An image of a check list that is written on something that gives the vibe of Santa’s scroll. On the top of the scroll is the phrase Chronic Illness Holiday Survival Checklist Below that is a list of 4 tasks, each with a checked box to the left. The tasks include: Downsize, Delegate, Prioritize You, Connect with Love
Credit: Tatiana Ayazo

Ahh, the holidays. I love everything about this season — the lights, the smell of pine, the food, the fact that everyone seems just a little bit more cheerful, and of course the love. This time of year is important to many different cultures and whatever the reason, celebrations are about bringing your family together to celebrate love, light in the winter darkness, and joy. The exuberance and — let’s face it —overindulgence is wonderful, but it’s also a lot of work.

Which is why those of us who share our lives with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or other chronic illnesses that cause pain and fatigue may dread the coming festive season more than just a little. Regardless of our best intentions, being flattened by a flare during or right after the holidays tends to be just as much of a tradition as the candles and the gifts. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

My book Chronic Christmas: Surviving the Holidays with Chronic Illness is a collection of tips to get you through the holidays formatted like an Advent calendar with one idea per day. In this article, I’ll be sharing some of the themes and ideas from the book to help you revel in the season, whichever celebrations you embrace. These tips can be adapted to any festive event, be it Hanukkah, Diwali, the winter solstice or even the made-up holiday Festivus from the sitcom Seinfeld.

Even though I’ve been trying to follow these tips for years, I realized that the pandemic has made me appreciate and apply them in new ways. This advice isn’t just about how to “survive” the holidays with RA or chronic illness, but how to enjoy them more fully.

Tip 1: Downsize

After last year’s third wave winter COVID-19 lockdown changed the way we spent the holidays, we’ve all learned how to downsize celebrations. Hopefully, this year will be a little different — with the pandemic and flu season still happening, holidays for many of us will likely be smaller than usual, but not quite as isolating as last year.

Festive season 2020 was a hard lesson, but also a valuable one. Like me, you probably discovered that a lot of the usual holiday excess turned out to actually not be essential. In my family, we missed the traditional dinner (also known as “the best meal of the year”), gathering around the tree and singing Christmas carols, but we also discovered that none of it was absolutely necessary. As we celebrated a shortened and stripped-down Christmas shivering on a Toronto playground, we had everything we really needed: each other.

If you spend some time thinking about what last year’s celebrations looked like for you and yours, you’ll be able to identify what is essential and what may not be. Chances are that list includes people you love, hug, and very little else. If you realize that the holiday meal was surprisingly optional, ordering in may be an option. Of course, we have all learned just how valuable and time-saving online shopping is. Enjoy that this will likely be another year with fewer holiday parties and save that energy for something that’s important to you.

Tip 2: Delegate

Feelings of guilt and frustration over all the things you can’t do because of RA is a common experience in our community. It gets worse around the holidays when there is the usual pile of things to do plus 739 other tasks to make the celebration special for the people we love. But why do you have to do it all?

Delegating or dividing tasks and responsibilities among the people who take part in a particular event is a beautiful concept. Using a team approach to re-creating special traditions means you might actually get to enjoy it without the extra pain and fatigue. But more than that, it creates a new type of magic.

Some of my favourite Christmas memories include helping my mother make a particular Christmas cookie as a child (the recipe is in my book). When I got older, I started the tradition of bringing together friends for an afternoon of glogg (a Scandinavian mulled wine) and making Christmas decorations. The laughter and love and being together are the kinds of moments your family will remember and talk about in the future, perhaps even re-create with others in their lives.

So why not make the big holiday meal a potluck, start alternating who hosts, share the gift shopping lists, and make cleaning up before and after the event a team effort?

Tip 3: Prioritize You

You may have agreed so far, at least in theory, but this is the point when I can almost hear you state a bunch of reasons why these strategies will ruin the celebration. If this sounds familiar, I suggest in the gentlest possible way that you take a deep breath and get a grip. RA often comes with lower energy levels and stamina.

If you don’t take control of the holiday plan, RA will take control of you.

Remember: Prioritizing your needs is not a selfish act that takes away from others. It is an essential action that helps you give more to others.

Instead of overdoing everything, which will likely leave you on the couch for days to recover, doing less every day helps you avoid the interruption of a flare and therefore do more of what you want (or need) to do for the people you care about. What’s important is to create the kind of memories that include your being part of them, rather than being too busy or too tired to participate.

Tip 4: Connect with Love

As the Grinch discovers in my favourite Christmas animated show, Christmas (or any celebration) doesn’t come from a store. Holiday celebrations are about bringing people together to share love and laughter and light. Making this the guiding principle in your holiday plans can be the first step to dismantling traditions that don’t work and unreasonable expectations — from both your family and yourself. Truth be told, these are more often contributors to the exhaustion we try to avoid and the annual fights at the dinner table.

Instead, taking radical action to create a better holiday in the future can be one of the few silver linings of having lived through a pandemic. Although recreating the festive occasion in exactly the way we used to have it may feel as a way to reclaim our lives, it just perpetuates old and dysfunctional habits. Now more than ever before, we know that nothing matters as much as the people we love.

Connecting to that love, finding ways to share it with your family and your community allows space for us to heal and find ways to have a better, safer, and more inclusive holiday.

This year let’s all celebrate that we are here, while remembering the past and making the future even more special and enjoyable.

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