By Darla Isackson

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, my husband pulled all the Christmas boxes out of storage and offered to help me assemble our artificial tree. I sighed deeply, because my attention was on three tables in the family room piled with unfinished picture history Christmas gift projects. How did December get here so quickly? Our December calendar was already filling up, I still wasn’t over a nasty flu bug, and everything “loomed.” Letters to family, friends, and missionaries needed to be written, neighbor and visiting teaching presents wrapped and delivered. I hadn’t even begun to decide on many of the presents I needed to give family and close friends!  And now, what if I couldn’t finish the picture histories I had started for each son?  For years I had worked toward having a peaceful and satisfying December. But Christmas was feeling like pressure and impossible goals again.

I went to bed early with a headache, but didn’t sleep well. About 2:00 a.m. I wrapped up in a warm afghan, and drug myself to my “inspiration corner” (a place in the living room where I keep scriptures, notebook, and my prayer and ponder pages). The soft glow from the twinkly lights on the artificial tree calmed me a little as I started a “to do” list in an attempt to clear the clutter in my mind. The list was long and daunting, however, and its heaviness seemed to weigh me down even more.

The Spirit Brings Relief

My tired eyes landed on my Bible; I picked it up reverently and turned to the second Chapter of Luke:

“And there were in the same country, shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2: 8-14

The familiar, majestic words cleansed and refreshed my weary mind. “Tidings of great joy. . . . peace on earth”–that’s exactly what I needed!  Waves of relief washed over me as I remembered that I truly have a choice: I can stay “in the world” and waste this Christmas season in stress and exhaustion. Or, I can choose peace and joy by remembering my Savior and what Christmas is all about.  How grateful I felt in that moment for the scriptures–my anchor, my guide, my reminder of eternal perspectives and priorities.

The Stress Question

How can I choose more joy than stress in December?  What is stress anyway?  I know from study and experience about the extended “flight or fight” response; an elevated level of adrenaline over a period of time creates exhaustion.  Still, some stress is healthy: new experiences and challenges energize me, help me think more sharply and function on a higher level.  However, stress is cumulative. Pains in my stomach, tight muscles, a foggy or forgetful mind clue me in that I’ve crossed the line from healthy stress to unhealthy.  When stress first starts to pile up it’s like walking through ankle-deep snow. However, if I don’t change either the source or the way I’m processing the stress, it just keeps building up. Before I know it I’m trying to wade through waist-high snow–no easy task!  I’ve sometimes been stubborn enough to ignore stress until it gets clear up to my eyebrows and stops me dead! How mothers like me have experienced pushing ourselves to the limit until Christmas morning we are total zombies!

Resisting What Is

Since I became an adult, I’ve always had mixed feelings about December. There are so many things I love: the music, the lights, the manger scenes, revisiting the story of the First Christmas, increased concern for the needy, for children, for the elderly.  So, why have I so often gotten into unhealthy stress?  I recently heard a new definition of stress on a tape set called The Heart of the Soul by Gary Zukav and Linda Francis.  It was: “Stress is resisting what is.”  What about “what is” have I resisted that can makes the Christmas season stressful?  Well, for a starter, the increased traffic, the commercialism, and the ads that say you can give happiness by giving “things.”

What else do I resist about December? I resist the reality that there are the same number of hours in each December day and the same number of days in this month. I resist the fact that all the regular chores–cooking, laundry, cleaning, errands, church responsibilities and regular work still have to be done, leaving such a little time for the multitudinous Christmas activity options. I resist seeing that it is obviously impossible to fit five times as many activities into a day and that I need the same amount of sleep as usual in order to stay healthy. I resist the fact that it will probably take me the whole next year to finish the picture histories I’ve started for each of my sons. I resist knowing that it is crazy to start any major projects anytime near December and think I will miraculously find time to finish them before the 25th. I resist being realistic about the extra time it takes to drive anywhere and shop during December; I resist the reality of the lines and the waiting. I resist December expectations that don’t fit my personality, such as crafts and baking. I resist having sugar pushed at me everywhere I go. Can I quit resisting December dilemmas and learn to have a more enjoyable, peaceful holiday season?

Many Options, Many Choices

I can remember that the gift my family wants most is my love–and I’m not at all good at giving it when I am pressured, frazzled, worn out, and grouchy from lack of sleep. How can I choose joy instead of stress in December? How can I take care of myself so I can be pleasant and loving to my family? How can I embrace the positives of “What Is” about the Christmas season? Here are some of the ideas I’ve come up with:

         Set aside projects that are too time consuming. I can choose to good-naturedly assign them a new time-frame, a new purpose. Can I finish them for birthdays as they come along, or for next Christmas? Any month but December would undoubtedly be a better time to work on them. (Here’s how I’ve decided to solve my picture history dilemma: I purchased two inexpensive 3-ring binders for each son. One I labeled “finished,” and the other “working pages.” I will give each of them the binder containing the sheets I have finished–or can finish without stress in the next few days–and explain that this is a work in progress that I will add to periodically.)

         Make a “Not-To-Do” List

         In years past I have asked each of my sons what Traditions are important to them in this season. One of them said my special hot spiced punch had good memories for him and he wanted to continue that tradition. Such a simple thing! But how would I have known he cared if I hadn’t asked? The baking I resist so strongly, was fortunately not important to anyone, so I put it at the top of my “not–to-do” list! I’ve thought a lot about what is really important to me–spiritually, emotionally, physically. Any of the traditions or traditional Christmas “busy work” that doesn’t seem to be important to me or other family members, I add to my “not-to-do” list.

         Rejoice that Jesus was born. In my journal, or a special letter I can praise my Heavenly Father for giving His Only Begotten Son to save the world from sin and death.

         Have decorations that focus on Him. When my daughter-in-law Heidi couldn’t find tree ornaments that were Christ-centered, she made them! She cut out the little pictures of Jesus that grace the Greg Olson calendars and mounted them on velvet ribbon and set them off with glowing beads. She also made felt manger scenes, camels, stars, and dove of peace ornaments. Her children love them, and I love the ones she gave me for my little living room tree. When I make more room in my house for nativity scenes and pictures of Christ than for Santas and snowmen, I am also inclined to make more room for Christ in my heart.

         Fill my house with sacred music, sing and play my favorite cantatas, attend a select few Christmas concerts and plays that I know will fill my heart with “the wonder of Christmas.” The right music had such an amazing way of conveying the Spirit.

         Remember the December I spent some of each quiet early morning savoring the story of Christ’s birth and ministry in Proctor’s book The Source of the Light. Each picture of the land where Jesus lived brings more reality to my thoughts of his life and mission. I’m going to put that book in the living room again and spend time with it!

         Write my testimony of Christ to family members to go with whatever gifts I choose for them. On of the most important things I can give to them is the knowledge that I KNOW.

         Remember the importance of gifts that have family history significance, and plan to have more completed for them next year–Not only picture histories, but a picture pedigree and special stories of each pictured ancestor.

         Start or reinstate Christ-centered traditions, such as a birthday party for Jesus–complete with a birthday cake. Or have each family member write on Christmas Eve what they intend to “give” Jesus during the New Year–and review how they did on last year’s promise. (I have a special silver-wrapped box to keep each person’s sealed envelope in. My friend Patricia has a “Jesus” stocking for the same purpose.)

Putting First Things First

December is a great time to adopt the policy I read about in Elder Groberg’s book The Fire of Faith. He said that the more he had to do, the more important he considered it to spend time in prayer and scripture reading and asking the Lord’s Spirit to guide and strengthen and calm him. I will remember that guideline and try to follow it. I will also remember the Lord kindly counseling Mary about being “careful and troubled about many things.” I will ask the Lord to help me, instead, to choose the “one thing that is needful.” Christmas is such a perfect time to choose that “one thing” –to focus on the Savior. The sacramental prayer gives me a perfect formula for choosing joy instead of stress. If I try with all my heart to simply remember Jesus always, I can have the best Christmas gift of all–His Spirit to be with me.