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.

The Green Study Holiday Humor Contest: Honorable Mention

Meet Fransi, who runs two blogs: a professional blog fransi weinstein et al and her personal challenge blog,  Three Hundred Sixty-Five. She is an Honorable Mention from The Green Study Holiday Humor Contest.  She’s a terrific writer with an interesting background in advertising. I’ve enjoyed reading her posts as well as her kind and engaging comments on my own blog. She received an invaluable collectible postcard from Minneapolis.

Joy Ride

By Fransi at fransi weinstein et al and Three Hundred Sixty-Fivedriving santa

I love Christmas.  Always have.  Yes, I am perfectly aware I’m Jewish.  Don’t see why it has to stop me from loving Christmas.

In fact, I have many, many, many wonderful memories of Christmases I’ve spent with my closest friend, and her family.  I think of them as my family, too, as one would after forty years.  One year, probably about thirty years ago, we were celebrating at her brother and sister-in-law’s house.  They’re a large family, so the venue changed regularly.

Anyway, they lived in a suburb of Montreal called the West Island.  It’s about thirty or forty minutes from the centre of the city, where I lived.  As I was getting all my stuff together, in preparation for going up there for the weekend, my phone rang.  It was Marilyn (friend) telling me not to drive.  Ronnie, her brother, wanted to pick me up.  It seemed ridiculous to me.  But the more I insisted, the more she insisted.  What could I do?

When the doorman called to tell me I had a guest on the way up, he was laughing.  I thought nothing of it.  My doorbell rang.  I opened the door.  And there, standing in front of me, was Santa Claus.  Big belly, black belt, high black boots, white curly hair, snow white beard, a cap at a jaunty angle, and a twinkle in the eyes.  What a twinkle!!!

“Ho Ho Ho”, he yelled, rubbing that huge stomach of his.  “Merrrrrrry Christmassssssss!”  I screamed.  Jumped up and down like a child.  Clapped my hands.  Soon, he was joined by his two elves, who’d been hiding around the corner.  Marie, his wife and my friend, Marilyn.  We made such a racket all my neighbours started opening their doors.  Soon we were having a party in the hall.  Everyone was laughing.  It was hilarious.

It’s a shame we didn’t have cell phones with cameras in those days.  The look on my face would have made one hell of a picture.

Believe it or not, he’d driven all the way downtown dressed like Santa.  They told me they’d literally stopped traffic.  I’m not surprised.  Are you?  And we drove all the way back to their house, with him dressed like Santa.  Some drivers sidled up to our car, lowering their windows to wish us a Merry Christmas.  We had a procession of cars following us, horns honking like you wouldn’t believe.  Even traffic cops smiled and gave us the thumbs up.

He, of course, loved every minute of it.  As did we.  As did everyone else on the road that day.  HO HO HO, indeed!  Hope yours was every bit as merry.

Congratulations, Fransi!

Be sure to check out her blogs (1 & 2) and some her favorite posts:

Administrative Note: The Green Study is on hiatus this week and will, in the meantime, be posting the Honorable Mentions for The Green Study Holiday Humor Contest, as well as passing on some blogging awards. I look forward to catching up with everyone upon my return!


Finding Your Way Without a Star

canstockphoto0108300We are a secular family, so every December, we wend our way through a minefield of holiday traditions. When you’re an adult, you have settled on a belief system that hopefully gets challenged and re-evaluated on a regular basis. One of the things that forces you to look things over again is having a child.

This is a particularly difficult subject to even write about, because I know it can be emotionally charged for many people. Please don’t try to convert me. I don’t operate that way and you shouldn’t tire yourself out.

My husband and I had our biannual heated discussion about religion yesterday. He was raised in a Lutheran Church with a sense of community and belonging. His experiences with God and organized religion were so inherently positive, that he doesn’t understand my disinterest and occasional hostility.

I was raised and baptized into the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. I attended church regularly until I was 13. There are evangelical and orthodox churches that are much more intense. The SDA rates about an 8, between churches you only attend on holidays and churches at which you make animal sacrifices. People are fierce about their beliefs and this is the point at which I depart. I don’t know the answers and I’m really comfortable with that. I don’t know if there is any god or twenty.

People of faith talk of being touched by the hand of God, but I’ve never felt that touch in organized religion. There are things in the world that make me feel that way – when I am outside, in nature, when I watch my husband and daughter play together or when I read or see astounding literature or art or music (the first note of a live music performance is rapturous).

As a child, I believed everything that I was taught at church, so hellfire and damnation were just around the corner waiting for me for the mildest infractions. We were once read a story in Bible study class to illustrate that the Sabbath is a holy day. A little girl went rollerskating on the Sabbath and she broke her leg. What kind of God does that? The church had movie night on Sundays. I saw the apocalyptic movie “A Thief in the Night”. For months after that, I expected to wake one morning to find my family gone and “666” burned on my forehead. I was 10 years old, two years older than my daughter is now.

I have a hard time with organized religion and man made ideas of God for a few reasons:

Chauvinism. This is where my husband and I part ways on a very intrinsic level. It’s taken me years to come into my own as a woman and to recognize that no one has the right to belittle or abuse me. I have a knee-jerk reaction about men telling me what to do. Most major religions have chauvinism built right into the system, from using texts that treat women as property, whores or virgins, to blocking them from being church leaders.

Born Sinners. Some religions purport the idea that children are born inherently flawed and in need of redemption. I find this disturbing, especially now that I’m a parent. I could never look into a baby’s eyes and see evil – although all that crying, spitting up and pooping reminds me of “The Exorcist”.

Hypocrisy. I’ve simply met too many people who have declared themselves, imposed themselves and announced themselves to be of a particular faith when they are the people I would least put my faith in. I feel the same way when people say “I’ll be honest with you” right before they lie or “I don’t want to hurt your feelings” right before they insult you.

Exclusivity. For many religions, proselytizing and spreading the word are a requirement. The inherent nature of telling people how wonderful your beliefs are, is that you are saying that you know the answer and anybody else is, well, not a member of the club.

Exceptionalism. I realize I’m being petty, but every time there is a disaster and people die, there are always people who say this to the news camera: “God was looking out for me.” In their relief that they survived, they express gratitude that God skipped everyone else to save just them. It defies logic.

I had a great exchange with S. Smith, the author of Seed Savers this week. It was regarding the knee-jerk reaction people have to religious references – a reaction of which I’m definitely guilty. My daughter just finished the first book in Ms. Smith’s series, called “Treasure”. The book was wonderful and the biblical references fitting, but I had to look beyond my own prejudices to see that. Wisdom can come from a variety of sources and I believe, for many people, organized religion and spiritual text serves a positive purpose.

I spent about five years of my adult life “church shopping”, trying to find a place where I felt comfortable, where I could find a spiritual home. It was me, not the churches. Much like the old Groucho Marx quote “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.” The bottom line is that I’m an introvert. Clubs, meetings, congregations, parties, riots – these cause me anxiety and do not keep me grounded in humbling and spiritual thoughts. Religious beliefs are personal, but so is one’s experience with organized religion.

How will this translate for my daughter? She knows a little about a lot of religions. We read and talk about religious and philosophical texts in our home. When she is curious enough, we will take her to a range of church services. She must know her choices to make choices, so my daughter will be raised with a weird hybrid of religion and nature and art. But she was born good and we’ll do our best to help her remain on that path.

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.