For as long as I can remember, I have really loved the Christmas season. Of course, having grown up as a Latter-Day Saint in a Christian society, and having parents who have made their entire living in Christmas decorations, it seems only natural that I would have a certain affinity for this holiday. But even more broadly than just Christmas, the final months of each year and the traditions that take place always bring moments of reflection, inspiration, and renewal – something that we could all use after a year like this.
During my own personal reflection over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the opportunities for personal growth that lie within three specific traditional holidays of this time of year, namely Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. These three traditions, in my view, offer far more than an opportunity to gather with friends and family, which is incredibly important in its own right. Rather, it seems to me that by looking at them as a cohesive progression we can tap into one of the greatest cycles of personal transformation available to us.
First, let’s look at Thanksgiving. If we can view this holiday from the perspective of what it is supposed to instill within us, then it’s clear that an attitude of gratitude is number one on the list. Thanksgiving should be a time of personal reflection about all that we have to be thankful for. We should take stock of our blessings and gifts, and we should spend time with those people who mean something to us. We should think of the friends, family, and ancestors who paved the way before us, and we should remind ourselves that no matter how challenging life can get, there are always things to be grateful for. Nothing to my knowledge is more necessary for personal growth than to be reminded of this fact. The grateful heart at the same time shows humility, respect for life, and a willingness to press forward with a cheerful disposition. Comparatively, the ungrateful heart shows egotism, arrogance, and resentment towards life’s challenges. This is not the same thing as saying that people don’t go through dark times in their lives or that we have no reason for sadness, but it is fair to suggest that even dark times can be made lighter by shining the torch of gratitude. This is why I believe that it is truly brilliant that the holiday season begins, at least in the United States, with Thanksgiving. How else would you want to begin the winding down of the year than to pause and to be grateful?
Then we move through to Christmas – the celebration of the birth of the person who could accurately be described as the Sage of Western culture – Jesus Christ. He’s the archetypal hero in our culture – the man of humble birth who became a master of tradition, bore the weight of his terrible burden and died a noble death. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas in this traditional form by meditating on the life of Jesus, it appears to me that there lies a real opportunity for us all to at least reflect on the Sage at this time of year. What are the characteristics of the best possible human that you can be? Who is the hero you think of when you need inspiration? Which ruler will you measure your own life against? What is your own personal ideal? Close to the beginning of a new year, Christmas is the ideal time to imagine all the ways that you could be a better citizen of this cosmos. And always remember that meditating on the ideal path is not only necessary for personal change – it’s fundamental, simply due to the fact that if you’d like to be a better person, then you first need to at least define what “better” would mean.
Finally, we arrive on New Year’s Eve and New Years Day. This is the phoenix of all the holidays. Arising from the ashes of the now-dead year, we are reborn into a new year with new priorities, new goals, and a renewed sense of excitement and adventure. We launch ourselves into the new year with a celebration, and we prepare to succeed in uprooting the personal failings which have plagued our souls previously. Sure, we may fall short of fully realizing these new aims, but I’ve come to think that this is a shallow way of viewing this time of year. The point isn’t to perfectly realize every dream or goal that we set, but rather it’s simply expected that we aim higher and set our sights on some image of a more perfectly developed self. Where’s the harm in that? Where’s the downside? Yes, there’s definitely an important conversation to be had regarding the necessary steps we could take to ensure a more long-term commitment to our goals, but we cannot underestimate the power of simply taking that leap of faith and having the courage to start on a new path toward a better life.
So how do we tie these all together? Within their own individual traditions these holidays each present unique opportunities for an individual as well as a society’s growth and development, but I believe that when bundled together this trio becomes far stronger than anyone holiday on its own. Thanksgiving reminds us to be grateful for what we have, Christmas reminds us to conceptualize our highest ideal, and New Year’s Eve allows us to be reborn into a new way of being, leaving our insufficiencies in the past and looking forward to a better existence. When seen from this angle, I’m not only grateful that we have these three holidays, but I’m also dumbfounded as to how our ancestors had the wisdom to order them as they are – the progression is perfect for psychological transformation, and if we step back a little further we recognize that this system of personal change is beneficial at any level of application, whether on a large societal scale or on an individual level. Test this the next time you’re looking to make a personal change. First, meditate on what you have to be grateful for, and write these things down. Too often we get stuck in patterns of negative thinking and self-victimization, which can be a killer of any momentum in personal growth. Gratitude gets our mindset into a healthy place where we’re looking for the good in the world and in our lives. Feelings of positive emotion ensue, and it’s then when you’ll want to imagine your ideal. Think about the opportunities for improvement that would transform you into a more fully developed and virtuous human being. Write these thoughts down also so that you can make the physical and bring them to life. Finally, develop a simple plan of action by writing out all of the possible steps you could take that would move you closer towards your newfound vision of your ideal. Allow yourself to be reborn by taking that first step and doing the most simple thing on that list of possible actions. Never leave the scene of an inspiring moment such as this without first taking a small step towards the achievement of your new aim. In doing this, you’re making a personal commitment to yourself that you intend to follow through.
Looking on an even smaller and more momentary level, if you ever find yourself in a directionless funk, or if you seem to be drifting through the day without any true purpose, take a moment to remind yourself of the gifts available to you, to imagine the best possible thing that you could do next, and to be reborn into a new way of being by taking a small step in the right direction. Sure, it may be easier said than done, but is there anything better that you could try? I know that as I move into the new year I’ll be practicing this system in my own life, as I have been doing prior to writing this. I hope that you’ll join me, and I hope that you begin to feel the transformative effects of this simple formula gifted to us by the traditions of our ancestors.