I still remember my very first Christmas movie.
Specifically, I remember the merchandising tie-in: a McDonald’s Happy Meal in the shape of Santa’s workshop, with a rosy-cheeked old gentleman grinning on one side.
But even if I never saw the Santa Claus, the Movie, I still know the plot backwards and forwards.
Because it’s the story of every holiday movie, ever: Christmas Won’t Happen unless Someone steps up to the plate and Saves the Day!
The plot of that movie doesn’t only feel familiar because it’s repeated every winter at theaters near me. It feels familiar because that is often my attitude towards December.
If I don’t do something, the Holidays will be Ruined.
There are decorations to hang up artfully, and put away promptly. There are spiritual milestones to celebrate on my own and with the kids. There are activities. There are sign-up sheets. There are a whole load of family expectations. The presents should be within budget, generous, eco-friendly, handmade, and wrapped up with wire ribbon on time.
Also: I should be smiling.
I don’t go crazy with the holidays—I try to keep it simple, and I’m guessing you do too. And so many of these activities bring me joy.
So why do I still feel anxious when I hear the Waltz of the Sugarplum Fairy?
I think it’s because somewhere deep down, I still believe that it’s up to me to Save Christmas.
But if your faith tradition is anything like mine, the point of these religious festivals is that Joy and Light often happen despite circumstances, plans, and fallible people.
Christmas, Hannakkah, Kwaanza, Eid, Solstice—these celebrations don’t need our help to be meaningful.
Even knowing this, though, as I schedule parties, shuttle kids from one place to another, and buy gifts, I get why so many of us feel this pressure.
But last year, my perspective changed.
The holidays fell right before our family’s six-month sabbatical in Argentina. And with that in the backdrop, I made a conscious decision to let myself off the hook.
Sure, I planned, bought, and snipped a few snowflakes. But if a tradition didn’t happen, I decided not to care.
And surprise! The holidays didn’t need me much at all.
When I didn’t try to complete every Advent activity, no one spontaneously combusted.
When I didn’t take charge of a meal, I was able to play a saner supporting role.
And we had a lovely, blessed, quiet holiday right before our big adventure.
Here’s how I’m hoping to cultivate this attitude even without a sabbatical to plan:
Keep values in mind.
As I pull out decorations, activities, and traditions, I’m trying to see what story they tell about our values. Evaluating what I do against what’s really important to me is a good sorting device. It helps me have a reason to say no to something, and yes to stuff that brings more life.
Everything is optional.
So often, what runs me ragged during the holidays is keeping up with what went well last year—especially if my kids expect to repeat the “greatest hits” year in and year out. So this year, I’m trying to put everything on the table. Yes, sometimes this leads to hard conversations with people I love. But I want to cultivate a gracious spirit, not a spirit of obligation and overload.
My eyes were opened last year preparing Thanksgiving dinner. I took on several side dishes, my dad cooked the turkey, my aunt brought appetizers, and my mom rounded out the meal. All day long, we were chatting in the kitchen, working on stuff that seemed completely manageable. But what a feast! What fun togetherness! Now, I wonder how many of our more overwhelming traditions I can involve friends in, instead of trying to be Wonder Woman and do big activities solo.
Feel your feelings, not everyone else’s.
So much of the Holiday Savior Complex comes from this: a worry that if I don’t do X, Y, or Z, someone I love will feel less than optimal. Sure, I want to give of myself generously and selflessly. But that does not put me in charge of others’ emotions. No, this year, I yearn to quit the job of Feelings Manager. I will repeat this to myself: I can’t make anyone else have a good holiday. I can only act kindly and generously as best I know how.
Decide your decisions.
Once I say yes to something, I want live that yes. I want to go forward with a sense of adventure and whole-heartedness, not a martyr complex. I think this is easier to do if my actions support my values, and obligation is tossed out with last year’s wrapping paper.
A Work In Progress
I don’t think this manifesto is going to be easy to implement. I think it will be a work in progress for, well, the next umpteen renditions of Rudolph. But I feel a sense of relief in taking off my fix-it cap and approaching this season of lights with open hands.
I’m thankful to remember that everything truly lovely this time of year does not depend on me.