How to Enjoy the Holiday Traditions When Chronically Ill



The holidays have arrived and with the festivities, those of us with a chronic illness can feel bombarded by a wave of emotions that are fresh and raw. Rather than participating in this season of joy, the list of expectations – mostly
those we put on ourselves – can leave us feeling depressed and lacking.

As one who has lived with rheumatoid arthritis for 21 years, I have the gift of experience – through lots of trial and error. At last, I feel I can put aside some of the chaos and enjoy that which I deem most worthwhile.

Here are some of my best tips for making the typical holiday challenges easier for the person with a chronic illness.


Understand energy quotient, rather than time

If you are familiar with Christine Miserandino’s Spoon Theory, you know that it is best to measure how you spend your energy rather than the number of hours in the day. Always give yourself “grace space.” This means let go of the temptation to squeeze more in and then pay for it later. You can fill your extra time with low-energy, calming moments of joy. For example,have a cup of tea and look at your holiday lights or watch a favorite Christmas childhood cartoon.


So you need to buy some gifts

Shopping online

I do most of my shopping online and have found memberships through sites such as Amazon and ebates that save me money and shipping costs. I use the Slice app to automatically send me receipts and tracking numbers of anything I purchase online.

Walk into stores prepared

Sometimes it is fun to just get out and see all the holiday decorations and pick up some stocking stuffers. The app Chameleon gives you the map of stores you enter–which includes the location of the bathrooms and elevators. This can certainly be helpful for those of us who don’t have the stamina to walk around the entire store looking for one small item.


Do you decorate?

Find peace about what tree you have (or don’t have).

Perhaps this is the year you don’t feel you can put up a large tree. Don’t grieve this as a loss, but instead, consider the amount of energy you can use for other things. Decorate a table-top tree with your most favorite ornaments. Can’t have a tree? Go sit somewhere in public where there is a 15-foot tree and read a book. Many people become sick or have allergies that act up every season due to trees. Maybe this year you will finally be able to avoid sniffling.

Wrapping gifts

Sore hands can make wrapping painful, so take advantage of using gift bags. I buy brown gift bags in bulk and then add rafia as a bow, a dried orange slice, and even a sprig of evergreen (fake is fine). It has a beautiful, natural look without having to use a single piece of tape. This is also a great task to give someone that asks, “Is there anything I can do for you?” or maybe you know a teenager that could use some extra spending money and will wrap everything for you in a couple of hours.


We all need to eat

Simplify baking

Many years ago I would bake hundreds of cookies to giveaway to friends and family, but now my signature gift item is chocolate – and white chocolate – covered popcorn. I can create a dozen Mason jars filled with the popcorn in a few hours and everyone wants the “recipe.” Add a bit of crushed peppermint sticks to the popcorn with a cute bow and forget the baking. I have also made chocolate-covered plastic spoons for coffee drinks. If you enjoy making food gifts for teacher and neighbor gifts, find something simple, so you don’t have to be jumping up and down monitoring a timer.

Have one appetizer to bring that is your signature item

What appetizer can you quickly make to bring that everyone will enjoy? Is it something you can make in advance? One of my favorites is Brie cheese covered with Pillsbury pastry dough. It tastes heavenly and takes less than five minutes. If you have restrictions on what you can eat, bring something you can enjoy just in case there isn’t another snack you can tolerate.

Stock your refrigerator with healthy snacks

When you go to any holiday event it can be tempting to eat things you will regret later. Stock your refrigerator with healthy snacks to munch on beforehand – or any time. Cut up celery sticks and put them in water, buy some Greek yogurt – whatever will keep your digestive system calm.


Going to a party?

Finding something to wear

Holiday parties have been something I have dreaded for years because of not being able to wear the high heels or sequined dresses. One can, however, be both comfortable and look classy. I have found that anything black with a bit of sparkle, worn with black pants, accommodates any dress code and my orthopedic black shoes don’t stand out as much as they could. Change your look with different jewelry or a scarves.

Stock up on small gifts

Rather than trying to find the perfect hostess gift, just purchase something that reflects your style and stock up on it. Too often we use up precious energy running to the store before an event to find something at the last minute. Purchase some thank you gifts in advance as well. One year, following a November surgery, I had a few moms helping me out with rides for my son and errands to grab milk. I had bought a bunch of candle/ornaments with battery-operated lights and put them in gift bags. They all were surprised and it made me feel like I had a way to show my appreciation. And don’t forget your medical team. A box of holiday chocolates for the office staff is always appreciated.


Take care of yourself

Just splurge

I’ve found that many of us with illness feel like we spend so much money managing our disease we are reluctant to spend more on a haircut or a manicure. If you are financially able, do something for yourself this season. A good haircut
(and color?) will help you feel more confident and it will lessen the amount of time it takes to get put together for an outing. Buy a new purse or something to make your life easier.

Organize your medications and medical care

Look over the schedule of your December medications and clarify if any need refilled by a certain date. When will your doctor be inaccessible? Will you be traveling? Make plans in advance to have plenty of medication available and let your doctor know. Ask him in advance, if _____ occurs, how should I respond?For example, does he recommend you first call him, go to Urgent Care/ER, or take additional medications? And make those January and February appointments now. The holidays can drain us and many of us end up with colds and flare ups in January, so make an appointment now before the schedule is full.

Be flexible

There will likely be days when you must cancel plans. It’s such a bummer! Before this happens, make a basket of your favorite goodies–a funny Christmas movie, new slippers, your favorite drink. What would comfort you when you end up having to stay home with the heating pad? Sometimes a good cry helps the most, but when you are done crying, perhaps some eggnog and one of your favorite movies (mine is When Harry Met Sally) will help you get through the evening.

I hope you have a blessed holiday season. I have found that making choices in advance about how to spend my limited energy can make it feel less emotional when plans must be changed. This is a season of peace, joy, and thanksgiving. When we are able to graciously face the realities of our illness and choose to celebrate the moments we will cherish, it will be easier to let the little things go.




Lisa Copen is the author of Beyond Casseroles: 505 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend. Her new book “Refresh Me, Lord” was just released in December. She is the founder of National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week and Rest Ministries and the winner of the 2014 WEGO Health Pinterest Award where she has over 10,000 pins related to everything illness.


3 thoughts on “How to Enjoy the Holiday Traditions When Chronically Ill

  1. karaleigh2 says:

    These are such great suggestions, Lisa–thank you for sharing them w/ us and for the amt. of energy I know it took to write it! I pray that you have a blessed and happy Christmas despite some limitations. Thanks for encouraging us to give ourselves grace and for encouraging us to give ourselves permission to enjoy a smaller celebration.

  2. terrycadymt says:

    These are great! I would like to add, to the dressing section, find some tunics to toss over your black pants. They almost always look dressy, and no buttons, snaps, zippers, or even velcro.

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