December can be a pretty stressful month.
Between the parties, the gift shopping, the decorations, the baking, the writing of cards and managing the expectations of family and close friends, it's no wonder we end up asleep on the sofa come Christmas day afternoon.
But amidst the madness, pause for thought and focus on the real meaning of Christmas.
Whether or not you believe in the story of Jesus, you don't need to be a Christian to appreciate Christmas as a time of compassion and kindness; a time to appreciate the gift of life by reaching out to someone less fortunate than yourself.
Of course family comes first and life needs living, but there's always a way for each one of us to make a special difference at Christmas – a chance to nourish the soul and spread some love through human kindness.
Touching another person's heart by turning sadness to joy or frown to a smile is a beautiful gift, and Christmas is a wonderful opportunity to take leave of our largely self-centered existence and do something amazing.
I've already done a couple of things I usually do around this time of year, so I thought I'd share a list of simple things you can do to bring joy to a life this Christmas.
1. Help An Elderly Neighbour In Need
I don't know about where you live, but here in the UK it gets pretty cold during December. It also gets pretty lonely for those living alone. The days are short, damp and gloomy, and the cold means people don't hang about outside for too long. At times, many streets are ghostly, with few signs of life.
Most of us have an old person living on our street, someone widowed or perhaps an old couple who aren't in the best of health.
As we cosy up with our loved ones waiting for the big day, it's easy to forget that there are others living alone not a stone's throw from where we live. If you can, take five minutes to pop down and see the old man, lady or couple on your street.
Ask if they need any shopping doing, invite them down for a sherry and a mince pie and make sure their heating is working properly. Perhaps offer to do an odd job around the house, or just sit and chat with them for a while. Ten minutes of your time will make a huge difference to their day.
2. Donate What You Don't Use
There are many ways to make a donation to those less fortunate than yourself, but a great way is to have a clear out and donate stuff you don't use to a charity shop.
It's also a rewarding feeling to have a sort out anyway; tidy mind = tidy life, as they say. Charity shops have struggled in recent years due to higher premises rates and competition from direct charity appeals for natural disasters, of which sadly there have been many. And while we should all continue to help those causes if we can, donating clothes, toys, ornaments and kitchenware that can be resold for a charitable cause is a fantastic way to help the needy at Christmas.
For those who can't afford to give money to charity each month, donating a couple of books or toys the kids don't play with anymore is something most can manage. Having a clear out is a charitable activity the whole family can get involved in, because everyone has something that's nearly new that they don't use anymore, or a present from last year that barely made it out of the box.
3. Sweep A Step Or Two
While snow is lovely to look at and makes the kids happy, it's a nightmare for the disabled, the elderly and many others.
So when the snow falls, don't just clear the snow outside of your house and make a pathway for your car, think about others in your street who might need a hand too: a single mum, an elderly lady, a wheelchair bound person, a person with poor eyesight or other special needs.
The same goes for a heavy frost. Doorsteps and paths can become slippery and dangerous, and with just a little thought and some deicer, we can help make walking safe for others.
4. Help The Homeless
Some people are homeless through financial circumstance, some through mental illness and some through choice. But regardless of how a person came to be on the street, Christmas is an extremely difficult time to be homeless, not just because of the cold but because of being isolated and alone during a time when it seems like the whole world is enjoying time with family, except you.
Many people volunteer at homeless shelters over the holiday period, helping serve food, distributing blankets and boosting morale. But if you don't have the time to do that, try and make a difference in another way, perhaps by donating some spare change to a homeless shelter charity box or by dropping a few coins in the hat/cup of a homeless person you see on the way to work. Better still, buy a cup of tea and a sandwich, bend down as you pass and say, “Merry Christmas Sir/Madam”.
5. Keep An Eye On The Animals
Like people, animals need care at Christmas too, especially if you live in a country where it gets cold in December.
Hedgehogs, badgers, foxes, cats and other animals can quickly become victims of Jack Frost, and oftentimes abandoned, injured or vulnerable animals will take refuge in sheds or bushes at the bottom of a garden during the winter. So have a check a couple of times each week to make sure there isn't an animal suffering on your doorstep that you didn't know about.
Giving is always far more rewarding than receiving. And the beauty of spreading love is that not only does it help heal the soul of another, it helps heal yours too.
Have a wonderful Christmas!