For years, everything I loved about Christmas was consumed by the endless expectations, and it took me becoming a single mother to realize I was the only one putting those expectations on myself.
I’ve always loved the holidays. For years, my family’s Christmas season began on Black Friday when we went to The Nutcracker ballet and we always got our Christmas tree Thanksgiving weekend. The rest of the Christmas season passed in a blur of shopping, decorating, caroling, parties, and holiday events. Every possible memory that could be made was made by my kids, but by the end of December I was the biggest Grinch around.
The holiday pressure was bad enough when I was married, but it became monumental as a single mother. My kids still expected all of the same fun activities and costly experiences, but there was only one of me and just one salary, too. I twisted myself into a pretzel trying to keep up with the overly-high standards I’d set for myself, and I ran myself ragged trying to give my kids as many beautiful memories as I possibly could.
Pinterest had nothing on me. I could make popsicle stick ornaments and homemade glitter play-dough with the best of them, only to clean up and serve my little ones an Instagram-worthy brunch of snowman-shaped pancakes and peppermint hot chocolate. We sang carols to our neighbors, had pictures taken with Santa, stood in line for hours to see giant gingerbread houses, snaked through standstill traffic to look at Christmas lights (complete with the requisite Christmas pjs and festive cookies, of course!), went ice skating, drove to the mountains to play in the snow, baked dozens of Christmas cookies, and festooned our home with a myriad of lights and decorations. It was festive and fun, expensive and completely exhausting.
Our fun family activities were rarely as fun as I imagined they would be. The kids threw tantrums and complained, everyone seemed cranky most of the time, and by the end of the season I was always ready to throw in the towel. Even then, it was hard to admit that I needed to cut back on Christmas. I’ve long since become accustomed to cutting back on everything from clothes to eating out, but Christmas felt sacred; how could I cull anything from our holiday routine without sacrificing the magic? I couldn’t imagine being the mom who ruined Christmas and my kids didn’t deserve to suffer for my choices. They deserved all of that fanfare. Right?
A couple of Christmases into single motherhood, I snapped. I had pushed myself so hard for so many years that I had come to hate Christmas. I didn’t want to spend my limited funds on gifts my kids would forget about in a week. I was tired of rushing around trying to make every moment count. I never wanted to see another Christmas craft again, and so help me god I was never setting foot inside another craft store. It was time for Christmas and I to take a break.
That year, I did as little as possible. I scaled back everything from how much of our dinner was homemade to the number of gifts I bought to how many activities we went on. We still had a Christmas tree and presents, but I didn’t even make anyone get out of their pajamas all day long. As the day wore down, and my living room floor was covered in wrapping paper and toy bits and pieces, I realized I wasn’t anxious or rushing around trying to finish dinner. I was relaxed and enjoying myself. I was, dare I say, happy. Talk about holiday magic.
The most surprising part of my decision to scale back Christmas was that none of my kids even cared. They all had a couple of things that were very important to them, and we kept those mostly intact, but the rest of those magic-making moments weren’t actually making the impact I had hoped for all along. The moments my kids loved were small ones, like watching Christmas movies on TV with warm cider and whipped cream. My kids were just as happy as I was to slow down and savor the season instead of filling it to the brim with fun.
This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with Christmas activities. Everyone has their own individual tolerance level, and what might be soul-sucking for me is awesome for someone else. But all of us can use a break sometimes to step back and ask ourselves why we’re doing what we’re doing, and whether it’s really helping our family or just plain exhausting us. Scaling back to the bare minimum a few years ago helped me identify which traditions really mattered to me and my kids and to throw the rest overboard without a backwards glance.
This year, I didn’t rush out to buy gifts on Black Friday and I won’t be standing in line for the Hatchimals my kids are obsessed with. I’ll buy them each a few carefully-selected gifts that don’t stretch my budget too far, and I won’t feel guilty for buying material items I can afford instead of “experience” gifts that belong to the privileged few. We’ll skip the ballet and the Santa train, and rather than waiting in long lines at the big Christmas light displays, we’ll drive through our neighborhood to look at lights instead. We’ll carve out moments of magic, here and there, but mostly I just won’t worry so much about making memories. I’ll get the hell out of my own head and enjoy the time I have with my kids when it’s enjoyable, and grin and bear it when it’s exhausting.
I don’t know when the holidays became such a whirlwind of excess, but I’m jumping off that merry-go-round for good. For years, everything I loved about Christmas was consumed by the endless expectations, and it took me becoming a single mother to realize I was the only one putting those expectations on myself. My kids never needed me to buy into all of that hype.
I’m not a Christian. For my family, Christmas isn’t about celebrating Jesus’s birth. What I believe in is compassion and love, and helping each other and ourselves to be better people. My kids and I won’t find that inside the year’s hottest toy or racing from one party to the next in a frenetic rush that leaves us exhausted. We’ll find it by spending time together on a day that should be about love.
And this Christmas we’ll definitely be ordering Chinese takeout for dinner. In our pajamas.