It is the holiday season and the frenetic rush is on. There are gifts to buy and parties to attend. There are family photos to be taken and annual cards to address and mail. There is unspoken pressure to be creative (Pinterest Christmas crafts, anyone?), generous, attractive (Instagram selfies in your party best!), hospitable, and happy at all times. The old carol says that it’s the most wonderful time of year but despite the veneer of good cheer, many people struggle with a nagging sense of melancholy, resentment, and exhaustion during the winter months.
Why is this? The wisdom of Chinese medicine tells us that it is because many aspects of the holiday season (at least as it’s observed in the United States) run directly counter to the natural order of things.
“Humans, just like the natural world, are meant to cycle through seasons of dormancy and new life, activity and contemplation, celebration and sadness, blossom and harvest, openess and closedness, austerity and abundance . I believe that the seasons serve as a lesson book of the soul, instructing us when to move fast and when to slow down, when to act and when to rest, when to focus on the world outside and when to hibernate and go down deep.”
– Adam McHugh, author of The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction
Everything in nature points to the fact that winter is a season of dormancy, slowness, rest, and hibernation. Branches are bare. Fields and skies are gray. Leaves rot on the frozen ground. Some animals are hibernating, others are making do with rations that are much leaner than other times of year. On the surface it appears that nothing is happening, but winter is also a season of preparation. Just as a good night’s rest is necessary for the day’s activity, the austerity of winter is a necessary preparation for the extravagance of spring.
But the holiday season pushes us to do almost exactly the opposite. During the holidays most of us are overwhelmingly busy as we scurry from one celebration to the next. Austerity and simplicity are the furthest things from our minds as we buy, buy, buy, eager to exceed our loved ones’ expectations with the perfect gift. We pay lip service to the spirit of the season, but how many of us find the time for deep meditation, prayer, or reflection? True intimacy with God and our loved ones is impossible amongst all the hubbub, chaos, and noise.
Although modern technologies such as artificial lighting, central heating, and systems of transportation that give us access to out of season foods from hundreds (or even thousands) of miles away mean that we are impacted much less by the seasons than our predecessors were, human beings are still a part of nature and cannot help but be affected by the seasons. The energy of winter is conducive to simplicity, comfort, warmth, and rest. The short days and long nights of the season are an invitation to take the time and space for contemplation and are an opportunity to connect more deeply with ourselves, our loved ones, and with God. Winter is a natural time for turning inward and for retreating from activity and noise. When we ignore these rhythms we reap the consequences in the form of exhaustion, depression, nagging respiratory illnesses, winter weight gain, and a gnawing sense that something isn’t quite right.
With a bit of attention, however, it is possible to live in greater harmony with the season. A few simple strategies include:
For the vast majority of human history, activity during the winter was limited by the length of the day. Once the sun went down, people were limited to tasks that could be completed by firelight or candlelight. Try turning off harsh overhead light fixtures and rely on dim lamps and candles instead. Soft, warm lighting creates cozy spaces that are perfect for reading a book, playing a quiet game, delving deep in conversation over a cup of hot tea or cocoa, or simply sitting quietly and gazing into the dancing flames in the fireplace.
Eat warm, nourishing foods
The wisdom of Chinese medicine tells us that our bodies are happiest and healthiest when we eat foods that are in season. This means that our winter diet should be based on foods like root vegetables, cabbage, squash, potatoes, winter greens, apples, pears, stocks prepared from animals bones, soups, and stews. Properly prepared, these foods infuse the body with warmth and convey the sense of cozy comfort that we crave during the wintertime. If on the other hand we ignore the natural order of things and continue to rely on summer foods such as salads, tropical fruits, and ice cream and iced drinks as dietary staples, then we will be left with a nagging craving for nourishment that leaves us vulnerable to binging on Christmas cookies and overeating in general.
When it comes to a holiday meal, do you really need two types of rolls, four side dishes, and three different kinds of pie? Why not try a big pot of hearty soup and a nice loaf of crusty bread with delicious artisan butter? Does your home have to look like Hobby Lobby or would a few simple decorations do a better job of highlighting the natural beauty of the season? Is it time to ask your extended family whether it is really necessary for each member of the family to buy and wrap gifts for dozens of cousins, in-laws, and nieces and nephews? You might be surprised to learn that others would be just as relieved as you are if the family could agree to fewer presents.
Winter is an ideal time to start a mindfulness meditation practice. Although some may associate mindfulness meditation with eastern spiritual practices such as Buddhism, it can readily be adopted by Christians as a means to grow deeper in faith and to tune our hearts to more readily discern the still, small voice of God.
Jesus told the disciples “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Look at the birds of the air: They do not sow or reap or gather into barns—and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” By practicing mindfulness meditation, we are cultivating our awareness of the present moment and reminding ourselves that no matter what is going on in our lives, we are cared for by an all-powerful and loving God.
When patients complete a course of acupuncture treatment and are released from care, I always encourage them to come back on a quarterly basis for a seasonal tune-up acupuncture treatment. Around the solstices and equinoxes (December 21, March 21, June 21, September 21) is the perfect time for these treatments — acupuncture will help to ease your body’s transition to the coming season. Treatment around the winter solstice is especially helpful since this seasonal transition corresponds with the height of the holiday season.
I have recently developed a special acupuncture protocol to calm the mind, open the heart, and aid in the processing of the difficult emotions that often bubble to the surface during the holidays. This protocol can be added to treatment for other issues or can be done on its own and will leave you feeling centered and serene.
Remember, you are not alone
Would you believe it that just today, THREE patients told me through tears that they are the only person that they know who has a hard time during Christmas? And that’s just today! Over the course of the holiday season, dozens of people will tell me that they are suffering in silence, putting on a cheerful façade to hide from their family and friends that inside they feel tired, resentful, and sad.
The problem is that our culture tells us that the holiday season ought to be all happiness all the time and doesn’t allow for the feelings of grief, depression, loneliness, and disappointment that so many people experience during the holidays. Although the strategies above can have a dramatic and positive impact for many people, if your depression is persistent or severe, connecting with a local mental health professional may be just the thing that you need. If you have thoughts of self-harm or suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.