Six years ago, my mom decided she was quitting Christmas.
It had nothing to do with religion (let’s be honest, how many Christmas traditions actually have to do with religion?) and everything to do with the enormous pressure surrounding one day of the year. Maybe it’s unfair to say that she was quitting Christmas; really she was resigning from her position as CEO of the Family Christmas Experience. My mom was done: with the gorgeous tree, the outdoor lights, the incredible Christmas Eve hors d’oeuvres spread, the elaborate Christmas morning breakfast, and the afternoon lunch filled with foods she spent hours making – foods that she couldn’t even eat, foods that made her sick just from cooking them (not that she told anyone at the time). She was finished with the every-other-year Christmas morning scavenger hunt with hand-written, rhyming clues leading each member of the family to a large gift. No more were the handmade stockings stuffed to the gills with little gifts and gift cards.
Lest you think my mom a cold-hearted Grinch, six years ago the youngest member of our family was 19 (that’s me!), one of the elder members was the one usually waking everyone up at 3 am (Grandma) so we could open gifts, and after 19 years, my mom was just done. I know that there are mothers and fathers (in my house it was really just my mom) out there reading this nodding their heads. How many of you have stayed up into the wee hours of Christmas morning, just waiting for everyone to go to their damn rooms already so you can set out the “Santa” gifts? How many of you have counted piles of gifts you’d picked up throughout the year, realized you had an imbalance, and then spent time and money trying to make all of the gift numbers even? How many of you have wrapped, alone, fifty presents and then endeavored to find a place to hide them? How many of you, after all of that work, have had a kid who was content with opening one present out of the twenty under the tree and had to be forced to open more?
So I decided that year that I would take over. I proposed in September that everyone give handmade (by you!) gifts only. This caused a different kind of stress for other family members, but I wanted to keep it to a manageable “one gift from each person to another person” and I was a spendthrift college student. I thought Handmade Christmas would be perfect. And it was. But in the over-exuberant naïveté of someone who has never been CEO of the Family Christmas Experience, I insisted on keeping all other traditions: the tree, the dinner, the Christmas Eve buffet spread, the stockings, the (very manageable pile of) gifts. I set up a scavenger hunt with clues that were far too complex for 6:50 am, which is when my Grandma rang the doorbell. Christmas came and Christmas went. And then I realized that my life-long feeling of anticlimax on December 26th was not because I was a kid with great expectations. Adults have Boxing Day melancholy, too. Except theirs is paired with a large cocktail of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion.
The next year, another Handmade Christmas, another tree. I once again put myself in charge, but this time Christmas was to be a massively scaled-back affair: no scavenger hunt nor Christmas Eve buffet, the tree went up on the 20th with only lights and a quarter of the usual ornaments and down it went not on December 26th, but at 3pm on December 25th just as everyone’s car tires were peeling out of the driveway. It was a relief to have the living room back so quickly. 2009 involved much the same, except the tree was 1/3 of the size of the traditional one and had about twelve ornaments on it. The next year, 2010, was the last year that any tree was decorated (and with lights-only). My tenure as CEO was coming to a spluttering end. Can we all take a minute and applaud the family member who does a full-out Christmas for ten, twenty, thirty, forty years? My mom made it 19 years. I lasted for four. Four. And every single one of them was scaled back in some way.
2011 found me and Casey without family in Utah. In October, I got a call from my mom. “We’re skipping Christmas this year. Wanna come?” My parents were headed to Vegas. I thought, sure! Why not? Then in early December we had an invitation to come to Lake Tahoe. We said yes to that also. In our apartment, Casey and I had decorated three miniature Christmas trees, which we sold a week before Christmas after we decided we hated the clutter. We hopped on a plane on the 22nd. On Christmas morning, we woke up in Tahoe to a tree-less, wrapping-paper-free house full of joy and friends, said our goodbyes, and then hopped a plane to Vegas. We were able to enjoy the decorations that someone else put up (Casey and I share a mutual Christmas light affinity) and food that someone else made. It was GLORIOUS. So much so that my parents headed back to Vegas for 2012’s Christmas celebration. We gladly stayed in Texas without gifts or a tree. I don’t even remember what we ate for dinner.
Late September is usually when I get the urge to listen to Christmas music and see some colored lights. This year, I’m still waiting for that urge. I’m even saving my very favorite Christmas song for when I feel well and truly depressed, which is usually the week of my mid-December birthday. It says something that despite a childhood of happy Christmases, the song that reminds me of the season the most is one called “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” and contains uplifting lyrics like “Silent night/Holy night/Nothing feels right.” More proof that kids absorb more atmospheric stress than most adults realize.
This year, I’m making a bit of candy (which is always a hit) for a few family members, but they’ll be getting it when I feel like making it and not in an unveiling on a sanctioned day. I might put up a string or two of lights, and by “put up” I mean “pool them on the floor of the bedroom and plug them in when it’s dark.” As for how my husband feels about all of this: I can’t tell you how happy I am that I married a man who hates obligatory celebration as much as I do.
I will leave you with this: Many, many people love every single thing about Christmas, from the music to the shopping to the Sears ads. Go forth, intrepid dreamers. Go forth.
To the rest of you, the ones dreading the parties, the family gatherings, the food-making, the decorating, the music-listening, the gift-giving, the expenses and the stress and the obligations, know this:
You can do some of it.
You can do all of it.
You can do none of it-
It’s your call.
Scale back the commitments or have none at all.
What actions can you take today to make this December the best you’ve ever had?