Holiday Angst Redux – Opting Out

canstockphoto4885238Ever since giving up smoking and drinking, the holidays have not been fun. Having a child was supposed to cure that, but now that the elf has developed her own brand of cynicism (and adds whatever on the end of every sentence), there’s no reason to pretend. Let the snarling begin.

For years, I’ve grumbled over the machinations of the in-laws around this time of year. I’m an introvert, so I generally look like one of the characters of Bring Me the Head of David Dixon at family gatherings. Add an eye roll or fifty, a sullen slump to the shoulders and you have me at the height of holiday gaiety.

When people guffaw, I wince. I look on disdainfully through the flying shreds of wrapping paper, thinking about consumerism and wondering if there is a recycling bag nearby. In the words of one of my favorite comedians, Maria Bamford, I’m “an anvil wrapped in a wet blanket”. A real downer.

Perhaps if retailers hadn’t started piping in “Silver Bells” shortly after I’d inhaled the leftover Halloween candy, I wouldn’t feel so entirely fed up with the holidays before they arrived. Or if I hadn’t received family email directives for where I should be and what gifts I should bring, before we’d even had Thanksgiving dinner, I wouldn’t be so resentful. Maybe.

When I begin this conversation with friends or people standing in grocery lines, everyone nods their head in agreement, muttering about lists and exhaustion. Yet nothing ever changes. This year I’ve changed, but it isn’t easy. No holiday is complete without tinsel-covered guilt and passive aggressive garlands. We’ve come to mistake obligation for celebration.


The Holiday Sloth. Now commonly seen in North America.

For the last two years, I’ve been practicing saying “no” to a lot of things. I’ve stayed home while my husband and daughter have gone to parties. I’ve stopped doing gift bags of goodies for every passing acquaintance. Last year, I didn’t send out holiday cards. I’ve stopped donating to every cause that crosses my path. It may sound counter-intuitive to the generosity I wish to practice, but I donate more when I pick a couple of charities and do lump sums than being nickeled and dimed by cashiers and bell ringers. Retailers have jumped into the charity game, giving themselves the veneer of benevolence.

Essentially, I’ve given up the things that drain my energy to little benefit for anyone else. It’s not easy. Guilt is a constant companion as I practice saying “no”.  Sometimes I have to look outside myself for reassurance. I asked my daughter what her favorite part about the holiday was, bracing myself for the answer.

My favorite part is Christmas day, when we make cinnamon rolls and we hang out in our pajamas, open presents and have a nice day together.

So simple and profound when I look at the vast array of obligations and advertising directed at this one holiday. How easy, how joyful! Yet when we buy into (literally and figuratively) all the ideas and traditions, it becomes a joyless duty that needs to be followed by a nap and isolation.

I fully recognize that there are people who live for this holiday. They start shopping at clearance sales in January for the next holiday. They have a storage closet solely for holiday decorations. Their houses look like Santa threw up candy canes and glitter in every room. Who am I to suggest their joy is any less valid than mine? But I meet too many people who are depressed, not because of the stereotypical reasons of loneliness or poverty, but because of the peculiar first world problem of buying into a program that wrings every bit of joy out of the season.

So here is a gift from The Green Study to your corner of the world. It’s okay to say no to:

  • Holiday cards
  • Family Photos and matching sweaters
  • Holiday parties and/or driving 4 hours to see people you dislike
  • The plate of cookies Shirley brought to the office
  • Perfect place settings
  • Yule logs (aren’t the trees enough?)
  • Marriage proposals
  • BOGO deals
  • Giving your child a Burl Ives’ Christmas
  • Secret Santas, Elves on Shelves and Fruitcakes

Say yes to:

  • Things that give you pleasure and joy
  • Small comforts
  • Nourishing food
  • Spending time with people you really like
  • Making your own traditions
  • Giving to causes that really matter to you

If the no list and the yes list all apply to your holiday celebration, consider yourselves doubly blessed. For my own part, I can only testify that this has been the best holiday season ever. Enjoy yours, my friends.

35 Comments on “Holiday Angst Redux – Opting Out

  1. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who hates the ‘must dos’ this time of year. I gave up presents and cards a couple of years ago. My partner and I don’t go to parties; we spend a quiet day together with only ourselves and our dogs for company – better company than some humans I know. Enjoy your holiday!


    • It is freeing when you toss out those lists and start thinking about how you’d really like to spend your time. Some people really thrive on going overboard, but I feel like I’m living in Vegas every time I leave the house during the holidays – lights, music, overindulgence…I do shopping like a commando raid. I go in, get what I need and get the hell out.
      I’m enjoying this season for the first time in many years. I’m well-rested, money is staying put and we’re in good spirits. I really don’t know why I didn’t do this sooner!


  2. It’s so much easier, I think, if one is single. I feel for parents this time of year. I’m sure a great deal of them long to just simplify, simplify – to gather their closest loved ones around and just relax. But we do bring this upon ourselves and retailers know it and keep supporting it. This year, because my mom is living with me, I’ve done far more retail shopping than ever. But today, I’m going to enjoy it. I might not have many more years of this.


    • I think parent or not, simplifying can be done. It’s just getting beyond the programming and advertising to see what it is a person/family needs. I say this knowing it has taken me years to figure it out, though. Parents just need to ask their children “what’s your favorite memory or activity?” and they’ll be surprised that it usually has little to do with an iPad. It is often something they did, not received. I’ve been focusing more on experiences, shared memories, activities we can do together and the rewards are immeasurable. Time, as you say, moves on and things will not be as they always are.


  3. There is a certain amount of irony in getting over guilt to do the right thing. I loved the line, “We’ve come to mistake obligation for celebration.” Good for you to take steps toward what is important.


    • I sometimes get mad at myself for feeling that guilt, because I know intellectually, I’m making better choices. Only in this country of plenty could we feel guilt for not acquiring more and pushing ourselves to do more. Ridiculous. I might need to put aside the Vonnegut that I’ve been reading – I’m starting to feel very self-righteous and satirical.


    • I took a stand a few years ago after going through the motions of multiple Christmas celebrations in one year (extended families, divorces, scheduling conflicts). December 25th is just for the 3 of us now and we love being able to stay out of the fray. It ends up being all about comfort and relaxation. Plus, the cinnamon rolls make the house smell really good!


  4. I share your feelings, and I’m glad to know I’m not the only one (it feels that way sometimes). I typically dread the holiday season and this year I’m working on being okay with that. The more honest I’ve been with my husband and kids, the more peaceful I feel about it. Which is the whole point, right? Peace on earth, goodwill to men…


    • The challenge for me is to be honest, honor my feelings, without being hostile and angry first. I have not yet mastered this, but I see how this cycle is wearing for me and I’m trying to get better about saying “I don’t want to do this” and not doing whatever it is, without feeling the inborn guilt. It will get easier and I will become more adept at handling the holidays. I feel optimistic that it is already making the season and our home a happier place.


  5. This post helps us avoid the “mistake obligation for celebration.” Thanks for this. And you wrote it with humility. Nice! My country has started giving up Christmas parties because of the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan but I was thinking, even before Haiyan, a lot of the lavishness could actually go.


    • I think it would be especially hard to celebrate lavishly knowing that one’s fellow citizens had lost so much. My hope is that I’m able to really appreciate those things that make the holidays special – family, friends, the small pleasure to be grateful for. I don’t always succeed in this, but like anything else, it requires practice and mindfulness.


  6. Another perspective….
    Well as an introvert I can totally relate the article and I can see where a problem is identified that one looks to a solution. I have felt all the same kinds of pressure & the fall out it causes while others get used to my new set of behaviors… etc. when we are younger we are more apt to go with the flow & as we get older we say… hey wait a minute…what is important here??? this is nuts! However… I see this time as an opportunity to say things to people things I would not get the opportunity otherwise. and
    there happens to be a few things that are really important to extended family.
    I think I can stretch myself for that.. I don’t have to do everything but my comfort level does not have to be the only yardstick to go on…


    • You make a couple of valuable points. As I’ve gotten older, I definitely have a lower threshold for the things I’m willing to endure. A lot of it is this issue of time – it’s going by faster and faster and I am less likely to spend it doing things that enrich neither myself nor others.
      Secondly, you’re right in that my comfort level cannot be the only measure of how I spend my time. I have to honor my family and friends. I just think it is unlikely that my glowering presence at their party is going to do that nor is buying them a bunch of stuff useful. I know my strengths and weaknesses. I try very hard to say the things I’d like to say throughout the year to people and not save it for uncomfortable, expectation-laden social occasions.

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your perspective!


  7. Michelle, this is great. I struggle through the Holidays. I used to be an elf, loved everything about it. Then folks started dying — literally — and the fun vanished. All the hoop-la? It is hard. So your You don’t have to’s is very helpful.
    I hope that you get through the next two weeks without wanting to scream too often!


    • I want to love the holidays, but all this hoop-la just kills it for me. Especially as it seems to begin months in advance. I have to say that it has been a challenge to decide not to attend some holiday events, but really, I wouldn’t want me at my own party. The rest of the holiday season with my immediate family has been pretty mellow and relaxing and enjoyable. First year ever that screaming has been kept to a minimum!
      I hope you find some joy in the season. Really – it’s the only time Ghirardelli puts out their Peppermint Bark Squares and that’s worth celebrating! As I single-handedly wipe out their seasonal stock…


  8. I have to admit we do not live near family on either side so a lot of pressure is off there….It is a dilemma, when to say I am what I am & when to decide to stretch oneself….everything is like a balancing scale, when things get heavy on the one side we compensate. Bravo for not suffering from self awareness deficiency disorder! May your holiday season be all that you desire!


  9. I used to be where you are at now. But recently I have begun to find joy in the decorations, the music, the lights. I do shop but I only buy for the one I love and years ago I gave up Christmas cards. I remember standing in line behind a woman that was spending $30 on cards back when $30 was $30. Add the cost of stamps to the cost of the cards and I could buy a nice present for someone near and dear to me instead of sending out cards to people I only touch base with once a year.

    Several years ago I turned the card tradition on its head. I had heard for years that Christmas was to celebrated year round. I decided to test that theory. I sent out Christmas cards in August.

    Thing is we can’t control what others do. We can only control what we do. If we let all the hoopla destroy our Christmas spirit, pretty soon the world will be a mean, nasty place. And I ain’t about to let that happen. So bah humbug on all the bah humbuggery out there. Here’s to you and yours for a great Christmas.


    • I think the iconic “Christmas spirit” engenders simply being mindful, kinder, generous and compassionate. To limit it to one retail season seems the real humbug. I understand for some people, it is a fun and joyful time that engenders all the retail bliss and human interaction that they may not get throughout the year. But for me and for a lot of people I know, this can be a very stressful, exhausting time. I’m just offering up my perspective as the way I’ve landed on a solution. Recognizing the potential for misery and circumventing it, is truly a gift that keeps on giving year round. I wish you a lovely season as well!


  10. I think there is one flaw in all this.. about the Christmas should be all year. Yes, but things like you said are out of control and for those things we have to do what makes us happier. But, the contrast is which illustrates the problem. Man’s inhumanity to man/women.


    • Sometimes when we get caught up in defending our own traditions, we lose sight of the fact that this is a blip on the radar of humanity. I find rampant consumerism in the face of the staggering poverty and starvation in parts of the world to be like a science fiction story about a dystopian world. While I talk about my personal struggle with all that these holidays entail, there is certainly the larger picture to consider. We are all like ripples in a pond and our individual decisions can have an impact.


  11. I had wanted to give up Christmas for decades, but it wasn’t until I lost my mind that I finally gave myself permission to do it. Finally, I thought, an excuse that would get rid of the expectations and rules of tradition. But not even mental illness stops my family from trying to suck me back in (out of love, I know), so how can someone relatively sane withstand the pressure?

    Your list is a wonderful start. Cold turkey is a tough sell. And I only do what will bring me comfort or healing.


    • I think I’ve been working up to curtailing this holiday stress for the last few years. Every year I get a little better at cutting things out and embracing those things which, to me, seem joyful or at least comforting. I have had to deal with a little push back regarding my attendance at family gatherings and have had to fight the feeling that there is something wrong with me. Change is always a little shaky and less confident at the beginning, so there is a certain level of guilt.
      Extended family has never represented the comforting bosom of love. Often it is a trial I am put through. I only pass if I don’t haul off and deck someone or finally tell Auntie that her secret recipe pasta salad that she brings to every event tastes like swill. A lot of families are not like this, I know. They like each other. But my blog, my story.
      I’m sure I come off like a real Scrooge, but I’m tired of being exhausted and resentful every December. It’s not good for me and it’s not good for my home. Writing about it, however, gives me some joy. Go figure!


  12. Enjoy yours too…don’t let others spoil it! Any time of year can be wondrous, as you know…just hard when others project that wondrousness on billboards.


  13. When I was married raising a small child I stressed about making the perfect Christmas for him. In my mind I always fell short and I won’t go into the whys of why I felt that way because everyone has their story so just insert your own here. Maybe it takes a whole lot of feeling overwhelmed, overdoing and still coming up short, before we finally surrender enough to cut away the ridiculous excess. The guilt does surface from time to time but I know I’m never again running that rat race! Yes to your Say Yes list!


    • Holidays are one of those “triggers” for parents who either try to vicariously replicate or repair their own childhoods. I fell into repair mode and it took me a little time to recognize that my child had a different life, a life that lacked neither materially nor psychologically. Her holiday could be simple, joyful and without baggage. I’m pretty fed up with trying to do everything, so you’re correct on that account – that’s what it took for me to let things go. It is still a challenge in this society to avoid the hype and the rabid relatives, but this year has been much better than those past.


  14. I’m so glad more and more people are starting to see through the nonsense of a retail Christmas – you don’t need to spend a whole lot of money on unnecessary things – I’d much rather spend time making things that I know my friends and family will enjoy; and I enjoy making things, so it’s a win win!


    • Sorry for the delayed response – I used to get notifications when people commented, but I’m not getting them now.
      I haven’t cleared my schedule enough to get back to making things (I used to do more of this), but I am learning at the very least, to focus on experiences and not acquisition. It really has made this holiday season so much less stressful, although the adjustment is leaving me with a sense that I must have forgotten something. Have a lovely holiday and a wonderful 2014!


  15. Pingback: The Green Study Potpourri (or What’s that Smell?) | The Green Study

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