How many of you remember the Marx Brothers? In 1935, Groucho, Chico and Harpo made a movie called “A Night at the Opera.” There is a moment in the film when Groucho and Chico are going over a contract. And Chico says:
“Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here? This thing here.”
Groucho responds “Oh, that? Oh, that's the usual clause. That's in every contract. That just says uh, it says uh, ‘If any of the parties participating in this contract is shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.’”
Chico. “Well, I don't know...”
Groucho. “It's all right, that's, that's in every contract. That's, that's what they call a ‘sanity clause’”.
Chico: “Ha ha ha ha ha! You can't fool me! There ain't no Sanity Clause!”
It’s that time of year again. And we’re ALL trying to maintain our sanity, right? Am I right? Maybe what we do need is a sanity clause – a contract with our families – our places of work – the schools – the shopping malls – a sanity clause that gives us a say in how we’re going to get ready for and celebrate what one song calls, “The most wonderful time of the year.”
So here we are. It’s early December, and already we’re in the second weekend of Advent. And we’re busy. And I think maybe Chico got it right. At this time of year, there ain’t no sanity clause.
Therefore – I would like to make some suggestions. Suggestions that just might help you maintain your sanity. Because there is always so much to do. And I think we put so much pressure on ourselves. Each one of us – has these family rituals and traditions that we truly enjoy – rituals and traditions that help make this time of the year the truly wonderful time of the year that it is. But sometimes – sometimes – it’s just a little overwhelming, don’t you think?
We decorate. We bake cookies that we don’t bake at any other time of the year. Like those sprits cookies. We search for the perfect gift for everyone on our list. So there are presents to buy. And wrap. There are parties to attend. Christmas cards to send and/or letters to write. I usually write a Christmas letter every year. But sometimes Nancy and I are so stressed for time that it comes out after Christmas. When that happens, we call it an Epiphany letter.
And did I mention cookies? Especially those sprits cookies. You know. Some are red. Some are green, and some are just plain. Did I also mention that neither Nancy nor I bake? But Nancy loves to decorate. I don’t really….you know… get into that. AND much to my delight – I mean much to our dismay – we won’t be setting up our Advent tree this year that on the fourth Sunday of Advent morphs into a Christmas tree. You see, last year, last year in October, our son Matthew brought home a dog. Last year this dog ate the ornaments – the glass ornaments – well, she chewed them into pieces – right off our tree! What a mess! So this year we’re sparing the dog – and saving our ornaments – at least the ones we have left. No tree.
Hey, listen! We all have our rituals and traditions. But when it comes to your traditions, I want to know, what stresses you out? Do you set sky-high expectations? You know – the Norman Rockwell perfect picture. The perfect tree? The perfect greeting card? The perfect table setting? The perfectly behaved kids? Okay, well, we’ll let that one slide.
Holiday stress. We all experience it. Just about every year I devote one Advent sermon to the subject of holiday stress. And this is it. So I would like to make a few suggestions. I gleaned these from a much longer list, and added my own comments. And please know that these are just suggestions that just might help you to reduce stress AND maintain your sanity. Let’s call it a top ten holiday stressors list. They’re in no particular order.
1. Do you tend to spend too much? Let me suggest that you set a budget and stick to it. A source I read says that two thirds of Americans rank money as the number one holiday stressor. Listen! You don’t have to go overboard on gifts. You don’t have to buy everything that’s on everybody’s lists. Just set a budget – and then stick to it.
2. Do you find yourself over-booking things? Make a schedule, and stick to it. Get out your calendar. Mark down what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it – where you’re going to go – and what events you’re willing to participate in. Sitting down to write out a schedule like that alone is enough to stress some of you out – I know – but it just might help.
3. Do you agonize over gift giving? I do. I do. And at the risk of sounding like a Scrooge, Nancy and I for the past several years have chosen not to exchange gifts with each other. It still doesn’t feel quite right, but it has relieved a lot of stress for both of us. So IF you agonize over finding the perfect gift – let me share with you one of my favorite admonitions to gift giving that goes like this. “Buy something they want. Something they need. Something to wear. Something to read.”
4. Do you find yourself eating too much? Especially all those sprits cookies I mentioned before? I know I tend to overeat. Especially all of those cookies so many of you send me every year – because you know that Nancy and I don’ bake. Anyway – overeating is a big stressor. Sugar is a big problem. And then we make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight – and of course – you know how successful that is every year. And when we don’t keep our New Year’s resolutions, what do we get? More stress!
5. Do you say yes to every single party? Every year, it seems like everybody has a party during the holiday season – your office, your parents, your neighbor down the street. Feel free to pick and choose. These things are great to go to – you know – you get to eat somebody else’s cookies. But they do make demands on our time that quite frankly – if we let them – can add to holiday stress.
6. Number six naturally follows the party stressor, and that is the tendency at these parties – sometimes – sometimes to drink too much. Just remember, you don’t have to be the life of the party. Just saying.
7. Do you let family drama get the best of you? Do family members push your buttons? You can’t control what they do or say, but you are in control of how you react. So stay away from sensitive subjects. If you have to – go to a different room. OR – I have advised people to do this – just don’t go. Just don’t go if year after year being with certain others adds to your holiday stress. I know – easier said than done – and I’ll probably get emails about this one – but don’t let family drama ruin things for you.
8. Do you do things this time of year because you want to do them – again, decorating, baking, going to parties, sending Christmas cards, Christmas shopping – or do you do these things because others pressure you into things you would prefer not to do? Or you THINK that everyone else expects you to do certain things, because you know, it just wouldn’t be Christmas if YOU didn’t do them? Set some boundaries for yourself. Because this one leads to number 9.
9. Do you try to do it all yourself? Folks, I have no data to back me up on this, but I suspect that a major cause of holiday stress just might be when you try to do everything by yourself. This can lead to burnout. Let others help you. Maybe even insist – asking nicely, of course – that they help you. Did I say something about remembering to ask nicely? And you know what? Knowing how to ask others to help – and actually getting them to help – can be a great way to connect and build fellowship and maybe even have a little fun. Which is really what we all want anyway.
10. Number ten is a tough one. This time of year can be a painful reminder of loved ones who are no longer with us. Especially if this is the first or second year without them. Rather than trying NOT to think about them – let me suggest that you honor them. Share a happy memory – or tell a funny story about them. “Remember that time…?” Or simply propose a toast. I know. It’s not always easy.
So these are some of the things that – though we love to do them – can also add a lot of stress to our lives. And although none of them come with a sanity clause – I do want you to work at keeping your sanity.
And here’s the thing. When you take all of these things – and you add them together – there can be a danger that our focus on these things is so great that we just might lose sight of the big picture. Sometimes we get so distracted by all of these other things that we lose sight of the big picture.
I want to suggest that if there isn’t already – that there ought to be one reason and one reason only to keep all of these family traditions and rituals. Bear in mind that these are tools – tools to help us keep the main thing the main thing. At least that’s what they ought to be. And it’s my job during this Advent/Christmas season – to encourage you to keep the main thing the main thing.
Do you remember what I said last week? Advent is a celebration.
• Advent is a celebration of what has been. Jesus Christ born into the world.
• Advent is a celebration of what is yet to come. Christ will come again.
• AND – Advent is a celebration of the Christ who comes to us right here, right now.
That’s the main thing. This whole season is about Jesus. And I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” But I would add to that that WE are the reason for the season. It’s all about what God has done – is doing – and will do through His Son Jesus Christ – for US and for our salvation. And yeah – not only is that the main thing – it’s kind of a big thing.
So remember that our focus is on Jesus. And all of those traditions – the lights, music, parties, manger scenes, cookies, family gatherings – all of those things that we wouldn’t want to do without – they don’t mean a thing if we don’t keep the main thing the main thing.
The coming of the Savior. Jesus our Immanuel – which means God is with us. God and sinners reconciled. This is the main thing. The heart of our celebration – the heart of our message. Amen