I am not alone in finding December and the holiday season a difficult time of year.  There’s a lot working against us, folks.

It is winter.  We get up / go to work / go to school in the dark, and we come home in the dark.  It’s hard for many of us to find sunshine to get our Vitamin D.  A lot of people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is actually a form of depression, and not just the “winter blues”.  The weather is often grey, rainy, or snowy.  Just imagine if I set a story in this sort of setting;  how uplifting.  {sarcasm}

But added to these factors, we have the holiday season.  Whether one celebrates Christmas, Chanukkah, Kwanzaa, or some other celebration, it comes with its own challenges.  I come from a Christian background, so I’ll talk about things in terms of Christmas.  I am not familiar enough with other cultural traditions to speak in terms of them, but if someone would like to comment, I would love to learn!

So, Christmas.  Families get together, and everyone is expected to get along.  We are expected to have gifts for a certain group of people, and we are under pressure to have just the right one.  Probably most of us feel that we should really be giving more gifts than we do, even though we might not be able to afford to do so.  (Our commercially-driven society gives us all sorts of messages about what sort of gift is sufficient, or insufficient;  what the purpose is of giving gifts;  and all sorts of other ideas about consuming more, consuming better, consuming more expensively.)

Then we have the seasonal decorating.  Putting up a tree.  Lights on the outside of our houses.  Lights on the inside of our houses.  Decorations in just one room, or throughout the house?  Special table accoutrements for our special dinners?  Making decorations with the children or the grandchildren?  Do we really need to hang up all the cards our family gets?

Oh, and then there’s the cards that we send.  How many cards?  To whom?  And what if someone sends me a card, and I didn’t send them one?  Then rushing around to find a card to “repay” that card.  Letters to Santa from children.  Shopping for all the gifts.  Finding room in the budget, or going into debt to get that perfect thing?

And especially in a year like this, the money pressures are tremendous.  This year, some people may be asking themselves, food for the month, or toys for the kids?  Paying the mortgage / rent, or Christmas dinner for the whole extended family?

More superficial questions also badger us.  Artificial tree or real?  Special outfits for the kids?  Wrapping paper or gift bags?

And some of these superficial questions get us to thinking about bigger issues.  Which is the “greener” alternative?  Should I send e-cards instead of paper ones?  Will that make a difference for the planet?  Should our family volunteer at an agency that puts on Christmas dinner for those that might not otherwise have one?  How do I afford to send food to school with my kids for the hamper their class is putting together for the food bank?  Can I find room in the budget to buy the gifts for Christmas Amalgamated?

And maybe we spare a thought for the “reason for the season”, whatever that is according to our beliefs.  And we probably feel guilty because this wasn’t our first thought.

So many things that we think about.  Decisions to make, choices to live with.  Or perhaps we are among the portion of our community that is scrambling to find a way to afford any Christmas fripperies at all.

And the messages we are given about this season are tremendously unhelpful.  We all should get along.  We all must love each other.  We must be generous, gracious, and HAPPY!  We have to enjoy every single minute…  And if we don’t, then there’s something wrong with us.

Never mind that all of the above (and more that I’ve missed, I’m sure) combines to ensure that we CANNOT be happy and enjoy every second.  There is too much to do (in addition to all of the regular things that we do throughout the year), too many expectations, too little time, too much snow (which has to be shoveled and makes the roads treacherous), too much, too much, too much!

The point I’m trying to make here is that we are set up to fail.  We are set up every holiday season to feel like failures, because we didn’t bake the shortbread ourselves this year, or because we bought cards instead of making them ourselves.  Or because we snapped at Uncle Ernie, who is obnoxious.  Or we couldn’t make Aunt Maude happy, though we tried so hard.  We will never all get along, especially at a time of year that is so fraught with unrealistic and unreasonable expectations.  We will never make everyone happy;  sometimes, we know a person that revels in their dissatisfaction, and we’re doomed from the get-go.

We will never have the perfect dinner, the perfect house, the perfect decorations, the perfect family gathering, the perfect gifts.  We will never have the perfect anything.  Because perfection is not achievable.  Not in all of these things, not even in one of them.  And if we go into it thinking that it has to be perfect, we’ve already lost before we’ve even started.

So far, this post has probably made you feel awful.  But the good news is, we can choose how we tackle the holiday season.  And the first thing to do is to be realistic about what is likely to happen.  To have reasonable expectations.  To know that we cannot do it all, so then we choose the things that mean the most to us, or that give us the most pleasure, and we give ourselves permission to let the rest go.

For instance, this time of year used to be hellish for me.  My depression is always much worse in the winter.  And I had all these expectations about what Christmas was supposed to be.  We should be a happy family, we should feel tremendous love for our fellow persons, we should feel that Christmas is somehow different and more special than a regular Sunday dinner with the family.

The reality is that it’s probably not going to happen.  And if we think that it is, we are probably going to be disappointed.  If we don’t all get along throughout the year, we most likely especially won’t get along with all this pressure on us to be in perfect harmony.  And that’s okay.  It doesn’t make us bad people.  It doesn’t make us failures at Christmas.  It makes us human.

When I was growing up, I always thought that there was supposed to be something magical about Christmas.  That there was almost a higher level of being that we were supposed to achieve.  Well, my family is an ordinary collection of people, not superhuman.  So when we didn’t get the magic, the higher state, I was crushed.  The weight of my disappointment, caused by failing to meet those expectations, destroyed more Christmases than I can count.

We have to be realistic.  One year, I came home from law school for Christmas.  At dinner one night, I asked when we were going to get the tree.  My father’s response was something like, “What makes you think we’re even going to have a tree?”  Crushed, I was absolutely crushed.  For a number of years, I didn’t go home for Christmas.

But if I had been realistic, I wouldn’t have let myself be crushed.  My father has always hated Christmas.  He put up with it while we were children, and now that we’d all grown up, he was done.  If I had been realistic, I wouldn’t have let my father’s grumpiness take away from something that I enjoyed.

My own approach to Christmas these days is very laid back.  I choose the things I want to do.  Yes, some of them are things that I do for someone else, but I recognize that and give myself a break about it.  I go to the Christmas parties that I want to go to, not the ones I feel that I “should” go to.  If I’m not going to enjoy it, then why shouldn’t I stay home and do something that I will enjoy?  There is so much to choose from, why shouldn’t I choose what makes me happy?

I don’t do a bunch of Christmas baking, because baking’s not my thing.  Cooking isn’t, either.  So if I’m invited somewhere that I need to take a dish to, I buy it.  And I give myself permission to do that.  And I don’t beat myself up for it, either.

I often don’t do a lot of decorating at home.  Many years, I don’t even put up a tree.  If, sometime in December, I feel like I’d enjoy it, then I do.  If I don’t, then I don’t sweat it.  If I want to listen to carols for forty-seven straight hours, then I do.  If I want to send Christmas cards, I do.  (And yes, I struggle with this one.  Especially when someone sends me a card;  it’s hard for me not to return the thought.  But if finding a card for that person is going to stress me out and make me crazy, then I can decide not to do it.  And remind myself that it’s okay, as many times as I need to, to give myself a break.)

It is our choice how we make Christmas.  There is a certain amount of stress that is just a given;  but I don’t have to choose more.

I recognize that because I am single with no kids, I have more freedom than some.  If I had children, I would definitely find it harder to not decorate and have a tree.  But, I can choose to decorate only one room, instead of the whole house.  I can choose to let the kids put the trim on the tree, and not freak out because it isn’t perfect or the way I would have done it.  I can choose to have a four foot tree, not a six foot tree.

My own epiphany about Christmas was this:  the important thing to me about this celebration is being with the people that I love.  And the setting that we’re in doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter if we exchange gifts (although I do love to give, and opening presents, whatever is in them, is still a joy to me).  It is the togetherness and the love that we share that is important.

We can be together in a regular living room.  It can be decorated, or not.  My parents haven’t put up a tree since that fateful year, but they put lights in the front window and around the mantel.  My mother has a ceramic Christmas tree and snowman house that light up.  They always hang the same “Merry Christmas!” banner in the windows, for as long as I can remember.  It’s nice and festive, but it’s not too much.  And if my mother doesn’t want to put the lights up on the mantel, she knows she doesn’t have to do it for me.

What I want from the Christmas season is to see my family and close friends.  I want to spend time with them, not the decorations, or the food, or the gifts.  One of my favourite Christmas traditions is to get together with two of my wonderful girlfriends.  Sometimes we do it at someone’s house and bring potluck;  this year, we may go to a restaurant for brunch.  We exchange the tackiest Christmas-themed things we can find (bonus points if it doesn’t cost anything!), and we have a tacky wooden plaque that goes to the person who brought the goofiest gift.  This gathering doesn’t cost much;  there’s no pressure to buy something.  The point of it is to spend a little time together, to make a little space in our lives for each other at a busy time of year.  We don’t always make that space for each other throughout the year;  we’re all busy, and we get caught up in the daily demands of life.  But at Christmas, we always find a couple of hours.

That said, I have many other friends (also dear people, please don’t take offense!) that I don’t make that space for at this time of year.  Part of that is my decision to not overload myself.  Some of my friends are Christmas over-achievers, and I find being around them at this time of year to be anxiety-provoking.  Others, I would love to see if it works out, but if it doesn’t, we’ll see each other sometime in the New Year.

This post has run way longer than I ever intended it to be.  The bottom line is that I think we have to give ourselves permission to opt out of things at this time of year.  We need to be realistic and set ourselves a reasonable schedule of things to do.  And we have to sincerely remind ourselves (as many times as it takes!) that this is okay, I am not a bad person for doing this, Christmas can be redefined.  We can make it what we want, and we’ll feel so much better for it.

However you are spending this holiday season, I hope you can find time for “you” time, when you do exactly what YOU want to do.  And I hope you can be with the people you love, the most important thing of all.