A Primal Take on the Holidays: Surviving or Thriving?

Holiday CandleOften I hear people talk about “surviving” the holidays. I read “holiday survival guides” and the like. I’ve even used the term myself in the same way on occasion. You could say perhaps the whole survival reference is purely tongue-in-cheek, but the fact is too many people do feel imposing stress this time of year. According to one sizable survey (PDF), close to 40% of us (higher for women than for men) experience stress around holiday preparations/family gatherings, financial pressures, commercial hype, limited time and food temptations (especially true for those who embrace a counter cultural diet). That doesn’t sound like much of a Primal party to me.

The older I get and more I think about it, the more I wonder at the “survival” reference as much as I get the joke in some cases. Surviving the holiday routines, the carb-happy buffets, the office parties, the in-laws’ visit, the onslaught of expenses – it’s all in the five plus weeks of every year we put under the umbrella of the holiday season. (Yet so are all the good memories.) “Surviving the holidays” suggests to me a distant and unhappy (or at least blase) tolerance of it. In life as in food, I always juxtapose the concept of what it takes to survive versus what it takes to thrive. The very comparison throws a whole new light on the subject.

The truth is, I always enjoy this time of year in my own way. That said, I’ll admit I’m not the sentimental type who’s buoyed by my own creative vision of the season. (I admire people who are – like kids and certain friends/family because their enthusiasm is uniquely genuine.) For my part, the commercialism wears on me. The gargantuan expectations fatigue me. I’m not one for large crowds. So forth. I don’t let that stop me from making these weeks some of the best of the year. I do what I enjoy and what makes me feel revitalized. I spend time with family. I do a bit of traveling. I usually snowboard to get a week of true winter experience and to just get away from the business of life for a while. I also say no to a lot of things I’d rather not do. When it’s time to change the calendar, the fact is, the holidays were ultimately my holidays as much as anyone else’s. I don’t anticipate getting these weeks of my life back at a later time through the tail end of a random time warp. I hope I can do more than tolerate this or any other period of my life. I’d like to think my Primal perspective (and basic sense of life expectancy) asks it of me.

If we up the ante on “surviving” the holiday, how do we own the experience and take responsibility for our enjoyment, sanity and health throughout these weeks? Think about those cornerstone Habits of Highly Success Hunter-Gatherers. Why should these weeks be any different? What about the Primal lens could suggest an alternative to the stress inducing routine? Maybe you all can come up with a better word for it, but let me call it mindfulness for now. If we push aside the “shoulds” and “have to” and “but we always” and “everyone is expecting,” we can get off the roundabout for a few minutes and be in the actual moment. When we do, we realize we always have a choice. (Anything, really, is possible, which can be unnerving.) That means awareness of how we participate and how we really feel about the choices we make – be they social plans, holiday menus or family activities. Rather than another list of shoulds to practice, maybe a Primal approach is busting open the question itself. What does it mean to bring a Primal mind and mindfulness to the holidays? I hope you’ll help me take this one apart and add your own best thinking.

The basic customs of the holidays of course hearken back to Grok era communal rituals that contributed to the complex social evolution of our species. Back then perhaps participating in social ritual really was about survival. It was dangerous to be a loner in those days. Today as products of our evolutionary patterns, we’re still impelled to fit in to some degree. We value or at least recognize something of the value of participating in the larger culture we call home. Still, the intense and commercialized expectations today feel like a far cry from those simpler social times. As is often the case, what was once adaptive necessity has been distorted by modern magnification, stretched far beyond its original sense and proportion – hence the literal “fight or flight” experience we put ourselves through shopping in large crowded malls. The irony…yes?

They say when you say yes to something, you’re intrinsically saying no to something else because every yes is a directing of time and focus. What are you saying yes to these holiday weeks? Are they keeping you away from the things that make you feel healthy and happy? What good things are you saying yes to?

Sometimes it’s not quite as much the things themselves (e.g. events, gatherings, etc.) as the attitude and expectations we bring to them. Take a step back, and think for a moment about the energy you’re bringing to something holiday related: a gift you’ll give, a visit you’ll make, a dish you’ll cook, a party you’ll attend, a dinner you’ll share, an activity you’ll participate in. That energy – does it rise from a genuine place? Does it feel positive (I love the chance to get out more and get involved), or does it feel like a nagging stressor? (How many months will it take to pay off all these gifts and travel expenses? What will I possibly be able to eat at dinner that night?) Does it breed gratitude and good will (It will be so good to see them again. I’ve really missed our old times together) or a half-conscious sense of resentment? (Oh, great, another party to show my face at.) Sure, there are days when we need an attitude adjustment because we didn’t sleep well or decided to skip the gym. But if we’re going to be responsible for our experience, does it make sense to ask (in just about every situation), what would it take for me to enjoy this event or meal or day? That’s where it all begins, isn’t it?

Think back to those common stresses people cite under holiday pressures. For example, when we’re wondering about how to deal with our decidedly non-Primal relatives, there are genuine practical concerns that come to mind. That said, how much time and energy do we spend being bothered by a preemptive rendition of the event we play in our minds? Instead of dissecting their penchant for Pilsbury crescent rolls or imagining your mother’s reaction to bringing your own dish, you can enjoy planning for things that would make the day enjoyable for you. Perhaps that means preparing a dish or two to bring along. On the other hand, maybe it means eating before we go, being excited to just talk and enjoy the memories instead of the meal and then cooking up a magnificent Primal feast back at our own homes the next day. The point is, there’s power in setting the clear intention to make the day a success by our own definition. No apologies. No skulking around with our contraband food. Do what you have to do. Eat what you want and be done with any guilt or conflict. (Much of it is our own internalized self-talk anyway.) We’re there with a more important agenda – to enjoy our family. Resolve to let the rest go.

When it comes to stress, how do our choices set us up? What would make us feel abundant this holiday? Maybe it’s not what others we know do or what we’ve done in the past. What could we buy or not buy, what experiences would we prioritize, what time could we preserve, what kinds of play would we enjoy? How much would we get outside? What new adventures would we try? What are the activities you would like to make a tradition because they fill the well for you and expand your and your family’s joy? Likewise, what cultural or family routines should we, for our own sake, let go of? It’s a personal question but an important one.

When we decide to do more than survive – a season or a situation, we take responsibility for our experience and choices to a new level. We become responsible for our own happiness. The holiday – or life in general – becomes that much richer in possibility. The healthiest thing we can often do for ourselves is be honest about what we need. The answer – especially this time of year – might not be convenient, but the result will always be worth it.

What personal Primal intentions are you bringing to the holidays this year? Have you found yourself letting go of any common holiday routines to make room for what you choose to prioritize? Share your thoughts, and thanks for reading, everyone.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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