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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49 thoughts on “A Primal Take on the Holidays: Surviving or Thriving?”

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  1. Ahh I love this. I was just this morning feeling stressed from the holidays. Saying “no” is so important if it’s something we really don’t want to do. Unfortunately, the reactions of others when saying “no” is almost as stressful as just going anyway 😛

    1. I too stress out at saying no sometimes. Then you do it and you realize it’s not so bad haha. As I get older the more I’m okay with saying no and spending time enjoying the things that I want to do versus the things that other people want me to do.

  2. I don’t want to but I can’t help thinking about that Festivus joke. I want the holidays to be filled with cheer and simple, uncomplicated happiness but often times it is too much work and commercialism. I try for my 6 year old’s sake to do what I can to instill traditions that she can remember but each year gets harder. The internet and the negativity from it always seems to get in the way.

    Sometimes I wish we could turn back time a bit…

  3. I think people need to drop the family facades and scale the holidays back to what they actually want to do and brush off the expectations.

  4. I definitely needed this today. The stress of the holiday season, in-laws, and the added stress of proposing have definitely ratcheted up my nerves and made it more difficult to feel abundant and in the moment this year. I’m looking forward to the next week or so slowing down and spending time with close family and friends, but until then this will be a reminder to keep a positive perspective and enjoy each moment as much as possible.

  5. …commercialism wears on me. The gargantuan expectations fatigue me…

    This is why we quit celebrating the holidays in this way–we buy what we need when we need it, we don’t save up our turkey and pumpkin consumption for 1 season out of the year, and we got tired of cleaning up after cat catastrophes (climbing the tree and knocking it over, chewing on presents, eating tinsel, breaking ornaments, etc.). Besides, turkey is cheaper all the REST of the year!

    All these so-called sales? Not even close! This is what Europeans would call “the high season” for holiday foods. And to think we’re all out there trying to kill each other so we can be first to get our hands on heavily-discounted merchandise that’s discounted FOR A REASON. Usually, this merchandise is a few years old, and leftover stuff that didn’t sell off the clearance rack. In tech terms, the flat-screen TVs and computers are usually 2-3 generations behind.

    The holiday shopping season is just an store’s indoor yard sale, meaning that’s where they offload their junk. Do you really want to buy someone else’s junk?

    The money I save NOT buying into this crap is spent on grass-fed meats, quality seafood, and organic produce.

  6. I’m actually hitting my stride stress-wise. I find that getting in a regular walk and being super-careful about nutrition is the only way to keep on top of everything. It’s the time of year when I am most tempted to get something easy and non-primal, but it knocks me down the worst if I do (I get the most horrible mood swings from sugar and wheat products). My family is really good about sharing out the feeding responsibilities for everyone and helping with clean up. The biggest stressor is getting presents wrapped. I enjoy it, but it takes time I don’t feel like I have right now (homeschooling and a new baby=nearly no time for anything).

    1. Give your gifts in reusable grocery bags! This eliminates the need for wrapping and gives a gift that helps the planet!

      1. A few grocery stores have Holiday bags, the re-useable kind every year, so my Mom buys a few and that’s what she gives us our presents in.. no throwing away and I have extra bags for the farmers marker or grocery store or for carrying freshly picked produce back from the community garden.

        1. I really like that idea. I finally just let the 7-yr old wrap all her younger siblings presents.

  7. Very good article. My wife’s family is very large, so we’ve been dealing with these stressors quite a bit over the years, and not just around the holidays. We try to keep the emphasis on the family we made together, and not worry so much about the family we were born into/married into.

    Our go-to dish to bring anywhere: bacon-wrapped water chestnuts. Nobody complains or thinks we’re weird, and we can eat as much we want, because: bacon!

    1. Bacon-wrapped-water-chestnuts. 🙂 It’s our go-to, too! My daughter & I can make them like a machine now….

  8. looking forward to my christmas day swim in the eastern atlantic ocean – gonna make this a regular family tradition every xmas…

  9. When my kids moved out, I created new rituals. I found the old ones, which directly involved them, were too painful without them–the solution? Start new ones 🙂

    Since I’m not only new to Primal, but working through some frustrating digestive issues that have climaxed the past few months, I attend a party late–after there are more people there instead of just a few surrounded around the food. Also, I didn’t go near the food table (not due to Primal, but belly issues) and stuck near the bar 😉 (I kid, partly.)

    Finally, I began writing to help me let go past regrets or hurts, especially because some holidays hold instant reminders of the past–the good, bad, and the ugly. Mostly letting go is good for our belly and our hearts.

  10. Just me and my gal sitting by the fire in our backyard looking at the mountains, drinking Primal Hot Chocolate.

  11. i love this. every year at this time i fear overeating “semi-cheat foods” (like dark chocolate, spiced nuts, and cheese) as if they’re being forced upon me by some looming holiday force of darkness! my personal intention this year is to consciously remind myself before every gathering that I have CHOSEN to eat primally, and that’s what makes me thrive! I’m in control, gosh darn it!

  12. I’ve recently been reevaluating the holidays and I’ve found so much useless energy (and money) is spent giving unnecessary gifts to people we don’t really care for, and gifts that are even thoughtful or creative, but a duty we feel (like giving a gas card to the mailman we don’t know just because we feel we have to give him something, or the candle I received from my hairdresser in a flavor I don’t like). Less is definitely more when it comes to the holidays ESPECIALLY with respect to food. It’s just not enjoyable to down a carton of egg nog and the whole plate of snicker doodles just because we’re supposed to indulge in the holidays.

    1. I agree that less is more. My spouse and I no longer give gifts that need to be shopped for. We send a check to St. Jude’s Childrens Hospital and the local Dumb Friends League. That’s it. My adult kids get cash. My spouse and I go out for a nice dinner and also get together with friends and family. Decorating is deliberately minimal–a small fiber-optic tree and a wreath on the door. These changes have made the holidays infinitely more relaxed and enjoyable for us.

  13. About 6 years ago, after yet another stressful year with a very difficult teenage daughter, we abandoned Christmas entirely.

    It was THE best thing we ever did. Now we celebrate the Solstice as a moment to rejoice and begin our new solar year the next morning.

    None of my family really understood, and some were really very negative BUT as Mark says we truly create our own realities. No one can make you feel anything, stress, guilt or otherwise, only you do that to yourself. As a therapist friend of mine is want to say ‘it’s not out there’. If they chose to make themselves irate, that’s there choice. It isn’t easy, but it really is that simple.

    When you truly get that there is peace to be found in most activities.

  14. Years ago my parents decided to discontinue observing holidays and explained to us the reasons why. The result is that we give gifts at various times of the year and plan family gatherings when we all can make it. Our extended family who still observe the holidays are fine with our choice and we all get together without stress at various times throughout the year.
    Of course I bring my pillow, coconut oil, butter and meat and whatever else I eat that they don’t stock….. No stress.

  15. Great topic, Mark! I felt more relaxed after simply reading it. Thanks.

    I usually take a plate of cold meats rolled up with seasoned cream cheese inside and people seem to like them a lot. Sometimes a pickle spear or a green onion goes in the middle for crunch.

    I’m part of a family with “must-do” holiday traditions. I can’t opt out so I keep it as low-key and simple as possible. I learned to pick someone I haven’t seen in a while and have a conversation or pay attention to the younger children. No-one notices what I eat.

  16. Both my and my husband’s family live a days drive away, in opposite directions – so we all agreed that whilst we would love to be together, potential bad weather, travelling, hidding gifts (there are still believers around!), sleeping on airbeds etc mean we all stay in our own caves, Skype and see each other when we can. We are in charge of our own remote control, to an extent, eat our own food choices and love being together as a family of four.

  17. If you slow down and notice what mid-winter is really about, it’s kind of the opposite of what we do. Really it’s about darkness, cold, and silence. This is really wonderful. Silent night, holy night.

    Maybe in the Far North (where most of our christmas traditions originate) there was a little too much of the cold and dark, and so light and noise was welcome. For us, not so much, these days.

    I go to bed early. Sometimes I don’t make a fire, so it’s cold at night. It is absolutely silent outside, unlike other times of the year. Last night, there was a very bright moon and everything outside was silver. It was magical. Relish the seasonal moment.

  18. Ahhh… I like that perspective and advise, Mark. I admit to struggling with expectations at this time of year- my own and other’s. The commercial/shopping/gifting part of the holidays left me cold long ago and I have become more of a scrooge with each passing year. That is not a good place to be! Generally I am happy and relaxed. Not at Christmas though – wow. I have decided to take the challenge to change my outlook and take charge of my own happiness this Holiday season. Actually, I have been thinking of this for a while now and your article was just the push I needed! Thank you!!

  19. From the perspective of food, isn’t Christmas a perfect example of an application of 80-20? Why worry about what you’re going to eat on what many people consider the biggest family/traditional holiday? (Certainly if there’s an allergy involved…) Have some stuffing. Have a Christmas cookie (or – gasp – TWO!) and a piece of pie. Bring a “primal” dish if you must, but I would argue that if you can’t stow the Primal “diet” thing for Christmas, you might be restricting yourself too much.

  20. I love this time of year. Can it wear on a person? Sure it can, but so what. Enjoy it. This is a time to build good memories and traditions. It breaks people out of their ruts. Embrace it!

  21. “When we decide to do more than survive… we take responsibility for our experience and choices to a new level. We become responsible for our own happiness… The healthiest thing we can often do for ourselves is be honest about what we need.”

    You nailed it, Mark. Never underestimate the power of personal responsibility and self-honesty.

    Happy Holidays, Everyone!


  22. I enjoy the holidays. I don’t do very much during them, but it’s nice to go to the parties and my mom usually comes into town to visit, so that’s nice. I’m too old to do the gift thing anymore so I focus on gifts for just one person and gather gifts throughout the year. I enjoy at least one or two holiday strolls downtown to see all the gadgets and decorations and stuff just for the fun of it. I go to the same parties every year, and one of them in particular always involves me being insulted by a very wealthy, powerful individual. It still bothers me that someone can actually insult another person to their face like that, but the regularity of it just makes it all the more pitiful for her to the point that I just can’t take it personally anymore. Oh, and the food thing isn’t really an issue anymore. I’m not as focused on food as I was before Primal.

  23. This year, after living primally for the last 5 months with the people within my home, my partner and children.The rest of my family just make fun of us and live with vast amount of food and alcohol without boundaries over Christmas, as well as the rest of the year. The only way to escape this year’s festivities was to book a holiday for 2 weeks in Egypt so on monday we are going and I cant wait, no presents, no decorations, no writing cards or doing the normal pleasing others.does it please me? Hell yeah, do I feel guilty for letting the family down? Yes badly, am sure I’ll get over it with a few lazy days in the sun though :):):)

  24. My family opted to keep gifts minimal this year, and only my immediate family (my parents, my sister, and myself) are exchanging gifts. I was relieved to hear this. I’d much rather focus on spending time together and cooking meals together than on stressing about what to get each other. I always thought my dad was impossible to shop for because he’s a “if I want it or need it I’ll just get it when I do” kind of person; this year I realized I’m the same way! Gift-giving, while nice, can go by the wayside in my opinion.

    As with anything, it’s all about what type of mindset you bring with you.

  25. For me it’s Christmas music. Same songs, over and over, decade after decade. In recent years I’ve been resorting to a coupla days of death-metal to clear my head of it. Only time of year I like death-metal. 😀

    1. I switch to classical for Christmas music! Can’t get into jazz and pop for Christmas.

  26. Paul and I committed early that we would not decorate for Christmas. We have 8 week old puppies invading the house so it makes entertaining diffficult to say the least! I enjoy the family aspect of holidays but not the monitary rituals. Love throughout the year, not one day!

  27. I LOVE Christmas! There’s no need to stress, you CAN choose not to make this about going into debt or giving yourself a nervous breakdown! Just celebrate it for what it was meant to be…a day to remember to love and share and count your blessings! We gather around the fireplace, give each other stupid inexpensive presents, eat a great dinner, watch old black and white movies and laugh ourselves silly.

    Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

  28. The thing I find hardest about the holidays is work stress – my workload tends to increase towards the end of the year as everyone wants to use up their massage benefits before they run out…. that means that I end up with VERy busy, long days that are not only mentally taxing, they are physically hard as well.
    And that in turn means I have little time or energy to actually go and buy the presents I need for the kids…. not that we get them HUGE amounts. one big present, a couple of smaller ones, a pair of PJ’s and maybe some undies…. but it does take time. Organization is the key for me – I have lists and lists of my lists….
    But once Christmas eve comes, I de-stress totally… I do loads of cooking which always relaxes me (Eldest DD and I prep most of the stuff for the next couple of days, plus we do a fancy meal for xmas eve…). We listen to the festival of 9 lesons and carols on the BBC (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p005ftyb) while we are doing this. Then, as a family we eat our meal (always fish based) and enjoy….. and after that, it is pure relaxation until I start back at work in the new year.
    IT is a BUSY time of year for me, but I love the cooking and food part…

  29. I married a jew so the holiday is super simple and fun. He has zero expectations about what the day is supposed to be, I think that is the key: adjusting our attitudes towards the day. I am feeling a bit stressed however that there is no snow where we typically ski on Christmas. We have had 8 inches of rain all year, should be at 35 by now. CLimate change is bringing me down.

  30. The kids and I leave Santa a plate of carrots sticks, crispy bacon slices and 90% dark chocolate squares along with some almond milk instead of cookies and skim milk!
    We also always insist with family get togethers/parties that we bring the meat so we know it’s grassfed, high-quality protein as well as a salad made with greens from the local farmer’s market. That way, we are covered with Primal foods and they get a chance to taste the real deal!

  31. About 1,500 words, and not a single mention of Christmas. For shame. Being Politically Correct means to be quiet about Christmas as it is a holiday from Europe, so mentioning it would be “racist”. At least in the U.S. Political Correctness in other countries usually doesn’t bother with this one, though we start seeing some “Merry Holidays!” cards in stores in Europe, produced by Hallmark of course.

  32. I announced to everyone this year that now there’s a baby in the family, that’s who will be getting presents seeing as we are now adults… Only small things for parents and siblings ( goody baskets, etc) That takes a lot of pressure off. Then I just offer tocook and then there isn’t an issue 🙂 Turkey is turkey, I give into mashed potatoes, but stuffing I use sweet potatoes/yams instead of bread and people don’t even notice 🙂 This includes the health ignorant in-laws… My hubby and I focus on family and relaxation so we can enjoy it all. Goodies we try to keep to red wine, dark chocolate and nuts 🙂 with the exception of greatgrandmas cookies, but i’m gonna work on recreating that recipe into something more primal 🙂

  33. You´re always so wise Mark:). You might have saved my christmas with your words.

  34. I love my primal life but this time of year I give in to all the traditional eating, I’m not allergic and it will be a good start at new years to begin again.

  35. All ready for the big family dinner! Each holiday I introduce a new “primal dish”. Already they are asking for the favorites to make an appearance this year. In place of the gooey, bland, green bean casserole….I hear-“don’t forget to bring your green beans!” Fresh green beans are steamed until still slightly crunchy. Then I lightly fry them in butter, adding blanched almonds! Once the almonds start to turn golden it’s time to serve these babies!
    Also, I make a hefty Waldorf salad. My version is made without mayo, just lots of fresh homemade whipped cream and a little greek yogurt for body. Granny Smith apples, chopped oranges,celery and grapes, and chunks of walnuts. It goes great with beef!
    Dessert? I am still working on the perfect dessert…most recently is was cinnamon rolls made with almond, cashew and coconut flour. The frosting drizzled on top has vanilla protein powder added for a thickener 🙂
    And Christmas morning? A Christmas quiche made with a crust of almond and cashew flour. Oh, and lots of nitrate free bacon!

  36. I think any celebration for the sake of celebration eventually evolves into a drag. We make holidays because there are people and events so important we don’t want to forget them. So now, for Christmas, however (or if even) you celebrate it, you have to know why the shepherds were so filled with wonder at what the angels told them. The Charlie Brown Christmas Special on Netflix told us what many have forgotten, that is, the Savior of the world has been born. The Jews were waiting for their Messiah whom they expected to liberate them from Rome. What was told in their own prophecies was that their Messiah was for everyone in the world, to save them from eternal death and give them eternal life. Now if you don’t believe it you have to admit, were it true, THAT would be something to celebrate; but by thinking of others, not ourselves. That is the only reason I would ever want to celebrate Christmas, but it’s also the reason I can celebrate life EVERYDAY!