Christmas is two months away. I know some of you have already finished your shopping. Some of you are waiting for Black Friday. A small minority — I’m going to say mostly men — will get it all done on Christmas Eve.
But particularly for women, it doesn’t matter if all your shopping is done by the 4th of July, Christmas will still be at least as full of stress as it is of cheer. And frankly, for the most part, we bring this on ourselves.
Years ago, in graduate school, I read a book called Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin. It’s a science fiction novel about a future in which we have regressed backward to a patriarchal society where women are considered the property of men and must follow strict social customs. In secret, they get together to develop their own language, a language that more appropriately describes the experience of women. One of the words they take on is the word “holiday.” For men and children, a holiday is exactly as Merriam-Webster’s describes it: a day of festivity when no work is done. For women, not so much.Women do the majority of the shopping, sometimes even buying a gift for themselves for their husbands to “give” them. They do the cooking, cleaning, and planning of activities. Not only is it, for women, not a day when no work is done, they are usually doing far more work than on a normal day. There’s mountains of gifts to wrap, crowds to cook for and clean up after, plus decorating, addressing cards, and preparing the children for church, visits to relatives, and parties.
A friend of mine once bemoaned all that she had to do to get ready for Christmas. For days, her kitchen was like a commercial bakery, as she turned out dozens of batches of snicker-doodles, pounds of fudge, and bag after bag of other homemade goodies. As she complained to me about it — I was at the time a full-time graduate student, mom to two boys, and running a small business, so I knew a little something about being busy — I suggested that if it was causing so much stress, why didn’t she stop doing it?
Her reply: I can’t do that. I have to do it!
Why did she have to do it? No one was holding a gun to her head. She wasn’t seriously going to ruin anyone’s holiday if she ran out of snicker-doodles. She had to do it because she was putting that pressure on herself. She felt it was expected of her and she would be letting people down if, heaven forbid, there was a Christmas without fudge.
The truth is, Christmas has gotten completely out of control, and the pressure to create the perfect holiday, perfectly decorated, with a perfect dinner table and perfect gifts, is largely of our own making.
I am a recovering Christmas Crazy myself. There were times when we were barely getting our rent paid, but nonetheless, I would buy obscene amounts of gifts for my kids. A week or two before the big day, I would retrieve them all from the closet, lay them out, and carefully calculate whether I had perfectly balanced both the number and value of the gifts that each of my boys would get. I can’t remember a single year when I didn’t decide that one boy needed just another gift or two, and that often resulted in another imbalance and another gift to be bought. It was nuts.
Add to that the stress of having to find something for my parents, my brother and his wife, and various other friends and family members, and I began to dread the whole thing.What saved me from losing my mind were all the things about Christmas that I loved: the lights, the candles, the food, the music, the togetherness.
I eased into the idea that Christmas actually could be about the things I loved about the holiday, and didn’t need to be ruined by all the things that stressed me out. I started by asking my brother if we could end the annual exchange of gifts between us, which had become essentially an exchange of $50 bills. They’d send a basket of fruits and cheeses, and I’d send a restaurant gift card. Frankly, it didn’t have much meaning.
Then I suggested to others that we skip the annual payout to each other. I continued to give my parents a gift, and I still buy my husband something, usually something he needs for the house that we would have bought anyway. While my kids were still living at home, we transitioned to one big gift for each of them or even one big gift for them to share.Instead of worrying about gifts, we decided to focus on the music, the traditions — like Dad getting up early to light a fire and turn on all the lights on Christmas morning — and our big Christmas morning breakfast. We tried new things: going to a restaurant and a movie on Christmas Eve or even Christmas Day. We focused on the things we truly looked forward to, like driving around the neighborhoods on Christmas Eve to look at everyone’s lights and watching Christmas movies.
The other tradition we preserved — filling the stockings. Over the years, we had often expressed that finding all the tiny goodies in our stockings was one of the best parts of Christmas morning.
In short, we decided to keep the best parts of Christmas and let the rest go.
Since our daughter-in-law became part of the family, we’ve had to adjust a bit. She loves the gift-giving part of Christmas, and this year, we have a new granddaughter, so that changes things. But on Christmas Day, she will be only 5 months old, and I recognize she doesn’t need any expensive toys. There’s a famous (in our family) photo of me on my first Christmas, at 9 months old, surrounded by every toy you can imagine. What am I playing with? My toes.
So, this Christmas, I urge you to stop and ask yourself, is all the stress and overspending really necessary? Are you really doing it for others or are you doing it for yourself? Are the mountains of gifts “Santa Claus” brings really good for your kids? Or would they really benefit more from just spending a day with Mom and Dad, maybe their grandparents, and savoring the parts of the day that don’t require you to max out your credit cards?
This Christmas, focus on what matters.