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!
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!
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!
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:
- Think of everyone I love, and how much I love them. Feel warm and cozy all over.
- Decide that the degree of my affection is such that I simply must attempt to translate it all into cards and presents.
- 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)
- Realize this is impossible.
- Try to make it work anyway.
- 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.
Oh Lisa! I identify so much with all of this. My lists and reasons are different, but the gut wrenching feelings are so similar.
When I was a little kid, Christmas was wonderful because even though nothing about my family seemed perfect, I was a kid and I believed in the magic and didn’t comprehend the downsides to the hustle. What kid does? As I grew, my anxieties grew and now I’m a bundle of nerves wanting the “perfect” experience I never had but “know” is out there for me and my family if only I do it “all” better.
Just before I read this, I whittled down the little I was planning to do (it’s gotten that bad) and realized it won’t be construed as failure by anyone but me. I’m finishing two gifts, and planning to make vegetarian stuffing and cranberry sauce before heading to my daughter’s. That’s it. And it has to be enough. That and the smile I plan to wear with love.
I hope you find that happy balance you deserve. ❤
Oh, Ré, I have to remind myself of this all the time: “it won’t be construed as failure by anyone but me.” We are so our sharpest critics. Veg stuffing and cranberry sauce sound like wonderful offerings to me… and your smile above all. 🙂
You know, as you mention this wish for a “perfect” Christmas, I think I have that too. My mom has a lot of reverence for “American” traditions (real or imagined) and I think she passed that on to me, except that being who and what we are, we can never really enter into those traditions (and truly, I think many of them are imagined anyway–does anyone do Christmas the way we think it should be done?! maybe celebrities in TV specials!). I think somehow I came to understand Christmas as needing to be very lavish, whether through expenditure of time (lots of crafting and home baking) or money. I think I’m just starting to understand that we can create a sense of abundance without needing to go all-out.
Yes, the stress of Christmas and New Year can be ridiculous. Suddenly you sit back and realise too that you are trying to cram everything into some of the coldest 10 days of the year. We decided some time ago to kick back with the visiting and stuff so we see family and friends to share a “Christmas” moment with them any time between 12.1 (see the American dating 🙂 ) and 1.14 of the following year. It’s so much more relaxing. And the gifts ? Oh man, safer the better for us.
Alan, I am glad (or not!) to know that this isn’t just an American obsession! Your weeks-long Christmas sounds much more enjoyable and perhaps even ultimately more meaningful.