CALM CHANGE OF PACE: Do a search for "holidays" and "stress" and then prepare to spend the rest of your day, or perhaps week, sifting through various links pointing to study after study and the fact that we all know and many of us live at the close of each year: The sparkling season has a way of sparking our tendency to get worked up and spun out. We have a role in controlling our reaction to the piled-on must-dos of December, of course, though it is a part many of us refuse to play, even after vowing that this year will be entirely different. Because the meat of the matter is we probably do have to go to the office party, the drinks at the in-laws, and a school bake sale or two. Those things can't be changed, nor should they be, really, but what we can do is turn to nature. Nope, we didn't say breathe deeply, stare at a blue wall, or drink more herbal teas, though what works for someone has merit. But an hour or two spent in nature is so very full of merit, as well. It has a way of undoing the done-up feeling of December, which makes the arrival of winter solstice a wonder. Why? Because dawn celebrations and outdoor gatherings are planned here and there, with one of the most plant-nice and peaceful going down up Mount Diablo.
SUNDAY, DEC. 21: The shortest day of the year lands on a weekend day -- hooray that -- so plan to pause the wrapping and the greeting cards to head for the Walnut Creek-close ascent, where a naturalist will point out lichen and mistletoe and berries and various critters. Ahhh, relaxing already, just thinking of lichen and berries. It's a moderate hike, five miles, so if you need to work out some of the gingerbread ales and plum cakes you've been devouring, this is a start. And the meditative qualities of connecting with the wilder world on a day when people have made for the outdoors for reasons both personal and communal? They're present, too. It's six bucks to cover your car, you'll meet at the Mitchell Canyon Visitor Center, and, nope, it isn't a crack-of-dawn-er, a time of day we often associate with that other solstice. It starts at 9:30 a.m., so you can sleep off the office party the night before. Hobnob, then nature, then hobnob again? Folding in some trees, sky, and quiet sounds like the solution to a much calmer holiday season. If you can't turn down the hobnob, turn up the nature.