Cut the Christmas!

I’ve been feeling antsy and distractible lately. It’s been hard to get anything done, and I feel easily overwhelmed and unable to move in any direction. Upon thinking it over, I remember that this often happens during the winter holidays. As I get older, December just seems to get more and more hectic; it’s a paralyzing combination of my worst social anxieties (feelings of perfectionism and obligation) and nonstop schedule disruptions (multiple birthdays, out-of-town visitors, holiday parties). It’s all kind of fun and awful at the same time, which must be why they call them the “holidaze” — it’s just too much!

Pema Chödrön quotation

2010 gift/card for a friend

A couple of weeks ago, when I was reading and doing exercises out of The Renaissance Soul and Refuse to Choose, I figured out some of the things that motivate me. Excitement and adventure were among the most enjoyable, but I also discovered some minefields: for example, I get anxious about letting people down, or not living up to my imagined reputation for perfection. It’s this fear that can turn a simple Christmas gift into a weeks-long downward spiral of stress and trying to one-up my self-imposed standard of amazingness (“I’ve got to outdo what I did last year! It’s not good enough to buy something, I have to make something! If it’s not outstanding, it’s not enough!”).

I remember feeling Christmas stress as early as high school, when friends started to give me gifts and I felt obligated (and eager) to reciprocate. Every year it became more and more of a production. I remember one summer I did a short stint as a computer-chip tester for a family friend’s startup. It was rote work, so as soon as my hands and eyes got into their groove, my mind was free to speculate on what I’d do with the several hundred dollars they were going to pay me. By the end of the gig, I’d decided to use the money on Christmas gifts, and had already decided exactly what I would buy for each person. That was a delightfully stress-free holiday — but it cost me several hundred dollars!

2003 wrapped gifts

Wrapped gifts, 2003

In college I was thrilled again to have spending money, as well as access to Berkeley’s wonderful boutiques. It soon became a point of pride to wrap all my gifts as beautifully as possible, using papers and ribbons from some of the local specialty shops. Around the same time, I also started to draw all my Christmas cards by hand, individually — a process which took so much time that I eventually stopped sending holiday cards at all!

2002 winter card for a professor

2002 card for a professor

More recently, after I began doing more crafting and drawing/painting, the pressure to outdo myself has become even greater. Whereas I used to be able to buy all my Christmas gifts by the end of November, these days I feel like I can’t just spend money; I need to give something handmade. Moreover, as we’ve all gotten older, I feel like the presents have to be nicer… and the list only gets longer every year.

At its most basic, my Christmas gift-planning process goes like this:

  1. Think of everyone I love, and how much I love them. Feel warm and cozy all over.
  2. Decide that the degree of my affection is such that I simply must attempt to translate it all into cards and presents.
  3. Conclude that the only possible way to demonstrate that affection is to give every single person one or more of the following:
    • hand-drawn/painted card
    • heartfelt note
    • handmade gift
    • home-baked cookies
    • exquisite, hard-to-find bought gift
    • creative and unique wrapping (or envelope)
  4. Realize this is impossible.
  5. Try to make it work anyway.
  6. Fail (inevitably!!), and stress that I am letting people down, compromising my own feelings, and not living up to my reputation.

It’s absurd, is it not? There is no need to compete with Martha Stewart! No one’s going to stop loving me just because I didn’t give them the world for Christmas! It’s all utterly ridiculous when written out in plain English, but of course before I think to write it out, the stress just is, hovering around my head and daily life like a personal insult.

Next year, I think the thing to do (unless I buy all my gifts abroad, which is a real possibility) is just to write everyone a short, loving note, decorated with a quick doodle or painting, on nice paper. Everyone will know I love them (as if you didn’t already), I won’t be tearing my hair out, and I can repeat the process the following year. Or I can just record video messages for everyone and send them via email. Christmas shouldn’t have to be so hard… and with the money I save, I can give more to those for whom the holiday (and every day) really is hard. That’s my favorite part of Christmas, anyway, and fortunately it’s also the easiest. The quickest gift-shopping I did this year was an hour I spent online, picking out socks, shoes, and underwear to ship to a youth shelter in San Francisco. It didn’t take long, it didn’t cost too much (especially since I chose sites with free shipping), and I’m still feeling happy about it a whole month later. That’s the right feeling, and it doesn’t have to involve elaborate plans. Got to remember that.