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A hypocrite’s guide to surviving the holiday season

January 9th, 2006 · 2 Comments

[Editors note:

Although the holiday season has passed, I thought I would publish this post in retrospect, as a reminder to myself, as a result of the effort I have already put into the piece, and as preparation for ten months from now when I may re-post portions of it!…]

I try to ignore it, and sometimes I think I’m doing a pretty good job, and then I decide that this year, I will find the courage to take the X’s skates to Goodwill. The skates I once bought him for Christmas. And then I go into a Shoppers Drug Mart to pick up a few necessities, and I hear The Chipmunks Christmas song, and am reduced to tears.

I hate Christmas because it sucks to be alone. It sucks to be alone all the time, but never so much as when I’m surrounded by my family on Christmas Eve. And this year it sucks doubly, because the one person I want to not be alone with — no, wait, I mean I want to be alone with. Oh, you know what I mean — would rather be alone.

Postmodern Sass

Because I’m not motivated by material things, I find the rampant orgy of commercialism which abounds at this time of year, frankly, disgusting. Because I absolutely respect the right of others to hold whatever religious beliefs they choose, I feel ashamed at what the society I live in has turned this season into (even bearing in mind the point of view which says that the timing and motivation of this season has more to do with pagan celebrations such as Yule and Saturnalia than it does with alleged events of two millennia ago). I have no happy memories of childhood Christmases; and vivid memories of particularly unpleasant personal events which have occurred at this time of year, especially in adult life. So, all told, this period is a dead loss for me.

-Koan Bremner

I had a good half hour to think about this while I waited. I thought to myself, you know I’m a pretty friendly guy, and that’s 365 days a year, and most of these people are bastards most of the time, but could they really be this nice for a few days a year?


I’ve had the privilege of being inside on a few of these Christian Christmases, with shicksa women I was dating, and let me tell you, if you haven’t had a chance to see the inside of the holiday, it’s pretty pissy and angry, you know, like people really are, not like they pretend they are. So I guess I don’t like it because it’s basically dishonest and because Christianity, in my eye, has gotten a bad rep.

Dave Winer

When I read posts like Dave Winer’s or Koan Bremner’s or Postmodern Sass’s I see the hypocrisy of the holiday season and feel the pains. I wish I could give them all hugs (and hugs to the blogger friends Betsy Devine linked too). They have been on my mind this past month. I wish there was something I could do. I remember why I hate the holidays too, or at least what they do to people. And I hope each of these bloggers is doing okay now that we’re into the new year.

I used to hate Christmas. The month made me sick with its commercialism and emptiness. It seemed deceptive and false, like a hollow box wrapped with bows and shiny paper. There’s the stressful search for the elusive “perfect gift” for each person on the list. Plus there are heavy emotional obligations for many as well as financial burdens, combined with the pretense of perfection, doing all we can to find that Norman Rockwell-picture-perfect-moment to confirm our family happiness and camouflage the dysfunction with another year’s worth of holiday cheer. Smile for the camera!

As a young girl, I soon learned that Christmas morning meant disappointment. I remember a letter “Santa” wrote me at age seven, explaining why my requested dollhouse was not there under the tree. With each year I realized that what I wanted would not be there on Christmas Day. It wasn’t just that my family had a budget. What I wanted most – my parents’ marriage, my brother’s health, healed relationships – wouldn’t fit in Santa’s sack and slide down the chimney. The season was all an illusion, like the man wearing the fat red suit and wig at the mall.

The heaviness followed me into our marriage. One year, 1996, I decided to take a break from giving gifts. It all seemed too much for me. The season felt like a game of expectations I couldn’t fulfill. How to make everyone happy? I couldn’t.

In a spiritual sense I felt discontent with Christmas. If the holiday was really about Jesus, then why did we spend days consumed by consuming? Why was Christmas Day focussed on food and gifts? Was I really a Christian if I felt stressed by Christmas? Shouldn’t a spiritual holiday center on simplicity, meditation and prayer? And why is December 25th such a big deal? Can’t we celebrate Jesus every day?

In recent years I made decisions that have helped me survive the holiday season, lowered my stress, and have even helped me find happiness in the midst of the mess. Here are some summaries and ideas I’ve implemented.

Cultivate contentment

Ted and I have tried in our family to cultivate contentment. In general neither one of us needs many things. Our children in turn don’t seem to need many things. If they need clothes or shoes, we buy them. Throughout the year the girls get gifts, not only Christmas and birthdays. We don’t ask them what they want for Christmas or have them make a list for Santa. I don’t know what they would say if we did ask them. See Amanda Witt’s wonderful A Small Family Oddity. Going through the dot-com crash, I confess, helped me cultivate contentment better.

Live Christmas 365 days of the year

I see myself living Christmas year-round in many ways.

First, it means keeping routines despite the busyness of the season. It helps to preserve some sanity if I continue to exercise, eat healthy and take quiet time for prayer and meditation throughout December. This year, due to my own compulsion combined with unexpected events and an overstuffed schedule, I didn’t practice this principle every day, but I wish I had.

It also means keeping presents in perspective, planning and giving throughout the year, lessening the emphasis and pressure on the short holiday season.

I plan my gifts throughout the year, not just in November and December. As Elisa Camahort recommends (see her excellent The Secrets of a Savvy Seasonal Shopper), if I see something that would fit someone well, I buy it and often save it for Christmas. I also spend some time each summer making gifts. Yes, I’ve already begun to plan what we will be giving in 2006.

Ted and I don’t wait until Christmas to get something we need. We give gifts to the children multiple times in the twelve months, rather than giving them lots of presents on two days. We give – and receive! – throughout the year. Many people in our lives share their generosity with us across the calendar – thanks!

Our kids are our example. Throughout the year, they are constantly cutting paper and fashioning it into presents. This weekend, the older two have decided to sew secret gifts for each other.

Living Christmas every day means putting time into my faith every day. Jesus is more than the Reason for the Season. He’s the reason for life. What we do for one day of the year or a few weeks, doesn’t matter much compared to the other 364 days. Jesus was born and that event impacts who I am and how I live, what I say every day.

Living Christmas every day means giving love and whatever I can give, every day, to God and to people in my life.

Decide what Christmas and the holiday season mean to you

I used to feel guilty feeling exhausted by Christmas, wondering how fake and frail my faith must be if this holiday made me miserable. But Jesus never declared December 25th to be a special day. He never commissioned Christmas. There’s nothing about it in the Bible. So Christmas, in a sense, especially our American idea of it, has nothing to do with Jesus. [From what I’ve written, I think my opinion on this debate should be obvious.]

The month of December is a time though when people want to show each other care and affection through presents and parties. The Christmas season is a time to let people know you are thinking of them and caring about them. It’s a great time to express gratitude. so I’ve decided to make the most of that opportunity. I’ve felt happier once I took the freedom to decide what Christmas meant to me, to write my own definition independent of culture or even church.

Keep it simple

We keep our celebration simple. We don’t usually have a Christmas tree: we’ve only had a tree two or three times in our fourteen years of marriage. ( I don’t know how other families find the time to decorate!) It seems a bit ridiculous, this tradition of chopping down a perfectly good tree, dragging it indoors, hanging things on it, and taking care of it for weeks, vacuuming needles and watering the cut trunk. Then again, Althea Paulson’s article on The sacred Christmas tree nearly made me reconsider. Still I like our tree-less Christmas. We don’t have stockings. “Santa” doesn’t stop at our house, either, although we’ve told the kids not to broadcast Santa’s secret to others.

I used to worry about creating traditions but now I realize we still have plenty of years to make traditions as a family, when the kids are older and able to contribute better to the holiday. Why create more complications? We make cookies (although only two batches this year, not the six to ten I once did). We make Jesus a birthday cake. We give gifts. We get together with family and friends. We put out the nativity sets. Those have been our constants from year to year.

Some people have expectations for cards, as my friend Ernie and Brian Bailey each explained in their blogs this December. As our list of contacts and friends has grown, and so has the number of children in our family (and their activities), each year I find myself wrestling a bit with Christmas cards, trying to find balance, the ability to satisfy everyone in the equation. Since we’ve become parents, I know many on our list would like to see a picture of our kids and I like to share a picture too, especially since I don’t post them on this blog. Also, since I started writing a blog, I have felt less of a need to write a letter and have only sent a photo card the past two years. A lengthy missive seemed redundant in light of my blog, and perhaps excessive and insensitive to those with busy schedules at holiday time who don’t need my mini-novel to read. I am considering sending out cards via email next year, to reduce paper and time, yet I know the girls and I also enjoy finding greetings in our mailbox and holding the photos and cards in our hands. Year round I try to take pictures of the girls so that I have a photo ready when the time comes to make cards. This practice is also helpful for taking advantage of the discounts that come early in the fall.

Homemade gifts can be fun and personal, perhaps saving time and money (not always). Making gifts also reduces some of the commercialism and encourages our creativity. I recommend avoiding edible gifts. You never know what someone’s dietary needs are, and also edible gifts have other constraints (the ones I made this year – jars of jam – grew mold in the months between summer and November!). The girls and I usually spend a day or two in the summer time working on presents for Christmas. Gifts can also be simple, if not something homemade, then something to encourage others to create at home. This year I gave our closest homeschooling friends a bag filled with items such as pipe cleaners, modeling clay and a representation of the brain, along with a printout of a web site with activities, recipes and ideas.

For our family I do buy one or two gifts, usually books. This year the girls got a robot toy and a book each. But I also make something for them too. Two years ago I gave them homemade teddy bears. This year, keeping it simple, I made each girl a few bookmarks, with special stickers and colors, using initials, names and favorite animals, since they are always looking for bookmarks.

Last year I gave the girls fleece bags for Christmas, and this year I used those same bags to wrap their presents. I think I’ll continue that tradition!

I wince as I take out the trash on December 26th, collecting the piles of garbage generated by the holiday, and I wish I could reduce waste. This year, I’ve read a number of great ideas such as Cathy Nickum’s Shop locally, give globally and Nancy Blakey’s “Non-toys” for kids this holiday. Giving experiences, such as tickets or a trip or even a meal are all wonderful thoughts. We try to do these year-round too, and I see these as gifts we receive and give year round also, even if they aren’t wrapped up in paper on December 25th.

Give grace, gratitude and flexibility to yourself and others

The best gifts to give are grace, gratitude and flexibility. Let go of expectations and obligations for yourself and others. Give lots of hugs, understanding and love! I’ve found that this freedom allows me to enjoy the holidays and accept whatever others give me, and whatever the season brings with it that year, although I constantly discover new expectations I need to release (such as electricity on Christmas!).

I have to accept the limitations. I can’t do everything and I do need to sleep. I can’t pretend everything will be perfect suddenly for one day on December 25th. And I can’t ask others to make me happy or buy me the perfect gift. There’s no Norman Rockwell painting in my living room, only people. People who love me. And I love them. Whether or not we look or act perfect.

No matter what the calendar says, you don’t know what will happen. For example this holiday season was impacted by a number of unpredicted and unusual events including three colds (I had two, Ted had one), Ted’s ten day trip, a water heater leak (small but big enough to impact a day of plans), and a power outage Christmas morning.

We live in a time of perfection and pressure. It’s an era of microwaves and Martha Stewart, fast food and credit cards, media tempting us with airbrushed versions of reality (or McCormick commercials that imply a woman’s identity and acceptance comes from her perfect holiday cooking!). We want it all now. And we want it done right. As a culture, we are accustomed to comfort. We expect to feel good. We have expectations for everyone in our lives and become angry when they aren’t who we want them to be. Hey, I was even angry at the electricity for not being there for me on Christmas this year!

But Christmas is more about mess than perfection. It’s about grace, the opposite of obligation.

Why did I title this post A hypocrite’s guide to surviving the holiday season? First of all, it seems a bit hypocritical to post a survival guide when the season has passed. Also if you were in our home during these holidays, you would have seen me barely surviving at times, in tears, exhausted, licking envelopes at 3 am, finding flexibility elusive, overwhelmed by the little crises I didn’t predict for December. So why I am writing a survival guide? To remind myself.

I see myself as a hypocrite. I feel I am one during the holidays, believing Jesus has nothing to do with Christmas, yet celebrating the holiday with a birthday cake for Him and presents for everyone else. Or is it the other way around?

And I know I’m a hypocrite every day. Not that I’m trying to be one. But I don’t live everything I believe. I criticize others, forgetting my own failures. I lack humility and think the world of myself, or rather the world revolves around me and my needs.

But Christmas is for hypocrites. It’s about grace. It’s about getting gifts we don’t deserve. And through one gift, that was first seen in a stable thousands of years ago, this hypocrite has found hope for the holidays.


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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Postmodern Sass // Jan 11, 2006 at 8:44 am

    Thanks so much for the virtual hugs, Julie. I survived Christmas, again, and spent New Year’s Eve partying in Chicago. Nothing like a good party to help you forget certain things. Or, rather, people.

    Well, I try, anyway.

  • 2 Amy // Dec 25, 2006 at 9:22 pm

    It is Christmas night and I am exhausted, but unable to sleep after a long day. I appreciate your sentiments here very much about Christmas as I did survive another Christmas (although barely). I really felt let down today and stressed as my in-laws showered my two year old with gifts and toys and gifts were just unwrapped really quickly without anyone really knowing who anything was from or really taking the time to care and say “thank you.” Anyway, it made me feel really empty inside, like that was all we were there for and that no one really takes the time to care. I know it will always be hard though as it will be like that from now on, but I do want to teach my daughter that Jesus is the most important part of the Christmas season, but it is hard when others around you do not put emphasis on that. Anyway, I am glad that someone understands where I am coming from, as I feel that no one else does…..

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