meandering path leads to the centre). And, unlike the ancient mythical labyrinths, this one doesn’t host abull-headed minotaur.

Over New Years there will be live music – making it one of the most unique of Vancouver’s New Years events. You can walk the labyrinth starting at 6 p.m. on New Year’s Eve (a service opens the evening at 5 p.m.), with an array of professional musicians until 12:15 a.m. There are instructions on-site, as well as a wall to which you can pin your wishes and intentions for the coming year.

The labyrinth is also open for its usual fleeting hours of operation (Tuesday to Friday, 8:30-9:30 a.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to noon; Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.).

Local blogger Angela Wheelock — whose website Sitting With Sorrow is a must-read for those struggling with depression, anxiety, or trauma — offers holiday advice to help survive a time when the pressure’s on to act celebratory.

“If you don’t feel similarly happy, all of this good cheer can be as grating as fingernails scraping across a blackboard,” she writes. “Even worse, it can trigger deep sadness or a sense of being cut off from the people who are bustling about getting ready for the holidays. Worse yet, are the parties that are obligatory this time of year and family gatherings where you feel like you have to fake being happy.

“It is important not to beat up on yourself during the holidays. Increasing the pressure, when there’s already more than enough to go around, won’t help. Coping with the holidays is just plain hard work.”

Among Wheelock’s suggestions:

  • Spend as much time as possible alone
  • As tempting as it may be, try to reduce (or cut out) your alcohol intake
  • Avoid malls and noisy, crowded spaces
  • Get exercise. Go for walks whenever possible
  • Don’t stress over “the perfect gift.” There isn’t one.
  • Buy lots of candles to light up the dark nights
  • Take time to thank family, friends, and strangers who give you a reason to smile
  • Give back in whatever ways you can

“And if all else fails,” she concludes, “put on the soundtrack to ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ and dance.”

How to cope with a holiday when you’re grieving

If you are grieving the loss of a friend or family member – or, as in my family’s case last Christmas, supporting a sister-in-law with terminal cancer – I recommend resources from hospice care services. As the Hospice Foundation of America (HFA) writes in ‘Tips for Coping with the Holidays when you’re grieving’:

“Some people find it helpful to be with family and friends, emphasizing the familiar,” writes Kenneth Doka, a senior consultant with HFA. “Others may wish to avoid old sights and sounds, perhaps even taking a trip. Others will find new ways to acknowledge the season.”

Doka offers the following tips for coping this Christmas:

  • Prepare yourself emotionally. “It’s not uncommon to feel out of sorts with the celebratory tone of the season,” Doka writes. “The additional stress may affect you emotionally, cognitively, and physically; this is a normal reaction.”
  • Be flexible with your traditions. Mixing things up is an acknowledgement that things aren’t the same as they were before your loss — there is no point in pretending all is well. Doka suggests trying out new menus, customs or decorations. “If you try to keep everything as it was, you’ll be disappointed,” he writes. “Doing things a bit differently can acknowledge the change while preserving continuity with the past.”
  • Avoid unnecessary stress. Perhaps there are tasks that can be left undone, or that you could work on with others. For instance, maybe you could order in some of the holiday meal dishes instead of making them from scratch, or host a potluck.

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How to wage a holiday revolution

Few people rejoice in the holidays being turned into consumer blow-outs. The gift-giving extravaganza – originally from stories of St. Nicholas redistributing wealth to the poor – has exploded into an all-out frenzy of commercial sleaze and competition.

People have been complaining about the pressure to give expensive, elaborate presents for years. But in this depressed economic climate, the idea of returning to a simpler holiday time is front-and-centre for many.

“This Christmas we’ll be swamped with offers, ads and invitations to buy more stuff,” says the website for Buy Nothing Christmas – a much-needed project from the editor of Geez Magazine. “But now there’s a way to say enough and join a movement dedicated to reviving the original meaning of Christmas giving.”

Aiden Enns – a former editor with Adbusters – admits that buying nothing is not an option for all.

“When you do buy things, we encourage you to remember principles like buying locally, fairly-traded, environmentally friendly packaging, recycling or re-using, buying things that last, and so on,” he writes.

“The main aim of this campaign is not to save money (although that can be a side benefit), it’s not to slow down the pace of Christmas (although that can be a side benefit), it is to challenge our over-consumptive lifestyle and how it affects global disparities and the earth.”

Whether you are trying to reduce your anxiety, reduce your environmental impact, or connect more deeply with your loved ones – there are lots of ideas out there for simplifying the holidays:

  • Instead of shopping for mountains of gifts, create a craft, offer a donation, or share an experience (such as a special dinner, a hike together, or teaching a skill).
  • If you do give material gifts, give simpler, thoughtful ones. A used bookof inspiring poetry. Baked goods, which don’t add household clutter (only pounds). Fair trade handiwork from Ten Thousand Villages.
  • Connect with Buy Nothing Christmas. Check out their hilariouscatalogue of $0 gifts (my favourites: “bagel fest,” “horsey ride,” “wild domesticity” — you can submit your own).
  • If one person tends to do all the decorating or cooking in your home, suggest sharing the tasks so holiday meals are more fun – and less stressful. Even small children can be involved in mixing and mashing (seriously, my nephews LOVE mashing things). Perhaps such efforts to share house-work can extend beyond the holidays.
  • Contribute to a project you care about. Whether its time spent volunteering at a homeless shelter, or a donation to an organization working for social change, giving back benefits everyone. Decide on an act of compassion with your family that can broaden your sense of community.

In conclusion, there are lots of reasons that the Christmas and Hanukkah season can turn into a festering festival of frustration. Fear not! You’re definitely not alone. In the words of Dr. Seuss’ Grinch:

“’Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!’ And what happened then? Well in Who-ville they say, that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!”

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