Zen for the Holidays  —  10 Tips

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series Zen 101


Zen for the Hol­i­days is a col­lec­tion of hints and tips for dial­ing down the dra­ma and being present dur­ing try­ing times.

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How often I found where I should be going only by set­ting out for some­where else.”
~ R. Buck­min­ster Fuller

Noth­ing ups the ante for fam­i­ly dra­ma bet­ter than “going Home for the Hol­i­days.” (You real­ly need to see the movie…)

Typ­i­cal­ly, past dra­mas are min­i­mized as peo­ple play the “this year it will be dif­fer­ent” game.

Peo­ple expect Nor­mal Rock­well gatherings,

when “those gath­ered ’round” more close­ly resem­ble the Bunkers.

There are ways to change the game… but only if you decide to end the old game, AND replace it with some­thing Zen.


In no par­tic­u­lar order, 10 con­cepts for
a more inter­est­ing and insight­ful Holiday

junk pile

1. Stuff the Stuff

So, how much is enough, how much is too much? 

I’m an only child (sur­prised?) and Hol­i­day Glut was expect­ed. I got 20–30-40 presents, and my par­ents spent them­selves into the poorhouse. 

When Dar and I start­ed hang­ing out, I per­suad­ed her to adopt my spend­ing habits. I’m embar­rassed to admit that, in the 80s to ear­ly 90s, we spent in excess of $3,000 on each other.

One year, we set a bud­get. That worked. 

In 96, we actu­al­ly thought about our spend­ing. We weren’t depriv­ing our­selves year round, so why all the stuff for the Hol­i­days? We declared a mora­to­ri­um on spend­ing for each oth­er, and lim­it­ed our spend­ing for fam­i­ly mem­bers. Decades lat­er, we still spend ZERO on each oth­er. What a relief!

The Zen in this: Your worth is not deter­mined by how much crap you have, and your val­ue to oth­ers is not con­nect­ed to what they give you, or how much they spend.

Time to grow up and exit Toy-land.


2. Qual­i­ty Trumps Quantity

A fol­low on to the above, but think about it. How many hours, days, are you will­ing to throw away plan­ning events, shop­ping, run­ning your­self ragged, just to put on a larg­er dog-and-pony-show than last year? (Par­en­thet­i­cal­ly, I’ve been hear­ing sto­ries of kids par­ties cost­ing 6–10 thou­sand! Yikes. Talk about try­ing to buy your kid’s admiration.)

Is it real­ly that satisfying?

One client always began plan­ning Christ­mas in Octo­ber, and her plan­ning was mak­ing her­self mis­er­able by reliv­ing past dis­as­ters and pre­dict­ing worse sce­nar­ios this year. Why?

Because Christ­mas is real­ly spe­cial and should be per­fect!” Yikes.

The Zen in this: Instead of hav­ing an “I’ve sac­ri­ficed the most for the Hol­i­days’ con­test,” give it all up. Then, put back the bare min­i­mum. With all of the hours you free up, spend some qual­i­ty time, peace­ful­ly, with your near­est and dearest.

Inter­nal sat­is­fac­tion trumps exter­nal shows every time.


The Allens, a Mac­Naughton, and Jazz, 2000

3. Your Fam­i­ly is Your Family

Dig out a few fam­i­ly group pictures.

Line them up on a table or counter, and look, real­ly look, at each per­son pic­tured. Repeat: “These are not the Wal­tons. These are my kith and kin. They are as they act, and are as they are, and noth­ing more.”

Many peo­ple want the Hol­i­days they see on TV, with grand­pa Wal­ton read­ing “The Night Before Christ­mas” to the kids, and every­one being of exces­sive­ly good cheer.

Your fam­i­ly is who they are. They are how they act, year after year. Stop judg­ing them! Just because you don’t like how they act is nev­er, and was nev­er, enough to get them to change.


Who do you think you are, anyway, dictating how others ought to behave?
After all, you hate it when they demand that you be different, don’t you?

The Zen in this: There is no right / wrong, good /bad. There is just what is hap­pen­ing. Peo­ple are who they are, and act as they choose. You can’t change them, but you can change you.

This year, engage with your fam­i­ly (or not, see below) as they are. If some­one is obnox­ious, smile and walk away. Deal with the peo­ple you are relat­ed to, as they are, from the core of who you are.

If you are work­ing on ground­ing and cen­ter­ing your­self, fam­i­ly gath­er­ings are a great place to practice.


4. Devel­op Your own Hol­i­day Traditions

If your fam­i­ly gath­er­ings are warm and fun, by all means enjoy them, and engage ful­ly. At the same time, see about set­ting up one tra­di­tion for your prin­ci­pal fam­i­ly (with your partner/spouse, and your kids, if any.) 

And if you don’t much like the Home for the Hol­i­days trip, short­en it, elim­i­nate it, book a trip, in short, change it.

My par­ents are dead, so there is only Dar’s side to deal with at hol­i­days. And for the past 10 years or so, we’ve been spend­ing the Hol­i­days in Spain. We do make a Skype call, though!

We’ve expand­ed our def­i­n­i­tion of “fam­i­ly” to include sev­er­al oth­ers, each of whom is endear­ing­ly weird, just like us.

The Zen in this: Stop look­ing back­ward and try­ing to recap­ture or invent some­thing. Instead, cre­ate cer­e­monies, activ­i­ties and timeta­bles that are mean­ing­ful for you.

Your task is to cre­ate a mem­o­rable life, for you. This requires actu­al­ly doing something.


5. Cut Your­self Some Slack

Ask your­self how much ener­gy you put into mak­ing things a cer­tain way for oth­ers, at your expense.

Back when I was in the Min­istry, I took Advent real­ly seri­ous­ly. I planned umpteen events, and ran them all. 

Invari­ably, in Jan­u­ary I’d be flat on my back in bed with the flu. My acupunc­tur­ist and Nin­ja Sen­sei would sigh, stick in some nee­dles, force gag-wor­thy tea down my throat and ask me to re-consider.

I’d make excus­es. Typ­i­cal­ly: “Yeah, but it’s win­ter. Every­one is sick.”

He’d reply: “That’s not the point. Why are you sick?”

The Zen in this: You are not here to straight­en bumpy high­ways for every­one else, at your expense. Now, you may have trained your entire fam­i­ly to expect this of you, but no one makes you act this way. Give it up. Dial back the per­fec­tion to some­thing fun and manageable.

This is a sea­son that can be used to nur­ture, renew, and recharge your­self. It will hap­pen when you so choose.


6. The Gift of the Season

It does­n’t mat­ter what your faith per­spec­tive is, the hol­i­day sea­son is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to reflect.

It’s fun­ny how most of the reflec­tion gets dumped off on New Years Res­o­lu­tions. And we know what hap­pens to them.

For for­ev­er, peo­ple have used the dark days of Decem­ber, and the Win­ter Sol­stice, as a time to reflect on death and rebirth, and on the gift of life. 

Same with the idea of a New Year, an arbi­trary date rich with the idea of new beginnings.

The gift of reflec­tion and grat­i­tude radi­ates through these days, pro­vid­ing we don’t leave the ener­gy of restora­tion in the park­ing lot of the Mall.

The Zen in this: declare this year-end as a time for reflect­ing with your near­est and dear­est, (who may or may not be fam­i­ly.) Note what has ben­e­fit­ted you in 2023, and declare an inten­tion for 2024. 

In keep­ing with a noble Haven tra­di­tion, pick a word that will be your ‘key’ for 2024. Devel­op a cer­e­mo­ny ded­i­cat­ed to per­son­al self-reflection.


7. Engage

Many peo­ple are so zoned out and exhaust­ed by Hol­i­day prep that they are pret­ty much ‘gone’ for the Holidays. 

If there is any gift to be found in the Hol­i­days, it’s the abil­i­ty to step back from the ram­pant con­sumerism long enough to engage with peo­ple you care about.

I remem­ber one poignant moment in 2004. My dad fell on Decem­ber 20, and sprained his ankle. At 92, his cir­cu­la­tion could­n’t han­dle this. He devel­oped sep­sis in the leg, and was soon on mor­phine, then in a coma. 

He died the day after Christ­mas, Box­ing Day in Canada.

Dar­bel­la and I were with her fam­i­ly when we got the call. Every­thing stopped, and then peo­ple were hug­ging me. There was a pal­pa­ble sense of connectedness.

Sad that for many, this only hap­pens in times of crisis.

The Zen in this: Engage with oth­ers. Tell them how you feel about them. Hold, them, hug them, make con­tact. Be direct in your expres­sions of grat­i­tude for oth­ers and for their gifts.

Do it ‘now.’ And then con­tin­ue to enact engage­ment. All the time.


8. Retreat

Carve some qui­et time for your­self. Each of us needs a dose of soli­tude, and the Hol­i­days are a great time to take this opportunity.


  1. If you’ve had a death of some­one close to you dur­ing the Hol­i­day sea­son, look around for a “Blue Christ­mas” ser­vice in your area. You don’t need to be a Chris­t­ian to go. Most are med­i­ta­tive, prayer­ful events, designed to allow those griev­ing to express their grief.
  2. If you have a cot­tage or know of a place ‘in the woods,’ go for a walk and just ‘be’ in nature. Feel the charge in the air, as the days short­en, turn and length­en. Give thinks for liv­ing, for breath, for opportunity.
  3. Set up a fam­i­ly shrine. Add pic­tures of your fam­i­ly, add sig­nif­i­cant objects. Spend some time dai­ly reflecting.

The Zen in this: Cer­e­monies are a part of our genet­ic wiring, I think. That being said, cer­e­monies need shift­ing and fresh­en­ing. I used to laugh at what I called ‘Christ­mas Chris­tians.’ Those were the folk who got all gussied up for the Christ­mas Eve ser­vice, and nev­er dark­ened the door until a year lat­er. Need­less to say, they were there out of habit.

A house­hold shrine is a great way to focus your inten­tion and pres­ence on what you hold dear.


9. Bake it, Make it

Anoth­er way to escape the ram­pant con­sumerism of the sea­son is to make part or all of your gifts at home, from scratch. 

Do your bak­ing and mak­ing with con­scious­ness and inten­tion. Hold in your mind an image of the recip­i­ent, then let the image go and focus in on ele­gant creating.

Per­son­al beats pack­aged, hands down.

The Zen in this: Chop wood, car­ry water. Need I say more?


10. Deep­en, Deepen

This sea­son is either a thing to be endured, with a fake hap­py face, or a time of reflec­tion, self- know­ing, inti­ma­cy and sharing–a deep­en­ing. You pick. You choose.

All moments are bare of mean­ing. We add mean­ing. Or, we go brain dead and numb and run (lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly) our­selves ragged as we attempt to avoid the pain we create.

Instead, cap­ture this sea­son and make it your own. Pro­vide mean­ing to every­thing you do, real mean­ing, mean­ing sig­nif­i­cant to you. Use this time to deep­en your com­mit­ment to your spir­i­tu­al path, and to find more ground­ed­ness. This oppor­tu­ni­ty exists in each moment, and it’s up to you to use it.

The Zen in this: In the end, your path is yours, and you make of it what you will. Strive for more depth, more under­stand­ing. Bring your­self back to bare pres­ence. Invig­o­rate and enliv­en yourself.

Cel­e­brate the gift of life!


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