Is Christmas really the most wonderful time of the year, as crooned by Andy Williams nearly 50 years ago?
“For most people, no,” Casa de la Luz Hospice community educator and end-of-life counselor Marianne Schloss believes.
So many people “deal with the stress that comes from too little money, not enough time, separation within families,” and the weight of self-imposed and cultural expectations, she continues.
Don’t misunderstand — Christmas is a special season, said Schloss, for 35 years a registered nurse who went back to school at age 50, earning a master’s degree in divinity and theology.
In modern America, Christmas has become a “collective frenzy,” seeming to start earlier each year — is not Halloween sacred? It’s manifested in pressure to spend money, insufficient sleep, too much sugar, too much traffic, too much fretting. Colleagues and family members are “distracted, tired and worried.”
At work, people may ask if you’re finished Christmas shopping, implying “there’s a right way to do it.
“There’s not a right way,” Schloss said. “The truth is, it’s our choice, it’s our choice, so we can know and protect the purity of the Christmas spirit,” celebrating our loved ones, feeling a true sense of gratitude for our life, and “if you’re religious, to recognize Jesus,” who was born at this time, and “gave us his life to redeem our lives,” Schloss said.
“I would love to see people empowered to define the holidays in any way they choose to do that, to include ignoring them,” Schloss said, “and they don’t have to feel guilty about that.”
Each of us can control “how much we spend, how much running around we do,” she said. “We can simplify, so we’re not exhausted.
“It’s time to redefine. There’s too much suffering out there to ignore.”
Christmas has no requirements, Schloss believes.
“You don’t have to do anything that does not come from the sense of wholeheartedness, that is not able to be affirmed within yourself,” she said. “You don’t have to do it. By freeing yourself, you can be more gentle and kind and loving to others. In so doing, you can embody the true Christmas spirit.
“If you feel you have to,” and inside you are miserable, “others will see that, others will feel that. It’s a charade, if you go through the motions.”
Christmas is “a hard time, it’s a very confusing time,” she continued. “We all have a litany of problems.” Such is “the nature of life,” and no one has a responsibility to present a Christmas card façade of happiness.
“Say ‘yes’ to everything that is happening, do your very best, recognize you are limited, and be truthful to where you are right now,” Schloss said.
In her work, Schloss regularly helps people in the end stage of life, and their families who are losing a loved one, or a life partner. She hopes they can feel, and act, however they want at Christmastime.
“Give yourself permission to be real, to refuse invitations, to nourish yourself in whatever way you need to,” she said. “Do you want to be alone? Do you want to call a friend for help? Take care of yourself in the way you need to. That may mean not acknowledging the holidays. It’s saying ‘this is where I am, and this is OK, it’s natural and understandable, considering the losses I’ve just experienced.’
“Give yourself permission to be where you are. It’s time to quit pretending, it’s time to stop. When we give ourselves permission to be real, to be who we are, other people have that permission,” and they appreciate it, Schloss said.
“We are always grateful for authenticity.”
From one year to the next, Christmas never the same
No two Christmases are the same, Marianne Schloss observes.
One year, the kids may be home; another year, they’re not. One year, a child is born; another year, a parent passes away. One year, the economy is thriving and money is good; another year, a job loss is imminent, and money is tight.
“Every year changes,” said Schloss, the Casa de la Luz Hospice community educator. “Whatever we are challenged with is sort of amplified at this time of year.”
Christmas is an annual time of reflection, she continued. “When we stop with our families, we are confronted with where we are in life, with what is happening, and the typical familial dynamics where people often judge one another,” Schloss said. “Where am I in my life? How will my family evaluate my life? Am I overweight? In debt? Have I lived up to my parents’ expectations? All of that comes into play.”
She urges people to be gentle and honest with themselves, with others, and with their current circumstances.
“I can’t change this,” Schloss said. “What I have control over is how I respond to it. It’s my choice.” In an uncomfortable family setting, for example, “I can choose to have a good time.”
Christmas always brings back memories. Some are fond; some are not.
“The key, when these memories visit us, is that it’s important to basically welcome whatever arrives in our conscious,” Schloss said. “They are part of what made us who we are.”
In reflection, people can acknowledge “we are not in that place any more.” If those memories are negative, “we didn’t want to replicate them. It makes us better human beings.”
— Dave Perry
The greatest gift just may be our time and attention
Marianne Schloss believes the greatest gift at Christmastime may be … the gift of our whole, undistracted selves to the people we love and care about.
“Perhaps the greatest gifts are the gifts of our loving attention and time,” Schloss said. “Time, with the people we love, with no agenda, to share experiences, talking about how life is going. Those are the gifts, our undistracted time.”
Such immersed attention is at a premium in modern America, the Casa de la Luz Hospice community educator continued.
“We live in a time of great distraction,” Schloss continued. “It is a sickness in our society right now.”
For Schloss, Christmas is a time to put away the technology. “I choose when I am with people to not be” with her phone, her computer, her headset. “When I am with you, please be with me, not on your computer, or your cell phone. This is time to sit and be with me and enjoy each other’s company.”
Nor does she suggest people have to run off to the movies, or sit in front of the TV set. In those environments, “we don’t talk to each other, look at each other, sharing what’s new in our lives,” Schloss said. “What’s important is being together and sharing experiences.” And good food. And games. And simple delights.
“Homemade is good,” Schloss said, be it in the form of baked cookies, or personalized greeting cards, a plant or a tree. “Those cookies will be appreciated, they will really touch somebody,” she said.
To thoughtfully buy just the right gift for someone we love “requires a quiet, focused energy that’s hard to come by in our modern time,” Schloss said. Focused awareness without distraction is real power, she believes. “We are the embodiment of that peace by carrying that with us.”
What does that loved one need right now? In some instances, it may be “a shot of hopefulness,” something to “stimulate resiliency. Think about their unique, individual situation, this year, and what would help them navigate the terrain?” Money is often “the perfect gift.” Or a book. Music. A letter. A note telling a loved one how proud you are of them, recognizing their difficulties, and that you believe in them.
“The gift of acknowledgement is one of the great gifts we can give,” Schloss said. “You are important. I am proud of you. You have persevered.”
Find situations that may hold mystery, surprise of holiday
At Christmastime, people find fulfillment when they experience the mystery and surprise of the season, Casa de la Luz Hospice community educator Marianne Schloss believes.
“What moves you? That’s what we are looking for, to be moved,” the end-of-life counselor said. “We can create situations where it’s more likely to be awakened.”
She had an encounter with a homeless man, seated on the ground, his cup extended for charity. Schloss bent toward him with a small amount of money. He looked at her, each at eye level with the other, and said he would not buy drugs nor alcohol with the money. She wanted him to do whatever he needed to do, no strings attached, and told him as much.
For a moment their eyes met. For a moment, neither was homeless or sheltered, of means or impoverished. They were rather just two human beings, connected and communicating, for a moment.
“I got up, and the Christmas spirit was awakened,” Schloss said.
“Awaken the spirit within us,” she encourages, by baking cookies, or giving to those in need. If the Salvation Army bell is ringing, and we give, the act may awaken that “element of mystery and surprise” that makes the holidays special.
“We don’t know where it’s going to be found,” she said. “With the intention, we will find it. Pay attention. Help those who are struggling, and come in touch with the true Christmas spirit.”
Eat right, sleep, exercise, and find quiet time
Research shows five things can help make the holidays bright, Casa de la Luz community educator Marianne Schloss said.
Proper eating, adequate sleep, exercise, proper medication use, and prayer or meditation “have been found to shift” the states of our body, our mind, our heart and our spirit during the stress of Christmas, Schloss said.
“You have the option to shift your vantage point,” she continued. “I am not a victim of my situation. I have options.”