The Christmas season is a particularly difficult time for women to slow down and relish what's right in front of them. An annual marker for many, it is a holiday that can often remind us how life is not going as we'd planned. Our family relationships remain strained, our finances stretched, and our schedules stuffed with too much to do in too little time. Following the formula of her successful Loving My Actual Life, Alexandra Kuykendall shares with readers her own personal experiment to be completely present in her life as it is during the holiday season. Addressing the themes of Advent and Christmas, she reflects on hope, love, joy, peace, and relishing the season, with practical pullouts on common Christmas stressors, such as finances, schedules, and extended family. Kuykendall's signature candor helps women go easy on themselves, remember what truly matters, and find joy in their imperfect Christmases.
It all started with Alexandra Kuykendall's previous release, Loving My Actual Life, in which for an entire year she challenged herself to slow down a bit and take in the actual life she was living rather than the one she was obsessively trying to achieve through insane schedules, a go-go-go lifestyle and maybe a touch of subconsciously trying to compete with friends and neighbors for a mythical "best life" award. Using the format of that experiment, Kuykendall challenges herself once again, this time tackling the seemingly inevitable stress that comes with each year's impending holiday season -- the days packed with endless holiday festivities, the decorating, the blown out holiday budget that depresses her come January. She explains that her inspiration this time around was the realization that she did not want her daughters to grow up and have their dominant holiday memories be of stressed out, edgy and resentful parents. Instead, she wanted to put the need for perfection aside and just try to be present and authentically capture the true magic of Christmas for her girls. This year, Kuykendall wants to put the focus back on true family togetherness, charity, kindness, all those warm fuzzy emotions we ALL desperately need a good dose of right about now.
Can I do this? Create an experiment where I'm able to savor the season in front of me without ending up overwhelmed and bitter? Where I avoid needing a detox from the fa-la-la-la and the mistletoe? It is worth the try. Because hope, peace, joy, and love are certainly words I want to associate with this time of year. Rather than overspending, overeating, undersleeping and underrejoicing, I want to notice the goodness God has offered in the here and now. In this year. This Christmas. Regardless of the circumstances. Because I don't want to resent this actual Christmas. I want to love it.
It's a tough year for Kuykendall, as it's the year her stepfather passed away, a man she had come to rely on as a loving, reliable male figure in her life (for more on the difficult relationship Kuykendall has with her birth father, check out her memoir, The Artist's Daughter). Hard as it will be to tackle a season of family gatherings without this important man there for her, Kuykendall works hard not to let the sadness tarnish the warm memories she wants to cultivate for her family.
In Loving My Actual Christmas, Kuykendall admits from the very beginning that this round will be slightly different because she is not working within the luxury of an entire year. We are talking about a season. So she gets the ball rolling in November, jumping right into family gatherings and activities around Thanksgiving, Christmas right around the corner. After moving passed Christmas, the book closes out a few days past the New Year (this past January 2017, as she notes that she started writing this book during 2016 holiday season).
Though she may not have a full year to work through, to give herself some sense of structure to this experiment, Kuykendall plots out the time frame of the experiment using the window of Advent (the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas Day) as well as Christmastide (more commonly known as the Twelve Days of Christmas), carrying through to just after New Year's celebrations. This book has the same diary-like layout as Loving My Actual Life. From day one, Kuykendall makes entries for every day of every week, giving readers a rundown of what the day's activities looked like, what she hopes to accomplish with that day, what she comes away with (lesson-wise) at day's end, and what Scripture she used that day to ponder on as she worked through each day's schedule. The entries are divided by Advent week and for each week she gives herself an overall theme to focus on:
- Week 1 = HOPE
- Week 2 = LOVE
- Week 3 = JOY
- Week 4 = PEACE
- * and then a section that does an overview on her Christmastide experience
Each chapter closes on "Questions for Reflection", questions that help guide readers on their own journey of better appreciating the season. She also offers relevant scripture, so this book (as well as her previous experiment book) have potential to be used as devotional supplements. Kuykendall is quick to address that a lot of the issues / stressors she tackles in this book will likely come of as #firstworldproblems, but as she points out -- the experiments are called MY ACTUAL LIFE and MY ACTUAL CHRISTMAS... it might seem first world, but it is the life SHE is personally living, so we gotta let her do her thing.
What I love about these experiments of hers is that Kuykendall gives it to her readers honestly, warts and all. She fully admits to being human, starting with the best intentions and then getting in the moment and seriously wanting to throw in the towel instead. Immediately from Day 1 of her Christmas experiment she hits a wall. Not a good start, but a humorous and relatable one! She talks of facing the living room mantel, realizing she has to take down all the "harvest" decor to set up the Nativity scene... and she's honestly just not feelin' it, y'all! Who hasn't been there!
Also on this day she's hit with the first wave of holiday family travel plans (orchestrating all that) as well as trying to find time to sit down to do the obligatory Christmas cards. Those Christmas cards haunt her through many of the days, leading her to tell a story of when she just decided to NOT do cards one year, and guess what? There was a little guilt involved on her part, but no one died and no one disowned her. This spoke to my soul as it's exactly where I was last Christmas, and frankly I don't know that I'm feeling much for the cards this year, so it was nice to get a sense of camaraderie from that. Kuykendall encourages readers to still do cards, but do them for the right reason. Do it because you honestly love and miss these people and WANT to connect, don't just make it a chore to scratch off because you don't want things to get awkward later.
No big surprise, but one of Kuykendall's big takeaways from this project is that the best gift is really just giving someone time / attention / respect / love. If you love the act of bestowing physical gifts, just make sure that the gifts show you LISTEN TO THEM. Don't get caught up in getting what everyone else seems to be buying -- unless, I guess, your people have expressed that's truly what they want with all their hearts. But in general, it's nice to give gifts that give a nod to something said in passing that shows you were listening even when they thought you weren't! ;-)
Other main points:
* Decide on a holiday budget and STICK TO IT. Also, it might help to make an inventory of all expected costs for the season -- what you anticipate to spend on holiday meals, outings, travel, holiday clothing, etc. Factor that into the overall "holiday budget" at the beginning of the season and you probably won't have quite as much sticker shock come January.
* As Kuykendall's husband kept telling her throughout this process: "No bad-mouthing Christmas!" Your season might still have an element of stress no matter what you do but don't blame the season, just find your zen again and remember the real "reason for the season".
As I carried out the experiment, I was reminded that this holiday becomes a circus because we are operating out of our longings. We long for memories and fun and happiness. We long for meaning and purpose. We know it must be hidden somewhere among the decorations and the fuss. And when I stopped and paid attention, this is what stood out to me about why we do all of this Christmas making in the first place.
* Learn to say "no" sometimes and be okay with it. Much of the stress of the season comes from us allowing ourselves to be roped into doing every little thing to ensure everyone else has the perfect season. Once in awhile, stop and say no. And then go let yourself have some you time so YOU can enjoy the season.
At the back of the book, Kuykendall also offers supplemental guides such as "Practical Tips and Strategies" where she outlines just how exactly she pulled off this experiment and how you can try it yourself. Within the guides she also encourages readers to engage in some moments of contemplation: evaluate family holiday traditions, WHY you still do them and should you continue with them or are you merely doing it out of habit? (Think: are the kids too old for it? Are there enough people that still enjoy the tradition or are you just forcing them through?). She gives you a really handy guide on ways to be more economical during the season as well as a pep talk on the power of "no thank you".
She closes with the plea to readers that while they go through this process (should they choose to, that is), in all things always strive to continually be kind, gracious and compassionate.
Near the end of the experiment, Kuykendall points out that throughout this process it is important to keep in mind that you can't (or at the very least, shouldn't) gloss over the hurts and struggles of the year with a simple dusting of tinsel, a few rounds of carols and a nice mug of eggnog (if eggnog is your thing). Kuykendall advises readers to remember the Nativity story: all the struggles that were going on in that time in history, how so many people craved a positive change for peace... and what happened? A star suddenly appeared in the night sky shining a light so bright as to leave any observer awe-struck, so bright as to be able to guide three wise men to a random manger. A light in the darkness. The darkness doesn't go away for good, but having your heart in the right place helps keeps the hardships at bay. That's the idea here. Acknowledge the struggles but embrace the joy and grace found behind them. We will likely always be trying to fight off one evil or another in the world, but Kuykendall encourages you, when faced with dark times, to allow yourself to still be in awe of the marvels & beauties in the world, because if you keep yourself open enough, they will remind you that they are still out there. As she says, "This is a year to celebrate the good news within the context of our actual lives."
FTC Disclaimer: Baker Books kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.