Editor’s Note: Beloved Meridian author Darla Isackson passed away. We will continue to share her wonderful insights here periodically.

I sadly confess that in December, the month we celebrate the birth of Christ, I have sometimes felt and acted more stressed than Christ-like. I’ve tried to convince myself that all the “giving” I was stressing over is what Jesus and Christmas is all about. However, the kind of giving I tend to be focused on is not Christ-like giving at all. I’ve yet to find a scripture that tells of Jesus giving a material gift. In my wildest imaginations I can’t picture Him spending hours in the marketplace searching for the perfect “thing” to give a family member. What He gave was himself. He gave healing, understanding, spiritual wisdom, and the superb gift of His calm and loving presence.

A few times He did feed people—which is definitely one of the things we are inclined to do during the holidays. But his loaves and fishes were to refresh those who had been without food for many hours, not to tempt the appetite. And mostly He offered spiritual food and refreshment, the Bread of Life, Living Waters.

We Can Change the Way We Celebrate

This Christmas season I want so much to give in a more Christ-like way. The way of peace and the way of the Lord is not hurry and frazzled nerves and feeling like I’m juggling a hundred different balls. I have a choice and can refuse to get caught up in this juggling act. I can choose to slow down and walk the path of peace. I can choose to make Christmas more about Christ. The first and second great commandments are to love God and each other. That’s the joyful kind of guideline I want to practice now, this month, this day!

Focusing on What Matters

December is a good time to check up on myself to see if the focus of my time and energies makes spiritual sense.

When I have too much scheduled, truly important things like expressing love get squeezed right out. Author Dorothy Nielsen said, “In my most successful days, I slow down and schedule breaks to recharge my batteries. You might find me gazing out the window, calling a friend, browsing through a book, having a giggle session with a teenage daughter, or rocking a child. I learned long ago that spending time for loving, listening, and understanding is not wasting time; it’s putting it to the very most significant use. These slowdown times help me go faster on my other jobs. And after all, it’s not saving minutes that matter, it’s saving memories.”

Taking time to hug a little child or pat a friend’s shoulder and listen to her problems is important. I’ve learned not to feel like I should be doing something “more productive.” There is nothing more productive than love.

The Spirit’s voice does not urge us to speed, to hurry, or to stress, but to the calm of caring, the peace of purpose. Following the promptings brings simplicity, not overwhelm. It helps us say, “no” to many things so that we may say “yes” to the few God tells us are ours alone to do.

Here’s how Janice Kapp Perry found a way to do that one Christmas. She said “Instead of sending stacks of impersonal cards I chose five people who were really suffering from serious problems or losses. I wrote them each a deeply personal letter of understanding and concern. I told them I knew how difficult this season must be for them and expressed my love . . . “I truly believe the most Christ-like thing we can do at Christmas is to reach out to people who are suffering. If we do that, we don’t need to harbor guilt for all the millions of other things we don’t get done. (Latter-day Woman Magazine, Holiday Issue, 1986).

I love her idea because it sounds so unhurried and loving.

However, facts are facts: no matter how much we simplify and try to focus on loving, December can easily be the busiest month of the year. Even the most Christ-centered celebration requires time and preparation.

Let’s Be Realistic!

There are only 24 hours in each day of December, just as in any other month; yet in addition to all the regular chores—cooking, laundry, cleaning, errands, church responsibilities and regular work, we somehow expect to fit in a multitude of Christmas activities. It is obviously impossible to fit five times as many activities into a month and not get worn out. I need the same amount of sleep in December–or more than usual in order to stay healthy, yet I’m inclined to get much less.

I know it is crazy to start projects in December and think I will miraculously find time to finish them before the 25th , yet how many Decembers have I done just that? It takes extra time to drive anywhere because of traffic; it takes extra time to shop because of the crowds—yet I sometimes expect that if I just hurry I can get more done in less time than usual. I want to serve much more than usual when I have fewer discretionary hours than any other time. Unrealistic expectations and over-ambitious goals can wreak havoc with our dispositions.

Christmastime burnout is more than a remote possibility; it has almost become the norm. Unrealistically high expectations of ourselves feeds the fire. Dean Larsen said that “over-zealousness is at least as much to be feared as apathy. Trying to measure up to too many expectations without some sense of self-tolerance can cause spiritual and emotional burnout.” How can we avoid burnout and unrealistic expectations? How can we take ourselves apart from the clamor so common in our culture and maintain or regain our physical, emotional, and spiritual health? How can we learn honor the Savior by celebrating his birth in a more peaceful way?

Perhaps the first thing we need to do is to prioritize and pare down our goals. Everyone I’m around will enjoy the season more if I’m not under pressure. How many of the gifts I’m planning to give this season are really meaningful? Which ones will actually make a difference? The gift my family needs most is my love and good example—and I’m not good at giving it when I am hurried, pressured, frazzled, worn out, and grouchy from lack of sleep. It is not a selfish goal to take care of myself, eat healthy food, rest when I need to, and be realistic in my commitments.

I’ve found two suggestions really helpful to accomplish the goal of a more peaceful December: 1. Slow down, and 2. have longer “not-to-do-lists” than “to-do lists. Let me explain.

1. It Is Possible to Slow Down and Get More Done

Many times slowing down is exactly what is needed to become more efficient and more effective in whatever we choose to do at Christmastime. A person who works from a place of calm purpose is likely to accomplish a lot more than one with frazzled nerves and a pressured sense of hurry. When we’re feeling really rushed, we can become inefficient and so task oriented we can become insensitive to the needs of those around us. So let’s slow down!

Quoting Dorothy Nielsen again: “This is what hurrying did for me recently. I hurried to get the Jello salad in the car and spilled it on the garage floor, so I got to the dinner late.

As I was hurrying home to clean it up I smashed the fender of my car on a pole outside the garage. I hurried to get an estimate to get the fender fixed and was late for Dan’s cello lesson. I hurried home to call his teacher, slipped in the Jello on the garage floor and yelled, ‘I don’t have time for this, I’m going to be late for PTA!’ No wonder I tell myself often, you’ve got a lot to do today, so slow down. By going slower, I get twice as much done. Slowing down to get more done means focusing my attention completely on the task at hand: placing the Jello safely in the car, carefully steering past the pole. It means not worrying, fretting and stewing, but just doing. Worry and hurry doesn’t improve my performance, it hinders it.” So let’s slow down!

2. Make more “Not-To-Do” lists than “To-Do” lists.

If a traditional task or goal seems daunting, if a project could wait until after the holidays (or can be eliminated altogether), we can put them on a “Not-To-Do” list. For example, If I haven’t finished a project before Dec. 1st I put it on my December “not to do list.” The world is not going to fall down if I don’t finish it until next year.

Any kind of food that takes hours of preparation goes on a “Not-To-Do” list. Too many delicious foods can be put together in a jiffy to wear myself out with the other kind. Any holiday tradition that takes a lot of time should be re-evaluated. Is it worth the time? We can ask family members which traditions are important to them and which aren’t. One friend told me her family eliminated a lot of stress when they cut out the tradition of picking out a live tree in the freezing cold, over-busy evenings of December in favor of a good quality artificial tree they could put up early.

We’ve been programmed to keep careful track of all the things we need to do. Now let’s start pinpointing the things that aren’t worth doing. The saying “Anything worth doing is worth doing well should be altered to say “many things are not worth doing at all, and many things are not worth doing well because they’re not worth the time it takes to do them well. Only a few things are worth the best energies that we have. The most important decisions we have to make in December as in other times, is whether we are using our time to draw near unto Christ. Only when the answer is “Yes” can we maintain a calm spiritual center so we can contribute to those around us in a meaningful ways and live true to our deepest values.

A Closer Walk with Him

Sometimes, in our frantic Christmas rush, we rush away from Him. Even when we are sure our desires are righteous and that we are prompted by Him, we can remember that the Lord never gives us marching orders and tells us to leave Him and get it done ASAP. He never wants us to leave Him behind and hurry off and get the job done on our own. He never says, “don’t’ come back until you get this done!”

Instead, He says, “Come unto me, remember me, walk with Me.”  He never wants us to leave the sweet, peaceful, hopeful, calm influence of His Presence and be lured away into a state of hurry and anxiety and fear and tension. When the Spirit prompts me to some specific task that is His will for me, it is always something the Lord wants us to do TOGETHER. I need to be willing to just “be still,” and let Him be in charge.  If I have the wisdom to stay with Him, walk with Him, He is the One who provides the power to carry out the job, in His own good time (which is always for the best good of everyone.) Anything on my “To do” list that I can’t approach in that way, I should consider deleting!

I challenge you to lengthen your “Not-To-Do list” and generate a plan for slowing down. We always have choice, we always have options. It really is up to us. We can choose to do December differently this year. We can choose to do better at following Christ’s example of love and peace. That is my new December goal!