Christmas stress: Wrap up guilt and simplify.

thOne harried late-October evening, I rushed through a store’s costume section in a frenzy of last-minute preparations. To my horror, the reds and greens of Christmas cards and wrapping paper beckoned from a nearby aisle.

“Oh, spare me,” I said aloud. “I haven’t finished feeling guilty about Halloween yet.”


After all, I hadn’t cooked up a bunch of popcorn balls to hand out to neighborhood trick-or-treaters. I hadn’t volunteered to chaperone at my daughter’s seventh-grade Halloween dance. And I certainly hadn’t made a costume from scratch – that’s why we were in the store.

I’d known that this might be the last year Abby would want to dress up and, as in years past, I’d never quite gotten around to helping her prepare for it. The Christmas items a few aisles over were a maddening reminder that another season of ineptitude lurked just around the corner.

I’ve never been a Super Mom, the clever and organized and inspired woman everyone seems to want as a maternal influence. If I were, I would have gone to my cute and cozy sewing room weeks before. (Heck, if I were Super Mom, I might even have a sewing room.) There I would have handcrafted a costume out of odds and ends left over from previous craft and decorating projects. The result would have been creative and breathtakingly beautiful, and probably biodegradable.

In a fit of perverse inspiration, I bought a roll of that holiday wrapping paper instead of a costume. Then I went to another store for a plain white bedsheet. We cut eyeholes in the sheet and super-glued strips of the wrapping paper to it.

She went to the dance as the Ghost Of Christmas Present.

The thrown-together costume got a lot of laughs, but I wasn’t chuckling. That’s because I’d realized the costume represented the Ghost Of Guilt Yet To Come – namely, the holiday season. Or, more to the point, the stuff I had to do for the holidays.

The shopping. The holiday foods. The decorating. At that point in my life, it all just looked like more work – but it was work I couldn’t seem to ignore.


There’s a reason they call it the Silly Season

Sure, modern women are supposed to be beyond all this. Technically, we’re aware that none of this stuff is strictly necessary. But being aware isn’t the same as knowing – knowing deep down, being absolutely sure, that your days will be just as merry and bright whether you put yourself through Holiday Hell or not.

Like so many other women, I was still convinced that certain things are just done. You only wear white between Easter and Labor Day. You always write thank-you notes within a day of receiving a gift. And every Christmas you make butter spritz cookies with a cookie press. You just do.

They don’t call it the Silly Season for nothing. You love the holidays and you hate them. You know they’re bad for you, but you’re addicted. You can’t quit any time you want, and there’s no 12-step program for holi-holics.

Which means, of course, that our holidays often stink on ice.

You keep tabs on all the leaked Black Friday ads, making sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck and also taking advantage of frugal hacks like price comparison websites, cash-back shopping or online discount codes.

That is, unless you’re all about buying locally (and a happy Small Business Saturday to you, too!), which brings you consumer karma points but sucks a lot of time out of your life. If your giftees live out of town, it also means boxing up the goods and waiting in line at the post office, or paying more for a private carrier to deliver your tidings of comfort and joy.

You plan and cook special holiday foods, which means more stores, more lines, more hours of preparation. You also spend time whipping something really special for your open house or your office potluck. (After all, you can’t serve your friends and co-workers the same one-pot-glop you feed your family.)

You bring a present to that potluck, having drawn a name from the office gift exchange. Fun, isn’t it, trying to anticipate the desires of someone you don’t even know that well. (Sometimes, you only know them well enough to know you don’t want to know them any better.) And no, you cannot cop out with a gift card because then they’ll know exactly how much you spent on them. Unless, of course, you buy it discounted, through a gift card re-seller – but then you run the risk of receiving a card with wedding bells on it. It’s your call.

Somehow you also have to find time to decorate your house, inside and out. Christmas lights! Christmas trees! Christmas candles! Christmas crafts! And don’t forget the Excedrin, in its festive Christmas-green bottle!


Ho, ho, no!

Okay: Why do you have to do these things?


Because you’re supposed to. Because these traditions have to be kept up, or your children won’t have any glorious holiday memories. Because if they don’t get homemade cookies and hand-crocheted stockings, their little psyches will be warped, and they’ll take up smoking, or petty theft, or politics.

Never mind that you don’t have time. You still have to do exactly what your mother did, so that your kids will have the kind of Christmas you always had.

Don’t have any kids? Doesn’t matter. You tell yourself that these traditions have to be kept up because you don’t drop a tradition. You just don’t. If you don’t have what you grew up having – the goose, the tree, the plum pudding, the whatever – your holidays won’t mean anything.

Yeah, but what do they mean now?

Are your kids merrily enjoying a picturebook-pretty holiday? Not if you’re stressed out, they’re not. More likely, they’re ducking out of the kitchen as you scream at them to leave the mincemeat tarts alone because they’re for company. Or they’re sitting in front of a crackling Xbox game because you’re too busy to roast chestnuts on an open fire. Some fun, huh?

And hey there, you without the kids: Do you really want a 12-foot Christmas tree, or would a 2-foot table model make you just as happy? Do you care whether fake snow is sprayed over stencils on your front windows? And admit it – you have a secret hankering for pizza, not roast goose, on Dec. 25.


It’s a wonderful life – or could be

Whose holiday is this, anyway? Is it a pseudo-memory distorted by selective recall and the passage of years (plus way too many December TV commercials)?

Or maybe your childhood celebrations really were perfect. If they were, it was probably the magic feeling of the holidays themselves and the love of your family and friends, rather than just the trappings, that made it all so great.

Sure, I sometimes wished I could do all the things my mom did for us. I spent years trying, but it never worked. I’d have a great Thanksgiving dinner with half a dozen guests, but I’d wind up too weary to snap the wishbone – and secretly guilty that I didn’t make my own bread from scratch. Near Christmas I’d bake special cookies, but feel guilty that I didn’t make enough extras to give away.

Eventually I realized that my mother’s holiday celebrations came at a tremendous personal cost. She worked a full-time job and was a ferocious housekeeper, so the additional burdens of shopping, wrapping and creating those homemade goodies – all while keeping to a strict budget – meant major-league aggravation and worry.

Did she have any fun? Probably, for fleeting moments. She probably felt proud when visitors tore through the cookie platters like Sherman through Georgia – see, they like my baking! Or when her three daughters posed for the camera in perfectly curled hair and perfectly starched Christmas dresses – aren’t they adorable? (And can I succumb to exhaustion once I’ve cleaned up all the wrapping paper?)

Moments of satisfaction were bought with many hours of work and worry. Somehow, I don’t think that’s the real Christmas spirit.


I have a choice

My drugstore epiphany made me re-think the way I looked at the holidays. For starters, I simplified my gift-giving. I allowed myself a certain amount of mail-order: some family members got magazine subscriptions, others received plants or fresh fruit. Then, in a couple of short, tightly contained bursts of shopping I bought everyone else’s gifts, sometimes, before Thanksgiving even rolled around.

About those Thanksgivings: I stopped inviting my husband’s entire department and “orphans” from my own. With just the three of us to fuss over I had a wonderful time, and more leftovers to boot.

Six years ago I filed for divorce and moved to Seattle. That first Thanksgiving was just me, my daughter and a family friend. The next year it was just me and her, which meant we each got as much stuffing as we wanted.

Incidentally, this year it’s going to be just me and a couple of pork chops. I’ll wait until 2011 before I desecrate another turkey.

Christmas cookies? Sure, I still bake them. But until my daughter moved to Phoenix last year, we did this as a time-trial event: Together, we could churn out a surprising number of goodies in one hilarious, assembly-line afternoon. It brought back fond memories of baking with my mom, and it was handy to have them around for guests or as last-minute gifts. Now know that I have the choice not to bake — and this year I’m not going to, because I’ll be up in Anchorage in December.

None of these changes happened overnight, or easily. Off and on over the years I’ve felt selfish for not wanting to spend every non-working hour hunting down the perfect candied fruit for my holiday baking. But too many other things kept getting in the way. Things like work deadlines, meals, sleep and the occasional library book.

I hope you have a healthier attitude toward the holidays than I did. If you don’t, then get yourself one. Don’t wait a couple of decades to do it. Life’s too short to obsess over whether your gift tags match the wrapping paper.

Bet you I’ll have as much fun this year as anyone else, and without mixing a single batch of eggnog. Although it might be tough to convince my family members that those are Christmas bells, not wedding bells, on the Target cards.

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  1. Donna, thanks a lot! (sarcasm) I was all mellowed out, ready for bed, all calm, knowing that with a Melatonin tablet, I could fall asleep quickly. Then, I decided to have a little Donna Freedman wisdom to nudge me the last little bit to beddy -bye time. THEN, it happened: “smoking or petty theft or politics.” Of course, I laughed and thrashed about in my chair, laughed some more, aloud both times, coughed and choked, and decided that I would stay up a bit longer to mellow out AGAIN.
    You went to Alaska just so you would not have to bake! Cool!

    I was the mother who did all the things I was supposed to do…well, except cookies. I don’t mind any kind of drop cookie, just not anything with the cookie press or rolling pin. Plopping a bit from a spoon suits me just fine. But, I decorated and sewed and made crafty things, so maybe my children are not too warped by my lack of skills and motivation for cookie baking. Thankfully, my children had no expectations of cookie baking with me. Or, they got over it. They aren’t too warped. Brownies cure lots of things. So do Hershey’s Kisses.

  2. Man, IBTP.

    Um, I do think “Thank-you” notes are important. Though I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that a pre-printed card thanking the giver for the gift is sufficient. (No need for guilt for not using your own embossed stationary with a loving detail on exactly how you’re using the gift and how it reminds you of the giver’s gracious inner soul or whatever. Take that, etiquette grrls.)

    The rest is more a do what you enjoy thing for us. Yay me having a working mom without a ton of time to pass on the guilt she was feeling at the beginning of her motherhood but had dissipated by the end when she realized we turned out just fine anyway. (Thanksgiving = restaurant buffet.) I added on to the lack of guilt by refusing to make any beds unless company is coming over and for some reason the bedroom doors can’t be shut.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Nicole: I think that thank-you notes are important, too. I sometimes write on stationery and sometimes on a preprinted card that says “Thank you” on the front. But I do write them. A simple “Thank you for your generous gift. I was so touched by your thoughtfulness, and by your remembering that I always wanted a cheese straightener” will do.
      My mom worked, too — always did — but she was making up for a difficult childhood by giving her own kids something she never had. It was so much work, though.
      I say do what works for you and your family. The heck with what other people (read: advertisers) think you should or shouldn’t do.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  3. I wonder if more women (and Mom’s especially) feel this way. Just to give you an example of how I feel, my favorite Christmas movie so far is “Skipping Christmas”. I just found a great new book “Christmas Sucks..what to do when fruitcake, family and finding the perfect gift make you Miserable” by Joanne Kimes. My kids LOVE Christmas, so for the last 25 years I guess I’ve made it “magical” for them, but it has always left me exhausted and miserable (thanks to the January bills…). I think I’ve finally perfected my perfect Christmas holiday, and it has involved very few parties, scaling back on my gift giving list, and having a pot luck for Christmas Eve. Our decorations are simple and few, and I make one or two batches of cookies because I like them. I used to buy the gifts for the kids to give to each other, causing me more work. Now the kids take money out of their savings accounts and are completely responsible for getting gifts themselves (aside from me driving them to the store). It has taught them to budget and be creative Win-Win there.

    Thanks for posting this. I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving! And Christmas in Anchorage? Sounds a bit chilly! Stay warm!!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Sharon: I think lots of moms take on too much work and the holidays just wipe them out. Yours sounds like an intelligent strategy. Here’s hoping other women (and any men) who overdo it can take a leaf from your book.
      Christmas will be chilly, but I lived in Anchorage for 17 years so I expect I’ll re-acclimate quickly. Long underwear will help.
      Thanks for dropping by.

  4. I’m pretty sure that you could turn that into a song. Something Christmas-y!
    And I was completely impressed with the last minute Halloween costume. My kids wouldn’t even have asked for my help, I’m not creative in a pinch.

  5. Marcia Carli

    Donna, I loved, loved, loved this bright outlook at the holidays! I have been depressed as all get out this season. My youngest son is getting new drugs for his chronic disease so I am really in worry mode. My only girl has her birthday on Thanksgiving and the menu does not include turkey because she is a vegan member of PETA.
    The relatives are so put off by this, but hey in my family you get to pick your meal for your birthday. Can’t they live without it once every five years? I am super stressed and your article made my day! Thanks a million!!!!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Marcia: Myself, I think it’s rude to criticize the menu. Guests have two choices: Attend and eat what’s offered, or eat elsewhere. They don’t get to tell you what to serve.
      I’m sorry to hear your young man is having to switch meds — but maybe this new regimen will improve his health? Just sent up a prayer that this is so.
      Thanks for stopping by. Take some deep breaths and remember: It’s your house. The cook determines the menu. And if anyone blusters about not attending because of the food, smile and say, “We’ll miss you.” (Even if you won’t.)

  6. I spent many, many years trying to live up to perfection and guilty because I failed. As a working mom with night school, I could do all and be all but I kept trying.

    Gradually, over the years I’ve let it go. Mostly after my divorce when it just became impossible to do it all. Then I got into guilt for not giving my kids Donna Reed. Crazy, I know.

    Anyway, I just do what I want nowadays and have simplified our holidays a great deal. It’ll be my husband, I, two adult sons, one daughter in law and one grandson here on Thursday. Have a wonderful holiday!

  7. I grew up with a clone of your mom, Donna. This year, half of the usual close friends/family crowd I do T-giving with is gone, leaving me with 2 people over 80, a sister-in-law driving 200 miles to get here on Thursday, a non-cooking husband…..and one person to help cook dinner for 6. I own a retail store and will be working Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I announced that we would be going out for dinner (nice restaurant) and you would have thought the sky had fallen. So now it’s the traditional dinner. How do you shed your Superwoman cape when everyone guilts you?

  8. Jenny– Sounds to me like your DH is just going to have to learn. It’s a life skill. If my DH can do it, so can yours. Alternatively, might I recommend your local grocery store– many of them do excellent Thanksgiving catering. It’s nobody’s business how the food gets there unless they’re praising you for it.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Nicole: Good idea! I never even thought to suggest a catered meal.
      And I agree about the praising.

  9. Another keeper article for the cubicle wall! I’m “thankful” for your sense of humor.

  10. Our first Christmas, my wife and I had EIGHT (yes, eight)family get togethers to attend. Christmas is usually my favorite time of year (I start celebrating in March), but that year was horrible. We’ve since put some limits on things.

    We decorate the house on Black Friday instead of shopping (we’re usually almost done with gift buying by then anyway), since my parents are kind enough to take the kids for the day. We do everything but the tree and the outdoor lights since the boys like to help with those.

    We only do one gathering per day, and we place highest priority on Christmas get-togethers that involve parents. Sometimes we don’t get to go to everything but that’s life. We get to fully engage with the people we do see, and don’t have to rush off to another party.

    We also don’t buy our boys any toys that require batteries. They get enough of those from grandparents anyway. We also try to stay away from licensed toys too. This year they’re getting a play kitchen since I can’t keep them out of the cupboards, playing with our real pots and pans. 🙂

    We decided that we want our Christmases to be special, filled with meaning and the traditions we actually want. I’ve met some resistance from a few people, but overall it’s really improved our holidays.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Todd: It sounds as though you and your wife have made a lot of smart choices. As for those few people who carp — resist their resistance! You get to choose how you celebrate.
      Thanks for your helpful tips.

  11. Great idea, Nicole! Too far into the shopping for a catered meal this year, but will remember that for the future. And my DH is learning to cook, but he’s not ready for a full on holiday meal yet. He will be helping cook, and he is great at doing dishes.

  12. I’ve never liked Christmas expressly for the reason that my mother became a huge stress mess every year. She was only doing all of these things to bring joy to others, but she didn’t realize that it did the opposite to her family.

    If anything though, she taught me to streamline. Every year I try to “play it by ear.” Some years, if all I can do is get a Christmas tree up, that’s fine. This year I’m having fun decorating, but I may skip the Christmas card. Thanks to FaceBook, all my friends know everything anyways.

    But giving yourself permission to not be Super Mom can be the hardest part.

  13. “Perfect candied fruit” = Oxymoron.

    Just sayin’…


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