Christmas: Am I Doing it Wrong?

charliebrowntree11.jpgChristmas is only three days away, and I’m beginning to think I did it wrong. I am not panicked, abject, or guilty; I am simply enjoying a relatively light workweek with the promise of family and a great dinner on Friday. Outside of my mellow sphere, however, there are signs that we are waiting not for a holiday, but for the end of the world, as we know it. The guy in the Sherlock Holmes hat at the Post Office talking loudly to himself about how he “didn’t need this aggravation,” the parents searching frantically for the last few gifts, the women with jobs and children beating themselves up because they haven’t gotten their cards out yet…it’s out there. Are they crazy or am I a flake?

I have had Annie’s Very Hysterical Christmas (followed by Annie’s Very Bad Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), but this year I decided to let the red & green chips fall where they may. We got a tree and a wreath, but when the day came to get the tree and Sam was busy at a friend’s house I chose not to have a fit and gnash my teeth because it was not our tradition and it was all RUINED. Rob and I went and had a lovely time, and we now have a lit and decorated tree and a wreath on the front door. The process of bringing the Christmas decorations was marred by the fact that approximately 700 squirrels have taken up residence in our attic, and at least one of the boxes didn’t make it down the ladder, as a result of which we are missing the nativity scene, several angels and some snowmen, all of which are probably far above my head providing bedding and snacks for the bushy-tailed enemy. I declined offers from Sam to shoot the offenders with his airsoft guns, and from Rob to set the cats on them; why shouldn’t the squirrels enjoy Christmas, too?

national_lampoon_xmas.jpgI didn’t bake cookies this year because we can’t actually eat them, and I didn’t send Christmas cards because I had found, in past years, that the prospect filled me with such existential dread and stark panic that it really wasn’t worth it. I did buy gifts, but without the sense that they had to be perfect, and that I had one chance in all eternity to surprise and delight my loved ones with the objects that would change their lives forever from black and white to living color. Santa will be generous and thoughtful, but there will be no let down if I do not wake up on the 26th feeling that I have made the world a better place through the clever use of credit cards and stealth.

I did not sign up to decorate a second giant tree at my parents’ house and put up all of their santas, snowmen, angels, wreaths and garlands, working with a sense of dread as I contemplated the post-holiday necessity of taking down, boxing up and re-storing all of their decorations and then doing it all over again at my own house. I bought them a tiny, adorable real tree, and we will spend this afternoon at their house with the help of all of the grandchildren doing “Christmas Lite” and having lunch. I decided to take simple things to contribute to Christmas dinner – green beans almandine, a nice salad with pears and hazelnuts and a key lime pie. There will be no hauling a steaming and sloshing pan of au gratin potatoes over the river, through the woods and onto my floor mats, nor will there be a trashcan filled with the remains of four failed Buches de Noel. There has also been no eggnog, no hustling to buy teachers’ gifts, and we somehow managed to miss both “Frosty” and the “Grinch.”

frosty1.jpgThere is nothing wrong with Doing it All, and I admire those who are able to get the cards out, buy perfect gifts, bake 14 dozen cookies and decorate every inch of their homes without requiring outpatient psychiatric treatment. I have, in fact, been there and done that, many, many times. Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that I was really kind of hating Christmas, that it was One More Damned Thing, and that no one in my family was happier or better off because I was cracking the whip and running myself into the ground. There is also the whole “reason for the season” issue; even if one is not actually celebrating the birth of Christ, the holiday is, at its best, a time when even the most staunchly secular can take time to relax with their families, create traditions that have some meaning, and celebrate the goodness in life.

The best moments I have had in this holiday season have involved friendship, community and a strong sense of being tied to the humanity around me: the church Christmas pageant with tiny children dressed as sheep and angels, a gingerbread house party with a serendipitous mix of old and new friends, a drop-in visit and wonderful conversation with people we hadn’t seen in years (because we’re all too busy), a mellow, hilarious family dinner at a great new restaurant, and a magical concert of Christmas music in a beautiful old church. None of these things were forced or calculated, and all of them left us with a sense of greater connection, and a reminder of how really lucky we are.

grinch.jpgInterestingly, abandoning the idea that I have to have a perfect holiday has also dissolved the sharp-edged irony I have often felt about holiday hype and commercialization, and left me free to be the sentimental, open-hearted kind of person who gets all misty-eyed over the littlest sheep in the pageant. Like Scrooge, or the Grinch, my heart has grown several sizes this year, and I do not find myself in the midst of one activity thinking about the next, or calculating a perpetual to-do list in my head. I am fully present, engaged and interested in what goes on around me, whether it’s a conversation with an old friend or a haunting, antiphonal carol sung in a dimly lit church. There will be no crash because I am neither running hard nor climbing high; I’m just moving at a comfortable pace and tuning out the idea that “every kiss begins with Kay.” I could “do it all,” and in fact I have, but why would I ever go back?


Ann Graham Nichols cooks and writes the Forest Street Kitchen blog in East Lansing, Michigan where she lives in a 1912 house with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals.