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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

Bah Humbug with Holiday Benchmarks

100_4935.JPG How many friends have you heard confide, “I have to be engaged by the holidays”?

“I need to lose 10 pounds by Hannukah.”

“I must bring my adopted child home by Christmas.”

“If I don’t have a new job by New Year’s, I’m done!”

Holidays are fraught with layers of potentially explosive meaning. There is the ideal, and then there is reality. When the two diverge to an unacceptable degree, that’s when depression and despair can set in.

I say it’s time to move into hope and happiness. Live in the moment. Have joy in the journey.

Frequently, relatives are no help at all, turning into predatory conversationalists at the holidays. They figure if the Christ child was born around this time of year, you must be thinking of expanding your family, as well. “Any thoughts of a little bundle of joy?” or “Will you two be getting married anytime soon?” (Not necessarily in that order.) If a miracle happened when the Hanukkah oil kept burning for eight days, surely you can find a new job or new house within that framework. You might as well be visiting Uncle Fester or Cousin It in terms of dysfunction.

Holidays have become burdensome benchmarks for many. Whose house is biggest, or decorated the best? Whose kids are the smartest? Who’s the thinnest or the richest? Alright, who’s the fattest or the poorest?

Comparisons are going to be made. It’s human nature.

And that’s exactly what ruins the holidays. Human beings. If you can avoid them at all costs, you may have happy holidays.

“More scalloped potatoes? Noooo???? You don’t like my potatoes?”

“My, what a ‘different’ gift! I don’t believe I’ve ever seen one quite like this….” And what is wrong with a Chia Pet in the shape of Mount Rushmore?

“Who did you vote for? You know, the country is headed for disaster.”

“Have you put on weight, or are you just bloated?”

“So, how much money are you making these days?”

And on it goes with wacky loved ones.

What happened to simple pleasures and focusing on the positive?

I remember growing up in a very chilly climate. Six months out of the year, there would be snow for sure. In that cold and barren wasteland, you could hear the sound of ice cracking and wind howling. You could also hear the sound of teeth chattering and knees knocking. The setting fostered a semi-contemplative lifestyle. A single bird pecking at a well-placed suet ball near the window brought cameraderie and a smile.

Life was hard, and gratitude was great. Cars needed to be plugged in at night with heaters. The rest of the time, we drove around corners of piled-high snowdrifts with a small flag on the antenna, in order to see any approaching traffic, always alert to avoid the dreaded black ice.

We would make a toasty fire at night and stare at the dancing flames in the fireplace. Cookies and hot cocoa with a well-worn book passed the evening hours. Skating and sledding filled the daytime. Months stretched endlessly, God bless you if you had any actual news to share. Most folks just plodded along, happy to have the basics of life—a car, a home, a family. Of course, a cottage at the lake, a couple of snowmobiles, and a free-standing sauna nestled among the birch trees didn’t hurt, either.

Holidays were a highlight, rather than a benchmark. I’m not sure if this was due to our remote location, or the era in which we lived. We celebrated the holiday itself, not the trappings. It was a big deal to get one ripe red apple around the holidays, or an orange… unheard of! There was not rampant consumerism, not because it was out of anyone’s price range, but because we focused on other matters.

Christmas carols. Hanukkah candles. Latkes and love. Pageants of peace. Simple decorating. Family and friends.

No pressure. No hustle and bustle. No excessive expectations and bewildering benchmarks.

Who knows? Maybe my parents felt all of the above, and I was simply too young to understand. I don’t think so.

In my parents’ generation, adults acted like grown-ups. (Who even uses the term “grown-up” anymore?) They would rise, shower and dress every day, not just holidays, when guests now might show up in torn jeans and old tennies. Our parents went to work, or tended the home and children, often both, while caring for elderly parents. Today, adults often act like kids, which leads us to the need for benchmarks. We accomplish very little throughout the year, so we feel a letdown at the holidays: another year has passed.

Apart from certain imposed deadlines, how would we know that we are adults? The bar has been lowered to such a degree that few material accomplishments hold much meaning or satisfaction. A lot of the mortgage mess happened so that “anyone” could own a house, whether they truly qualified or not. I remember the days of qualifying for a mortgage that could amount to no more than 25% of your income. I remember the days of cave-dwelling, as well.

And it wasn’t only housing. Think of everything that we consider normal nowadays: two+ car couples, a mobile phone in every pocket, computers and flat screen TVs in every home, dining out or grabbing food to go on a regular basis, a swimming pool in the backyard. This used to be unthinkable for the average Joe. Yet, keeping up with the Joneses is now within everyone’s reach, thanks to those little plastic cards used like an E-Z Pass on the highway to riches.

For our generation, the holiday benchmarks are the ones that irritate the most at family dinners. They are not so much the material accomplishments, the McMansions, the Masseratis, and the Marc Jacobs or Miuccia Prada outfits. Instead, they are life cycle and life style issues that reveal perhaps even more the true marks of modern maturity.

These are often unattainable intangibles that used to happen as effortlessly as honey sliding off a spoon in a warm cup of tea: getting married, having children, maintaining a healthy weight. These are the hot button items that take real work nowadays, that can’t be had on someone else’s effort or dime. Hence, the rash of divorces, infertility due to delayed parenthood, and indulgence and indolence causing obesity that were not prevalent just one generation ago. If Barney Fife could find a date in Mayberry, you can find someone fine in 2009. But it will require getting rid of the Goobers in your life.

It’s time to grow up, tighten the belt, and just say “no” to ridiculous, going-nowhere relationships that will never lead to marriage, to the rich food and desserts that derail us, to the workaholism preventing us from healthy exercise or from rearing children if that’s truly our heart’s desire. Small, everyday, unremarkable-in-themselves steps will help us stop with the crazed, last-minute, end-of-year holiday pressure, necessitating deadlines and benchmarks to tell us who we are. We must develop an internal life of honesty, integrity, morality, hard work, decency, and kindness. We need to be a good friend to someone, to take the time to parent, or hold hands with a loved one.

Petya and Pasha were shepherds in the Christmas play, both articulating their two lines each with heavy Russian accents. They could not believe their good fortune to be front and center, trusted with such weighty roles. Everyone cheered and they beamed with the light of that first Christmas star. They came home to light Hanukkah candles and have a proper holiday meal, where no squabbling was allowed, where they sat up straight, and where they learned to make polite comments throughout.

It’s funny how this type of controlled, measured behavior used to be the norm and we prepared children for responsible adulthood. Then a concept called adolescence entered in, with the dumbing down of young people, until maturity was no longer a goal at all. Parents considered it too much work to encourage, mold, and direct their children. Ozzy Osborne’s family replaced Dr. Huxtable’s (Cosby) family as a national plumbline. Society’s kids turned into young adult messes still with the distinct need to “be” somebody, but no idea how to get there. Hence, the stress of detoured lives and pressure-filled holiday benchmarks.

For the new year, I have no problem setting high goals, wracking the brain and writing a few resolutions. Many have even given up on that, preferring to sit in bed, eating bon-bons, and hoping for the best. Day by day, I choose to whittle away at things that matter. I’m not expecting any overnight, quick fixes. I don’t think I’ll necessarily find the cure for cancer, or lose 40 pounds, or get a new car in the next few days before New Year’s. Don’t hold your breath on those. Well, maybe the new car. I hear there are some great sales out there.

Holidays are for happy times of warmth and tradition. Stop stressing and start celebrating. Quietly, meaningfully.

Enjoy the journey. Relish the holidays. Pause to pray. Keep the hope and dream alive. Nourish your internal sense of strength to go forward and do great things.

No desperate deadlines, no benchmarks allowed. Press for your own personal best, every day, in every way. You will get there. Happy New Year!

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