My holiday goal has changed over the years. My former goal for December 25th involved boxes—checking off boxes, wrapping up boxes, and stuffing emotions in a box until they came out in some negative form or another. My former holiday goal focused on how things looked rather than on how they felt. From the outside, it looked like picture-perfect happiness but underneath was exhaustion … comparison … irritation … stress … and frustration. I would collapse after Christmas not really having one significant memory to cherish because I’d been too busy, too annoyed, too distracted, and too overwhelmed.
But at the close of 2010, I received a powerful wake-up call that changed my holiday goal indefinitely.
In the days following our family’s Christmas, my mom had a transient ischemic attack (or mini-stroke) and was unable to remember the holiday we’d just shared together. It had been a very special holiday because it was my first Hands Free holiday. I’d let go of distraction and perfection in ways I didn’t think I ever could. One of my fondest memories of that Christmas was sitting at the kitchen table with my family painting glasses to use at our Christmas Eve dinner. It was ten o’clock a.m. and we were still in our pajamas. We’d eaten cookies for breakfast. My older daughter wore evidence of this delightful indulgence on her face but I didn’t dare wipe it off. The way she smiled to herself as she painted was a moment I refused to obliterate with a paper napkin. For the first time in a long time I saw joy, and it had paint-smudged fingers and lips covered in chocolate.
There was much to be done in the way of cooking and gift preparation that morning, but it could wait. For the first time in a long time, it could wait. Instead I sat there painting next to my children who were free to paint their glasses any way they wanted. I’d made it clear to my inner drill sergeant that she was not welcome here. My mom sat with us too. Her vein-lined hand was steady as she painted a flower on her glass. She talked of the small Christmas candies she got as a girl. There was holiday music playing. I felt peaceful, not frenzied. I felt beautiful, not too soft or unkempt. I felt present, not scattered in one hundred million different directions.
There’d been more laughter, more connections, and more memories made that Christmas than ever before. And my mom couldn’t remember them, but I could. Thank God, I could. Right then and there I knew that the holidays must be Hands Free from then on. I vowed to stop worrying so much about the minor details and think about the big picture. What will my loved ones remember about today? That became my daily question over our holiday breaks. I knew it would not be the roasted potatoes being seasoned with fresh rosemary or the twinkle lights that decorated the staircase. It would be the way I got down and peered into the new dollhouse and said, “Can I play too?” It would be the walk I took with my mom and sister, going slowly because my mom needed a gentle pace. It would be how I asked my dad to tell me again about his darkest period of depression and how he saw the light again. It would be how I watched my husband’s favorite football team because there was an open spot next him, and it was made for me.
I knew I didn’t want to be so busy flittering from point A to point Z that I missed the opportunity to hear the stories, take the walks, or get down on my knees and play. I wanted to decorate glasses in my pajamas instead of dusting crystal in my finest attire. What will my loved ones remember today? I hoped it would be my love, my presence, my patience, and my laugh. I wanted more than anything for them to remember my laugh.
I now have four Hands Free holidays under my belt and although I am still a work-in-progress, I think I’ve finally nailed down my goal for the holidays. It is this: To gather together with our messy, imperfect hearts and create memories that outlast us all.
But here’s the thing: goals are not reached without intention, mindfulness, and action steps. So I have written some daily vows that I believe will help me get as close as I can to a meaningful and memorable holiday goal. Feel free to use one or more of these daily intentions to create more room in your holiday for love, laughter, connection, and memory making.
12 Daily Vows to Grasp What Matters This Holiday
Today I will look for the blessings among the chaos, the challenge, and the clutter. If I don’t see them right away, I will keep looking.
Today I will say, “Take your time,” and “How would you do it?” even if it feels funny and awkward coming from my lips. I will seek to find my loved ones’ Soul-Building Words and speak them often.
Today I will view holiday experiences through the eyes of my child so my eyes can see the puffiness of the marshmallows, not the spilled cocoa … so my eyes can see the handmade ornaments, not the crooked tree … so my eyes can see the way her face lights up at the sight of the gift, not the wrapping paper covering the floor.
Today I will be a Lingerer, a Take Your Timer, and a Last to Let Go Embracer even if I have to fake it. Love will keep me coming back until I can be the real deal.
Today I will take off the manager nameplate and dismiss the inner bully so my home can be a loving environment where we are all learning from our mistakes and embracing our imperfections.
Today I will resist the pressure to fill the sacred spaces of my day with unnecessary stuff.
Today I will say no to the outside world so I can say yes to the people who are my world.
Today I will savor every bite of my family’s favorite recipes instead of obsessing over table decor, fat grams, or how soon the mess can be cleaned up.
Today I will absorb the memories of my relatives shared across the dinner table instead of consuming myself with status updates of those I barely know on a screen.
Today I will acknowledge that a beautifully imperfect memory is at my fingertips if I pause long enough to let it unfold.
Today I will remember my loved ones are constantly growing and changing and things may be different next year. In fact, things may be different tomorrow. So today I shall savor my loved ones as they are right now.
Today I will practice my new holiday goal: To gather together with our messy, imperfect hearts and create memories that outlast us all.
I know that every second of this holiday will not be grasping what matters. I know. But there will be moments when joy comes to the table. It might be wearing pajamas or a cookie crumb smile, but I will recognize it immediately. With open hands, open eyes, and an open heart, I’ve learned joy doesn’t come in a box.
Rachel Macy Stafford is a certified special education teacher with a Master’s Degree in education and ten years of experience working with parents and children. In December 2010, this life-long writer felt compelled to share her journey to let go of distraction and grasp what really matters by creating the blog “Hands Free Mama.” Using her skills as a writer, teacher, and encourager, Rachel provides readers with simple, non-intimidating, and motivating methods to let go of distraction and connect with their loved ones. Rachel’s work has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Global News, USA Today, TIME.com, MSN.com, The Huffington Post, and Reader’s Digest. Her blog currently averages one million visitors a month. Rachel’s new book, HANDS FREE MAMA, is a New York Times Bestseller.