5 easy ways to survive Christmas

Alternate title: How to survive Christmas without (too much) alcohol or heavy medication

While on a drive with my mother Friday, I counted 78 wreaths, 56 Santa Clauses, 43 porches with lights, 11 inflatable snowglobes, 4 candy canes, 3 choo-choo trains, and some assorted “reindeer” of the unnaturally posed variety that I think the crazy people around the corner keep up year-round even though their “fur” is chipping.

All fun, all bright, all cheery. Except it's the day after Thanksgiving. And we were driving around at 11 am. Which means these households decorated for Christmas:

a) instead of eating Thanksgiving dinner with their family,
b) as the sun rose on Black Friday, or
c) in July.

None of those options is acceptable. Not because I don't think people have a right to celebrate whenever and however they please, or I'm a curmudgeonly Scrooge, or I have an aversion to high, seasonal-based electric bills. Their decorating is unacceptable because it stresses me out.

Here's where I start to hear tsk-tsking from you all. “Julia, it's no skin off your nose if people decorate early -- just more light and cheer to spread around, and you get to enjoy the view. Chill.”

Oh, but if it were only that simple.

You see, when these eager beavers decorate so early, I think of all the other holiday trappings they are probably handling months in advance -- cards, menu planning, gift-buying, wreath-buying, tree-picking, etc. And such careful planning and forethought only serves to remind me that I will be lucky if I make it to Christmas vacation alive, much less with wrapped gifts in tow.

Now, a note: I love Christmas. I love the religious significance, the goodwill, the brightest light in the darkest of winter, the carols, the peace, the togetherness, the waiting.

But I abhor Christmas commercialism -- Black Friday, gift “obligations,” overboard secularism, nonstop commercials, bad pop renditions of classic holiday music, the rush, the mania, and the idea that it all stops cold on Dec. 26.

The latter obstructs, clouds, and diminishes the former. I know few people who walk away feeling rejuvenated or restored. Most breathe a sigh of relief, chuck the wreath, and start jotting down New Year's Resolutions. (Item 1: Don't invite 62 people to Christmas dinner next year.)

The result: a neutered holiday that would pack 100x its spiritual and emotional punch if allowed to occur in its original, elegant, and essential simplicity.

After all, the first Christmas comprised a baby. A family. A star. Visitors. A few thoughtful gifts. Reflection. Music. Humble beginnings. And probably breastfeeding and a good poop. (The last two are totally open to personal interpretation and inclusion.)

So, in an effort to get back to basics this year, I'm declaring a state of Yuletide emergency. I will save my season from others' expectations. Indeed, no stress need occur for ANY of us with the proper precautions. For example:

1. Cancel Christmas cards. They're pretty to look at and good to stack in piles and useful in keeping the USPS in business. But unless you plan to write a personal message and an honest-to-goodness update in yours, don't bother sending them to me. I will not be sending them to you, because I'm spent all year keeping in touch with you and staying interested and active in your life. A card will not amplify and diminish that fact, so I'm not directing energy toward them – especially when I'd rather direct it toward YOU.

2. Forgo gifts. I hereby release you from buying me gifts this year. I am well assured of our love/friendship/respect/working relationship. Scented candles and lotions do not change your status in my life. Instead, put that money toward paying your credit card debt, making a donation, having me over for dinner, etc. I'll get more joy out of it, and so will you.

3. Remember time is of the essence. We are finite creatures. The one thing we cannot create on this earth is more time. This makes our coming together all the more special and critical. Set aside visits/trips/moments with those you love in 2009, and we'll all be richer for it.

4. Think propagation, not obligation. The first -- and greatest -- Christmas gift was an infant. (And yes, I do realize the Josh Groban backstage passes I so desperately covet do not begin to approach this in significance.) Reflect on what will help you feel reborn this holiday season. Is it service? Cooking? Gift exchanges? Travel? Prayer? Whatever it is, dedicate yourself to it and forget the rest. I certainly won't be keeping tallies on what you did or didn't do to mark the season. The world will notice only that you're so sopped with joy, you're spilling it on the rest of us.

5. Look at the calendar. See also: Read the news. Check your email. Call your mother. Christmas is one day. The season is a mere four weeks (unless you're a retailer, in which case it's three months). That's about 1/12 of a wild year in which we saw economic turmoil, an administration change, and the relentless march of world events. And let's not even try to calculate all the births, deaths, illnesses, graduations, weddings, divorces, surprises, fights, dates, meals, vacations, naps, lessons, workdays, and grocery trips that made this year meaningful for you.

So, in admiring recognition of your hard work at this thing called life, I release you from performing any activity you don't find fulfilling in this very short, intense, and manufactured period. Remember: Mary's son arrived despite her glaring lack of bed, roof, or doctor. So will life go on in splendid mayhem for you -- with or without six different kinds of Christmas cookies in your oven.