How to Celebrate the Holidays in Uncertain Times

A humble woman, my mother rarely offered advice. As the winter holiday season approached, though, she always found an opportunity to catch me alone and murmur frank words of warning. “Watch out, Cheryl,” she’d say. “Holidays give people the heebie jeebies!”


During my mother’s TV- and Internet-free girlhood, people apparently entertained themselves by coining rhyming reduplications (nonsense rhyming couplets: think bee’s knees, hocus pocus, and mumbo jumbo). In 1923 cartoonist William Morgan de Beck (the creator of Barney Google, with his goo-goo-googly eyes) used the phrase “heebie jeebies” in a published cartoon. Spreading with the rapidity of the Spanish flu, the term zipped into the public lexicon. Dictionaries today define heebie jeebies as “uncomfortable, nervous, or anxious feelings.”

I know that now. When my mother first started warning me about holiday heebie jeebies, I knew she was trying to communicate something important: her tone and demeanor conveyed more than her peculiar words. But back then I didn’t understand how Thanksgiving, December holidays, and New Year’s Eve could make people sad.

Flash forward a few decades. Okay, so what if I am becoming my mother? Now I realize she was right: holidays often make people uncomfortable, nervous, and anxious, especially during years like 2008. Festivities may feel incongruous in a year littered with searing economic crises, widespread weather-related disasters, and caustic election campaigns. Strewing pumpkin pies, tinsel, and confetti against this backdrop is akin to dressing a 62-year-old woman in a rhinestone-studded halter top, a black leather miniskirt, and fishnet stockings. (Actually, Cher does look pretty cool in that outfit.)

Like it or not, the holidays are rollercoastering our way. If their approach makes you queasy, take action to regain your balance.

Reevaluate your priorities. For example, look at your Thanksgiving menu. Do you really need to serve cherry cheesecake, pumpkin pie, and apple strudel? We all know what happens when you do that. People already so stuffed they can barely speak—let alone chew—spot these new concoctions and miraculously develop a perverse desire to taste all three. Nutritionists have established that variety in food choices increases consumption. Do your loved ones a favor. Streamline their selections. When one of your guests offers to bring dessert, utter a fervent thank-you and cross that chore off your to-do list. Pare preparations down to the least you can do while still feeling your celebration embodies the spirit of what you want it to be.

Elicit input from friends and family. Finances are an issue for many people right now. Consider scaling back holiday gift-giving. Friends and family may appreciate the opportunity to discuss less costly alternatives. Drawing names so each person needs to purchase only one gift is an option. So is setting a spending limit. Homemade gifts, like apple-butter or a personalized poem, can be fun. What people treasure most is feeling loved and appreciated. Eliminating gift-giving will be palatable if you plan and schedule activities you can enjoy doing together. Sift through boxes of family photos and gather supplies so each family member can create an individual family album. Invite friends over to play cards or craft homemade gifts together. Fun doesn’t have to be expensive.

Get enough sleep. Maintaining an adequate sleep schedule will keep you feeling perkier. Present your best side instead of your cranky, frazzled self to your loved ones this holiday season. If you think you have to cut down on sleep to get all your holiday chores done, keep rereading the previous paragraphs until you can list three things you did last year that you’re going to skip or delegate this time around.

Eat right. Maintain normal meal times. Skipping breakfast to save time and calories is counterproductive. Breakfast revs up your metabolism and helps prevent overeating later in the day. Eat a healthy snack before you leave home for holiday parties.

Squeeze at least thirty minutes of aerobic exercise into each day. Okay, I know what you’re thinking: this cure is worse than the disease. Trust me. It’s not. If you’re healthy enough to exercise—check with your doctor—being active will increase your holiday spirit. Researchers have established that aerobic exercise lifts people’s moods. How long has it been since you went sledding? Ever tried snowshoeing? Check your local community college or recreational center for indoor pool hours and dance, fitness, or martial arts classes. Too busy? Dance in your living room three times a day for ten minutes. Or spend half an hour vacuuming and mopping. They’re good exercise, too, and—who knows?—clean floors may help keep holiday heebie jeebies away.

©2008 Cheryl Fusco Johnson. Johnson teaches Nia Fitness classes in Fairfield.