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.

Turning the Holiday Bulldozer Around

Do you feel that? Do you hear that? It is the sound of a stampede of retailers preparing to ruin the next two months for you. But it’s not just the retailers – it’s your office holiday planners, it’s your mediocre pop and country singers, your great Aunt Marge’s sewing circle, your children’s classmates. Everyone is gearing up for the holiday season. Scheduling parties, making commercials, making homemade gifts, talking about what they’re going to get, to give, to make, to take.

I’ve already been asked by relatives what we want to do for Christmas. It’s an easy answer – we do nothing on that day. We have our old beaten down artificial tree with its ratty homemade ornaments and our time worn traditions of pretending there’s a Santa Claus. It’s just our little family of three, in our pajamas, hanging out, playing games. We don’t go anywhere, we have a nice, but not extravagant meal. We play favorite music, we watch old movies. Time stands still.

I dislike the full-on dumping of sentimentality at the holidays, as if we’ve been hoarding it all year long. We get to spend a lot of time with people we wouldn’t pick as friends. Small children, who have spent the year entertaining themselves with cardboard boxes and mud, now expect a 76 trombone parade to accompany the loads of cheap crap we give them. We, the adults, goad ourselves into overspending, telling ourselves “it’s for the kids”.  That’s bullshit – most of us are trying to resolve or replicate our childhoods. Our kids are often bemused by our holiday craziness.

Our daughter has never believed in Santa Claus. She was an inquisitive child and her continued interrogation of me meant that I would have to recite one lie after another. I wasn’t comfortable with that, because someday, I’ll really need her to trust and believe me when I say “don’t drink and drive” or “people who love you don’t hit you”. After a discussion with my husband, we went with the truth. She’s a smart kid and I think parental integrity is going to be a necessary tool in our arsenal for the future.

When we discussed this issue in one of my parenting groups years ago, I was chastised for taking away my daughter’s holiday, taking away the magic that is Christmas. Really? The magic that is Christmas is an old white guy breaking into our house and leaving crap from his sweatshop staffed by little people? I asked my daughter what her favorite thing about the holiday season was. Her immediate answer was “cookies”.

Every year, we bake cookies and make up gift bags for friends and relatives, with Kleenex packs, hand lotion, lip balm, cough drops and hot cocoa packets. We spend an entire day baking cookies. The next day we decorate and package them up. We get punchy after so much decorating and burst into giggles as our cookies start looking more and more Picasso-esque. We have cyclops snowmen and gingerbread ladies with clown noses and googly eyes. We talk about where our charity money is going for the year. We spend time. Together. Doing something for someone else.

I didn’t start out with a plan for our family holidays. We would drag ourselves through various rituals imposed upon us, attending multiple celebrations to deal with shared custody situations in relatives’ families. I would get angrier and more exhausted. I began to hate the holidays. I hated the shopping. I hated the forced cheerfulness. I hated the constant stream of holiday music (and I LOVE music) and stupid commercials designed to make you feel like your family was the anti-Waltons or the dysfunctional Huxtables.

I put the brakes on about three years ago. It was hard at first. People would buy gifts for our family and I’d feel a little miserly giving them their bag of baked goodies with the winter wellness kit. I kept waiting for their gifts to taper off or for similar ideas to crop up from their side, but it never happened. Now I only have to make a couple of shopping trips to get supplies. And I like to believe that my daughter, who receives exactly two presents (one from Mom & Dad, one from “Santa”), understands the magic of the holidays – spending time together and the joy of giving to others. Plus, our cookies are REALLY good.