From retailer commercials, to holiday movies and stories, we are deluged this time of year with images and messages of family harmony, abundance of gifts, treats and parties, and messages of good cheer and joy. But we all know reality can be a quite different experience. Many of us struggle with feelings of melancholy — if not outright sadness and grief — during the holiday season. This time of year, we feel the loss of loved ones, missed opportunities and the limitations from aging or illness in a most profound way. Sometimes, we even feel guilty or flawed because we can’t seem to grasp the holiday spirit, despite our decorating/baking/shopping/carol-singing marathon of activities. I suggest we experiment with a paradigm shift this winter. Rather than force ourselves to feel jolly when we feel more like emotional Jell-o (shaky and transparent) what would happen if we gave ourselves permission to grieve our losses, to consciously choose to reminisce about those dear ones who will not be around our hiliday table this year? What would it cost us to be gentle and compassionate with ourselves and allow ourselves a holiday-free weekend unencumbered by party invitations, gift wrapping obligations and cookie-baking demands? After all, I’d wager that while some of our treasured traditions are built on generations of shared joyful experiences, others are crafted more from guilt and obligation. Do we REALLY have a genuine desire to have a freshly cut tree in the front window, even though the dog is likely to use it for a toilet, and we will be hoovering pine needles well into spring? Are we EXCITED to invite Uncle Harry to the Hannukah party, despite knowing the evening will end with Harry passed out in the hallway, like he’s done the past 20 years? When my grandmother died some years ago, her baking traditions were assumed to pass on to me, her only grand-daughter. (Apparently, even in 21st-century Italian American families, grandSONS are not expected to bring anything to the holiday meal beside their appetites.) The thing is, Gram’s honey-rum cookies are a b%+@! to make, and I never really liked the pizzelles, despite their pretty, lacy designs and cool waffle-maker-like baking appliance. I chose to let my sister-in-law take the honors for those recipes, and I bake the two — and only two — kinds of cookies I like. It was one small choice I made to avoid a weekend stuck in the kitchen preparing desserts I detest just so I could demonstrate a devotion to my Gram’s memory. In fact, honoring my Gram is more evident when I choose to model her love for her family, or when I enjoy a glass of her favorite Chianti (which is also my own, thanks to Gram’s introduction to the joys of the screw-top jug.) I will cop to still feeling a slight panic if I have to deviate from my extended family’s decades-long history of producing typed, catalogue and photo-laden Christmas lists at the dessert table on Thanksgiving. And I’ve not yet developed the courage to tell my Mom it would be more convenient for my family if we could push Christmas breakfast back an hour or so. But come December 26th, I will risk my wife’s displeasure and my son’s eye rolling when I continue my lifelong tradition of lolling about the house all day in my pajamas. My wife is welcome to hit the mall for a frenzy of returning gifts and scoring after-Christmas deals. My son is free to keep a wide berth from my flannel-clad form. I have found that learning to honor the parts of the holidays that bring me joy — and to avoid the ones that don’t — may be one way to ensure I’m able to add some cheer to everyone else’s.