A deep blanket of snow covered the Ohio farmland by Christmas Eve and car after car arrived through the drifts, pulling up to the old Hoagland family farm. Tumbling and spilling out of the back seats, my mom and her cousins raced into the warm house, throwing themselves into grandma’s arms. It was 1946 and everything smelled wonderful.
After dinner and checkers and long looks at the tinsel-strewn tree, it was off to bed. Mom was the tiniest of the little army and she climbed the stairs holding hands with the bigger kids.
The cousins always bunked upstairs at the farm on Christmas Eve, trying their best to be good and sleep so Santa could make that all-important trip down the chimney by midnight. The fidgeting subsided and one by one, they drifted off to sugarplum dreams.
Then suddenly, something went bump on the roof and the sound of heavy boots sounded on the wide front porch below, stomping and shaking off the snow.
“Whoa Comet, steady Cupid! Keep ‘em still, Rudolph!” a deep, gruff voice shouted while sweet, high bells jingled and rang in the night. The children leaped to their knees, not daring to touch the floor, stifling giggles and whispering their excitement as the big front door was flung open and none less than Santa himself seemed to go inside the living room below.
After a suitable period of rustling and bumping, clomping and more stomping, Saint Nick disappeared and an aunt or uncle would call up the stairway, “Children, you’ve had a visitor, you can come down now.”
Oh, how they raced to see what lay beneath the tree. Mom pressed her little face to the frosty windowpanes, green eyes bright and blonde curls in disarray, but try as she might, she could never get a glimpse of the jolly old elf.
It was many years before anyone confessed to her that it was grandpa, stomping back and forth in his big work boots and shaking his horse harness that made the magic of Christmas so real for her, snuggled upstairs under those handmade quilts. And even when she knew the full story, she never lost her gratitude for all the happiness that those traditions brought to her.
So, when jingle time comes around, I like to take a little space to slow down, breathe deeply and feel thankful — for the smiles of children, music in the air, crisp mornings and the friendly waves of strangers accepting offers of cuts in line at the store when they have only one item and I have a whole cart full of stuff.
When you really think about it, don’t you find that it’s the little things that make life worthwhile? I do, and I believe the holiday season gives rise within us to so many emotions, but possibly the highest and best is gratitude. Or it should be.
As the days build toward our own unique celebrations and observances, our opportunities for gratitude and appreciation grow.
Under the best of circumstances, with our expectations wrapped up like bright boxes topped with sparkling ribbons and bows, we journey though the crescendo of parties, parades, feasts, hugs and laughter to arrive home at last, in our own hearts — happy and filled with thanks.
But did you know that gratitude is a blessing at other times in our lives, not just during the holiday season? In fact, it’s very much like a muscle, something that grows and improves with use.
Gratitude, it turns out, has many benefits.
The folks at U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center know it and they are dedicated to proving this — with good reason. At the GGSC website, they offer this wisdom:
“Gratitude, it seems, is a key — perhaps the key — to feeling more satisfied with your life. Strengthening your sense of joy and social connection, gratitude improves your relationships, helps you cope with adversity and even fortifies your immune system.”
Berkeley’s researchers are doing groundbreaking studies on the profound and lasting effects that an outlook of gratitude can provide — finding positive impacts that promote the growth of individual compassion, happiness and altruism. Reductions in depression and anxiety are also correlated with regular gratitude practices.
Why does gratitude work such wonders in our psyches?
GGSC researchers report, “When we deliberately focus on feeling and expressing gratitude, we build our muscle for noticing the positive people and events in our lives that we might otherwise take for granted.”
In their initial research study, with approximately 185 patients, they found that those patients who generally have more grateful dispositions — also known as “trait” gratitude — sleep better, are less depressed, have less fatigue, have more self-confidence to take care of themselves and have less systemic inflammation. Wow, how cool is that?
Gratitude can also help you bounce back from stress and heal your heart, they are discovering.
All of these factors are highly relevant to supporting greater well-being. (You can read about this fascinating stuff at greatergood.berkeley.edu.)
Supporters of these findings include many like-minded organizations, such as the Chopra Center, whose website states, “Gratitude is an immensely powerful force that we can use to expand our happiness, create loving relationships and even improve our health.”
Want to learn more? You can treat yourself to the GGSC’s Gratitude Quiz here: greatergood.berkeley.edu/quizzes/take_quiz/gratitude.
However you choose to express and expand your own gratitude, just remember to notice all the opportunities for thankfulness with which life and the holidays present you. After all, we do call it “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays,” don’t we?