“I dread Christmas,” I confessed to my friend Jillene during a walk this fall. “Each December, I feel like I’m strapped to a sleigh and sent careening down a hill . . . straight into Holiday Hell.” I grimaced and added unnecessarily. “It’s a bit stressful.”
We laughed, but the mere thought of my holiday to-do list made me want to crawl into the closet where I hide Christmas gifts and not emerge until the calendar showed a new year. It isn’t that I dislike one holiday chore over another, it’s just that there’s so much extra to do: Unbury Christmas decorations from the back of the garage and rearrange the living room furniture to make room for a tree. Address holiday cards and wrap oodles of gifts. The kids will need help memorizing their lines for the Christmas play, and I’ll have to purchase last-minute Secret Santa presents for their classmates. There are work parties to attend, multiple holiday celebrations with relatives, and an evening spent caroling. Add in the pressure of trying not to bankrupt our savings account and a bout with the stomach flu that hits each year around mid-December, and it’s no wonder I turn into a grinch when I’m supposed to be merry and filled with good will.
The worst part is that my poor husband has a birthday smack in the middle of all this holiday chaos. Every year our conversation about his special day goes something like this: “Hon, what do you want to do for your birthday? It can’t be a lot because the kids have a church Christmas program rehearsal that afternoon and I have to clean the house because my mom comes the next day.” One year, we were so frantically busy that the kids and I forgot to wish him a happy birthday. He had to remind us.
“I would just like to have a nice, relaxing, meaningful Christmas without losing my sanity,” I told Jillene. “But I don’t know how to do that. I can’t see what I can possibly cut out.”
Jillene nodded, and then shared with me a tale of her Christmases past. She said that when her kids were little, she spent each December creating the perfect holiday season. Even though she worked full time, she did it all. She baked five different kinds of cookies, wrapped pine garlands around the stairway banisters, and made mountains of perfect red bows. She wrapped, she shopped, she made the costumes for the Christmas pageant.
As she spoke, Jillene shuddered, which surprised me. The Jillene I know loves holidays, and uses any excuse to throw a party, but she explained that she was so obsessed with getting it all just right that each year her stress level shot through the roof leaving a big hole where Santa and his reindeer were supposed to land.
“The all-time holiday low was when I missed the beginning of present-opening on Christmas morning because I was in the other room still adjusting the bows on gifts.”
Angry and hurt, she had a major meltdown on the happiest day of the year. “It was horrible,” she said.
Jillene’s descent into Holiday Hell was a yearly event, until the December her therapist asked her to make a Christmas to-do list and bring it to their next session. Jillene returned with two pages of Christmas musts. Without looking at the list, her therapist handed the top paper back to Jillene and threw the other in the garbage.
Jillene was speechless. How was she going to create a perfect Christmas with half of her list at the bottom of her therapist’s trash can?
“Now,” he said. “For our next session I want to you cut this list in half.”
It seemed impossible, but Jillene did what he asked and the next week, feeling quite proud of herself, returned with a revised list. Her therapist looked it over briefly and handed it back to her.
“Cut it in half again.”
Jillene couldn’t believe it. She argued, she fretted, she resisted, and then she returned with a very short list of absolute must-do Christmas chores.
Her therapist examined her list, and nodded thoughtfully. “Excellent. Good work.” Jillene sighed with relief. He handed her back her list. “Now, I wanted you to look at these items and pick the one that is most important to you. What is the one thing you need to do to to create your perfect Christmas?”
Jillene looked at the list, nearly in tears. Her Christmas was dissolving before her eyes, but so was the overwhelming weight of all she needed to do, or thought she needed to do, to make Christmas a success.
“Bows. I pick bows. Perfect red bows,” said Jillene.
“Bows it is,” said her therapist.
I looked at Jillene, wide-eyed. “What happened?” I whispered.
She shrugged. “I made bows and let the rest of my holiday to-do list go. Christmas came and went just the same, but it was better because I was less stressed out and could enjoy it.”
Jillene put her hand on my arm and we stopped walking. “The point is that thinking I had to do it all was unrealistic and unhealthy.” She peered at me intently to make sure I was listening. “You can’t do it all. You have to let go of Christmas, so to speak.”
It was a radical idea. I had all kinds of excuses for why I couldn’t abandon my Christmas chores: Wouldn’t the kids be so disappointed if there wasn’t the usual holiday hoopla? What would my in-laws think if I didn’t cook from scratch the perfect Christmas Eve meal? Was it lame if I didn’t send greeting cards?
There was no way I could toss my to-do list into the trash. But as December approached along with the anticipation of another stressful holiday season, I decided to give Jillene’s Holiday Hell Rescue Plan a try.
So I made my Christmas to-do list, and checked it twice. Then I began to cut. And cut and cut and cut. It was pretty easy once I eliminated what I thought I had to do to make a nice Christmas and instead just focused on what would make the holiday season enjoyable for me. Within a couple of minutes, I’d whittled my list down to two items that were Christmas musts. (I know that two instead of one is kind of cheating, but I decided that Jillene’s therapist would approve anyway.)
The first on my short list was my Grandma Hutchison’s traditional baking. When I was a kid, I loved how each Christmas her kitchen counters were crowded with tins filled with paper-thin sugar cookies, Chex Mix, flavorful molasses cookies, and Welsh saffron biscuits. I was soothed by the predictability of the holiday fare–these once-a-year treats–and the fact that you could taste my grandma’s love in every bite. Since my grandma died sixteen years ago, I have been the keeper of her holiday recipes. Each year, I make huge batches of molasses cookies and saffron biscuits filling them with as much love as they can hold before handing them out to friends and sending them by two-day air to my extended family. It’s my way to remember my grandma and those happy childhood holidays. It is also a tradition I hope to hand down to my own children who have learned to look forward to the goodie-filled tin canisters that will line our kitchen’s countertops.
For my second holiday-season must, I picked up the phone and made a reservation at a fancy restaurant my husband and I save for special occasions. “It is my husband’s birthday and this is a surprise,” I told the hostess. “So I’d love a really nice table for two near the fireplace.”
When I hung up, I began to consider what to buy him for a birthday gift. Regardless of what I choose, I know to ask Jillene if she will make a perfect red bow for the top of the package.