The holidays always make me a little crazy, but I've almost finessed them the last two years.

Typically, I get a little down, my energy lulls while my brain thinks of a long "to do" list ... not a good combination. Like most people, I have an ideal picture of what this season could be like: happy times with family, no frenetic search for obligatory gifts, sending just enough holiday cards to keep contact with far away folks. No guilt, no worry.

What do I feel guilty about? That I haven't done enough, or not done it well enough. What do I worry about? Other people's happiness. Clearly I've been hung up on the notion that affection is conditional, that if I'm not good enough, family and friends won't love me.

I've diagnosed it that way after analyzing two different holiday experiences ...one where I was the hostess and one where I was not. When the traditional holiday gathering is going to be at my house, I fret about all kinds of things: Is the house clean enough? Do I have all the kinds of food that everyone likes? Will people get along or will old hurts emerge as conflict? Can I think of gifts for people who already seem to have plenty of everything? Will the recipients like their gifts? And, sometimes very silly yet most stressful of all, will the turkey, the centerpiece of a grand meal, get done at the right time to coincide with all the other traditional dishes?

Two years ago was the first year in many when I didn't get in a funk at some point. We went to my cousin's home for several days around Christmas, brought some crab for a traditional Christmas eve feast (well, traditional for some of us), tagged along with them on their gift shopping into malls and traffic-with nary a care. The gifts we brought had been simple: artwork and food ... a watercolor I'd painted, framed and matted, and crab, crab, crab.

The mall frenzy was something my husband and I could enjoy with no attachment to outcome. I went with Bonnie to find a boom box for Skip. Anthony went with Skip to find a Mixmaster for Bonnie. We all had fun.

That year there were just the four of us, and the next year was a repeat, but with more players: Skip and Bonnie's kids, plus a big dog, a houseful. I saw the anxiety level go up as Bonnie got frazzled; this was her daughter-in-law's first Christmas away from her own family, and Bonnie, a good mom, wanted Kristen to feel comfortable.

That's where the lesson was: Bonnie's anxiety about others' happiness dampened her pleasure with having her whole family around her. It was so easy to see my own behavior, my own anxiety, in Bonnie's.

By contrast, my worry about the holidays was eliminated by not hosting the gathering. I can help out cooking and cleaning up. I can help in other ways, but I'm not responsible for the overall event, and somehow that relieves me of the worry about other people's happiness.

I try to remind myself "Don't worry, be happy." Things might be hectic, but in the end, aren't you glad to be alive, whatever life brings? And isn't the essence of the holiday to bring us together when we've been scattered? Isn't the point of the holiday meal to gather us around the table, to look into each other's faces, into each other's eyes, and recognize the spirit there? Isn't the point to show our caring for each other? And, what is more enduring, the silly gift or the family story, the sports on TV or the heart-to-heart talk over a cup of coffee? They all happen over the holidays.

I'm reminded of my first class in a counselor training program where we read an essay, "Yourself as Tool" which explained that the most powerful tool a good counselor has is his or her own intuition, awareness, insight and expressivity. It is those things, regardless of theories, that allow the counselor to offer aid and comfort to the seeker.

So forget about the perfection of the meal, the tidiness of the house, the adequacy of the gift. They're all just excuses, props, for being together. You and yours are the essence of the event.

Finally, here's a message from an old Christmas card:

Peace...

Never goes out of style,

Fits everyone,

Isn't fattening,

Cheaper than war,

But can't be charged on a credit card!

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