Zen for the Holidays — 10 Tips

Introduction:Family Drama and the Holidays

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,

rockwell tgiving
© Norman Rockwell
© TV Guide

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

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. 10+ plus years 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 Toyland.

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 mostly 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.

3. Your Family is Your Family

Dig out a few family group pictures.

the allensThe Allens, a MacNaughton, and Jazz, 2000

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, see family gatherings as 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. I really like my mom-in-law, and she likes Christmas, so we show up for her.


We also really like our 21-year-old niece, who is both cute and bright. And fun to hang with. I proposed that we teach her to eat sushi this Holiday season, and this could, if she accepts, evolve into a tradition.

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.

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 where those go.

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 2007, and declare an intention for 2008. In keeping with a noble Haven tradition,

pick a word that will be your ‘key’ for 2008. 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.

Dar 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 an 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!

zen gnome

Early Holiday Blessings
The Zen Gnome

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

2 thoughts on “Zen for the Holidays — 10 Tips”

  1. A very nice post, especially number #8 and #10. Retreating is one of the most healing things one can ever do, I totally agree with you there. And I’ve never heard of a blue Christmas before. Thanks again.

    Albert | UrbanMonk.Net
    Modern personal development, entwined with ancient spirituality.

    • Hey there,
      Thanks for the warm comment. I still like to ‘get away,’ both for Zazen, and to write.
      I’m wondering of the “Blue Christmas” is a Canadian thing. There are 3 separate services in our area in the next week.


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