10 ways to make the season brighter

Real talk: the holiday season isn't all smiley elves and Karen Carpenter for some people. When you're feeling stressed or blue, the December pressure to slap on a happy face can make you feel even worse: the difference between how you actually feel and how you're supposed to feel is so great. There's no rule that says you can't be in a bad mood during the twelve days of Christmas. But maybe what you also need are some quiet, meaningful, and just plain fun ways to celebrate the season that don't have anything to do with presents or the mall parking lot. Here, ten timeless ways to bring light and cheer to the holiday season.

Candlelight Night
Make your season brighter by turning out the lights. There's something about candlelight-the way it lends a sense of import, makes you lower your voice just a bit, and makes everyone look about 87% more attractive-that is just inimitably…magic. For one night, why not make like the 19th century and rely on candles rather than electricity, if only just for a dinner a deux. Kick things up a notch by banning all electronics--phones, TV, iPods--and spend the evening playing Scrabble and reading stories.

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Ice Skating
There is so much sitting and imbibing during this season, that one of the best things you can do for your mood and your body is to get moving. If you can find an affordable place to go, this is the kind of holiday activity that makes your heart pound in a good way. In super cold climes, I bet you can even step on to a frozen pond, which is pretty much the most romantic thing ever.

Slow Down
Are your thoughts racing? Are you, at this very moment running three different to-do lists in your head? Turn off the television, and your iPod, and the Elvis Christmas record playing the background. Sit down, take a deep breath, and then slowly exhale. Stop doing and just be for a second. Now keep breathing in and out, and focus on the air coming through your nose, causing your chest to rise and your belly to swell. Let it out slowly. Repeat until a sense of equanimity fills you (you will be shocked at just how fast that will happen-1 minute might be all it takes to do the trick). There's a great group on Facebook called 12 Days of Mindfulness about just this very thing.

I am thinking of having a super low-key dinner in our living room with some friends who live nearby, and I will most definitely tell everyone to bring something to nosh or sip. This season is all about sharing, and nothing warms my heart like someone at my door with something from their kitchen, even if it's just cheese and crackers (thought by some to be the perfect meal).

More: 5 sane steps to plan relaxed holiday meals

Attend a Religious Service
Even if you're not religious, there is awe and wonder to be had at respectfully observing a spiritual tradition. And if you are religious, why not try attending a different service than your own? Perhaps the most welcome during this busy season might be a Quaker service where the quiet is just what you need to connect with meaning, or visit a church with the loudest, most joyous choir and sing your heart out.

Say no to some stupid party you didn't want to go to anyway and spend time with the people who make feel understood (and make you laugh till your face hurts). Put those free minutes to good use and set up a phone date with your sister where you both pour a cup of eggnog and talk till bedtime. This is what makes the season bright and the rest of the year rich: having meaningful connections with the people we care about.

Hot Chocolate Tasting
Mix up batches of a few different hot chocolate recipes or mixes, and have a wee teacup of each. Decide which takes the prize for most delicious and you've found your signature drink of the season. Then make a bigger cup with the winner and wiggle yourself into a cushy chair with a fat book. (Wouldn't hurt to include marshmallows in this tasting, either.)

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Winter Walk
Once you've stayed in with a movie night, a night of martinis, and a hot chocolate tasting, you may find yourself fortified to actually brave the cold. Wear your puffiest jacket, your silliest hat, and your ugliest, most practical boots and take a walk (bonus points for snowshoes). It easy to think of this time of year as dead, but once you are out in the world taking stock of nature or your neighborhood, you might find there's a lot to captivate your attention. Like all those great holiday lights.

Deck the Halls...Your Way
I wish I were someone who always got my house (read: little apartment) into tip-top seasonal shape (read: clean). Oh well. This year we got a tree and decorated it with lights and red yarn. The branch that fell off while we were carrying it home is now in a vase, and I plan to make a garland out of paper snowflakes. No giant inflatable Santas here, but no gorgeous wreaths from Williams-Sonoma either. You don't need me to tell you this, but it's just a reminder: Doing things your way, not the "right" way, will make you a lot happier during the holidays (and the rest of the year).

More: Chic holiday decor all under $10

Give Back
With money tight and a cold lingering, it is awfully easy to be consumed by our own personal sphere of drama. But the times when we manage to see life from someone else's perspective can snap us into a state of gratitude for all we have going for us. Make it fun: if you like kids, volunteer to read to them at night in group homes. If you like babies, offer to be a snuggler in the newborn section of the hospital (yes, this is a real volunteer position). If you like food-the way it brings people together and sustains their spirits, as well as their bodies-volunteer to prepare and serve meals at a soup kitchen.

What do you do to make your season meaningful, fun, and bright?

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