We all know that I like to go the unconventional route. I enjoy doing burpees on a plane. I have no problem grabbing a soda out of a stranger's hands and throwing it in the garbage. And I smile while strapping a weight vest to my kid’s chest during morning workouts. Call me crazy, but it works. And during the holidays — when most are cooling their jets and storing away their discipline — I’m revving up.
The holidays are supposed to be a time for celebration, but celebration has now become synonymous with complacency. I’m anti-complacent. If we want to live our best lives, we have to choose our hard and zig when others zag. The end of the year is no different, so here are a few essential elements of the De Sena family Christmas.
How the De Senas Do Christmas the Spartan Way
1. We Chop Down Our Own Tree
I know that not everyone has a forest in their backyard or an axe in their garage, but when you do, you’ve got to chop down your own tree. You’ve got to earn the balsam beauty in your living room. My family is used to trekking through mountains and getting our hands dirty. For the first six months of the pandemic, we all hiked up our mountain in Vermont every single morning — rain or shine.
My wife, Courtney, and my kids know that I believe we have to work for the things that we enjoy. And that goes for our Christmas tree as well. No matter how wonky or imperfect it looks, it’s the work we put in that makes it look good in the house.
2. The Standards Don't Change
People get lazy during the holidays. They kill their diets. They stop working out. They hit the snooze button. It becomes a vacation riddled with complacency. I understand the pull. There’s typically an entire grocery store aisle dedicated to holiday chocolate, candy canes, and buttery croissants. It’s hard not to fall in line with most Americans. But for the De Sena family, the standards don’t change.
We still rise with the sun, hit the morning workouts, and make sure that our plates are filled with fruits and vegetables. I’m pretty rigid about these things because it allows us to actually enjoy the holidays more. People wonder why the holidays can be so hard, but they don’t take into consideration that when you eat more junk food, drink more alcohol, stop working out, and get less sleep, you are going to feel like shit. Maintaining the De Sena family routine lets us have more fun and be more present with each other.
3. Presents Are Earned
When my son Charlie was younger, he went through a phase where it felt like everything that came out of his mouth was a complaint. You can imagine how well that went over with me, especially as the holidays rolled in. Christmas morning, he woke up to zero presents under the tree. I told him that Santa was not impressed with his recent attitude, and felt like he needed to earn his gifts. We told Charlie that Santa had left the presents at the top of the mountain behind our house and if he wanted them, he had to go get them. So Charlie flew out of the door in his footie pajamas and hiked the entire mountain — in snow, by the way — until he got to the top and found his gifts.
Honestly, he was so proud of himself that the gifts seemed secondary. Courtney and I will still implement more challenging activities during Christmas to this day. Not only does it remind our kids that money doesn’t grow on trees and gifts aren’t a birthright, but it also highlights other values that we care about as a family. We prioritize grit over stuff, and this holds true even on Christmas.
4. We Make Unpredictability a Tradition
Because we’ve lived in various parts of the world, we’ve spent the holidays in some of the wildest places. In my new book, 10 Rules for Resilience: Mental Toughness for Families, I write about a time when Courtney and I took the kids to Sapporo, Japan for Christmas. (You can read more about it in the book, but let’s just say that we found ourselves in a very interesting situation during the holiday.)
What I can tell you, however, is that it didn’t matter where we were. It mattered that we were together. Whether we are on the East Coast, the West Coast, in the mountains, or in a cabin in the woods with no running water, we figure out a way to make the best of it. And honestly, the best times that we’ve had are the ones that are marked with unpredictability. I get that traditions are important, but what if the best traditions are the ones that aren’t planned? Those are when my favorite memories are made.
Everyone celebrates the holidays in their own way. But being a Spartan means staying true to certain principles, regardless of the time of year. Maintain your commitment and you’ll come out stronger in the end and ready to hit the New Year on fire!