Remember when you were a kid, and Christmas seemed so magical—with everything sparkling and shimmering and smelling like fairy land? In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ll let you in on a little secret: that wasn’t magic. It was your mom.
While you were out walking in a winter wonderland, she was back at the house, quietly picking up the 37 mismatched mittens you’d left scattered all over the foyer. Later, when you and your co-conspirators were dreaming by the fire, she was making hot cocoa and dealing with an icy, dripping mound of scarves and jackets. Chances are, the turkey and the mistletoe that help to make the season bright were prepared by the work of her non-elvish hands and sweat of her un-magical brow.
If you were very lucky, she did all of this with joy and good humor, or at the very least, without turning into a raging Scrooge.
Yes, December is a challenging time to be the woman of the house. There’s a lot resting on our feminine shoulders, and never more than now in the age of Etsy and Pinterest (unofficial motto: “Every woman can be Martha Stewart!”). It’s easy to let the pressure of pulling together the “perfect Christmas” turn you all mean and Grinchy.
It’s Not Men’s Fault We Women Obsess
Case in point: this totally non-satirical piece by feminist author Jessica Valenti, wherein she complains about the gendered drudgery of Christmas. “My charming husband tries to help when he sees me drowning in the expectations of gendered caregiving around the holidays,” Valenti says, right before recounting said husband’s failed attempt to buy a decent present. (Gosh, it’s a mystery why men aren’t motivated to help out more!) Valenti also takes aim at Kirk Cameron for suggesting women should be joyful at Christmas time, and then wraps up the rant—er—article, by exhorting men to “get up and lend a hand.”
Okay, I’ll admit it can be rather grating to hear a man (even the guy who played Mike Seaver) give lifestyle advice to women. I’ll further agree that yes, in most families, women do more work than men to make Christmas happen.But that’s where I get off this complaining train. Because if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that we women can’t blame men for our holiday burnout. If most men are anything like my husband, they’d love for us to just put down the Christmas card list, step away from the icicle lights, and come watch a movie with them. (I loved one man’s quintessentially British comment on Valenti’s article: “We’re down the pub. Join us.”)
If there’s anyone insisting that Christmas be perfect and that everything happen just so, it isn’t the Patriarchy. It’s the Matriarchy. We’re reading the magazines and watching the Food Network and pinning to our online boards, and we’re inflicting all of it upon ourselves. Yes, Christmas should include some special food, some presents, and a tree. But we’ve turned Christmas into the Motherhood Olympics, and then we get mad when our man decides he’s just going to sit and cheer from the stands.
It’s Okay to Dial Down Your Christmas Expectations
I say this as someone who has desperately tried to compete in those Olympics. For our first Christmas in our new house several years ago, I started the tradition of decking every hall with fresh greenery I’d cut and made into garlands. I made goodie boxes for our neighbors featuring three varieties of from-scratch cookies, two types of homemade candy, and two different quick breads. I wrote a three-page letter, laid out with multiple photos, for our Christmas list. I went so far as to make a real gingerbread replica of our new home, complete with working lights that shone through the candy windows. (Yes, I really did. I have the photos to prove it.)
I’m pretty sure that was also the year my husband and I had a huge, meltdown fight at midnight on Christmas Eve. My holiday frenzy had driven us both to the edge. Creative expression is one thing, but I’d gone far beyond that. Christmas had become a drudgery, because it was driven more by the urge to prove myself than the simple joy in creating or love in serving.So if you’re feeling joyless and pressured by expectations this holiday season, allow me to borrow a page out of Bob Newhart’s book and give you this radical suggestion: stop it.
No, seriously. There’s no law that says your greeting cards have to hit people’s mailboxes in December (or ever). No one will die if the cookies at the school’s holiday bazaar are store-bought. Nobody’s life depends on the presents for Cousin Susie arriving before December 25. Just ask yourself if the outcome you seek is someone’s actual well-being, or someone’s good opinion of yourself. If it’s the latter, feel free to stop it. Cameron, annoying though he may be, was right: a woman’s joy is hugely important for the household. I’ll add: it’s far more important than meeting the unrealistic expectations of outsiders. Who cares if someone looks at you askance? Isn’t the happiness of your family worth enduring a few (real or imagined) disapproving glances?
On To My Christmas Simplicity List
Since the Year of the Meltdown, I’ve done a fair amount of adjusting my own Christmas, and the result is a season that’s full but sane. Some priorities have risen to the top while others have been set aside. There is no one right way to do this, since everyone has different lifestyles and personalities. But for me, here’s what it looks like:
1. Making my house pretty, and staying home as much as possible. Christmas means home for me, and I can’t give up decorating my whole house with fresh greenery. It truly gives me joy, even when my family is the only one to see it. But nothing robs me of my joy more quickly than being out and about in stores and malls, listening to tinny Christmas muzak while battling crowds of virus-ridden shoppers. Allow me to tell you about the amazing innovation that is online shopping. I sit in my kitchen, browse through a huge selection of gifts, push a few buttons, and all the presents come to my house. It’s a true Christmas miracle.
2. Keeping presents simple. This is something we’ve always done, and it’s served us well. We’re pretty frugal year-round, and at Christmas, we avoid the temptation to lavish a bazillion gifts on our kids. Our Christmas budget for each child is $75 (plus $25 for them to give to the charity of their choice). This usually means I’m wrapping three presents for each of my four kids, plus whatever I get my husband. I can get my presents wrapped in less time than it takes to write an article complaining about wrapping presents. As far as I can tell, my kids still truly love the season and can’t wait for Christmas morning.
3. Focusing my energies on the people nearby, rather than those far away. This means that my immediate family and neighbors are the recipients of most of my holiday efforts. Yes, I’ve given up the Christmas letter. It was fun, but I have social media now to keep most of my friends and family apprised of our happenings throughout the year. It’s been quite a while since we’ve taken a family Christmas photo. That’s okay; we’ll take one in the summer. We look better with suntans anyway.
4. Simplifying my baking. Gone are the days when I assemble an entire smorgasbord of homemade treats. These days, I make a single large batch of something simple: caramel corn, toffee, or peppermint bark. Then my kids and I walk the neighborhood giving away goodie bags. It turns out that this is just as well-received as the cookie sampler, now that the goal is neighborliness rather than displaying my baking prowess. Honestly, even store-bought treats would probably be just fine in a pinch.
5. Making Christmas mainly about traditions and togetherness. Instead of a gift bonanza, I’ve tried to make Christmas a time of simple family activities. We read aloud over family breakfast (my absolute favorites are “A Christmas Carol” and “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” – both of which make me laugh, then cry). We make popcorn and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” together (parents too, or it doesn’t count). We get in the van at night and drive through local neighborhoods, admiring the fruit of other people’s light-hanging labors. Some years, we still make gingerbread houses. Graham crackers are a suitable substitute for gingerbread if necessary. No more scale replicas.
6. Focusing on hospitality rather than entertaining. I like to get together with friends over the holidays, but that looks more like a play date than a lavish party. I’ll have a girlfriend and her kids to the house to join in our gingerbread-house-making. We’ll have another family over for games and food between Christmas and New Year’s. Nobody at Better Homes and Gardens will ever make a photo spread about our decorations and party favors, but we’ve come to terms with that. The aim isn’t to wow anyone, but just to enjoy one another.
7. Remembering that Christmas was never supposed to be about our illusions of perfection. Somewhere along the line, we got the idea that Christmas was the embodiment of everything ideal: the utopia of holidays. When really, Christmas has always been about redemption. It’s about one little spark of hope shining through the despair of this world. It’s about one new life, who is the Life, beginning in the midst of oppressive taxes and an overcrowded city and childbirth in a stable. This is where my Christian faith certainly colors my perspective, but even our popular culture still understands this truth somewhere below the surface. All the best Christmas stories, whether sacred or secular, feature this theme of redemption: think Ebenezer Scrooge, George Bailey, the Grinch, or the Herdmans.
So go ahead and embrace your imperfect Christmas. You were never supposed to create perfection anyway. Just carve out a little corner of redemption for your family in the midst of life’s chaos, and rejoice in it together.