I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love Christmas. Some of my earliest memories are of me waiting for Santa to make his yearly visit, my hopes always sky-high that I’d get everything on my list.
Unfortunately, my hopes seldom materialized. Christmas in my family was a haphazard affair, with very little money for gifts most years, and meals that usually ended with drinking, fighting or both.
Regardless of my own less-than-memorable holidays, I managed to hold onto my love of all things Christmas, and as an adult, I realized I could create my own Hallmark-caliber holiday every year. In my younger years, that meant festive parties at my apartment, thoughtful homemade gifts for friends and family, and decorating to the hilt.
When I eventually married and became a parent, seeing the holiday magic through the eyes of my children only intensified my desire for holiday perfection, and I set out to make every Christmas as magical as possible. From a 9-foot tree laden with impeccably arranged ornaments, early morning Black Friday shopping so everyone got their heart’s desire, and copious amounts of baked treats for everyone, I was dedicated to making it all just right. To top it off, Christmas dinner was always hosted by me, a herculean task that involved specific menus, days of cooking and me not allowing anyone else to help or bring anything.
As my kids got older, the stress of the holidays started to take a toll on me. I felt more tense than happy, more anxious than excited, and worst of all, I felt resentful. Here I was, doing my best behind-the-curtain Wizard of Oz impression, making magic and memories, and I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do it. But I certainly felt like stopping would be impossible, because if I didn’t do an over-the-top, spectacular holiday, everyone would be disappointed and I’d forever be known as the mom who ruined Christmas.
This year, my husband and I didn’t even think we’d be home for Christmas. We’d had our house on the market and planned to have it sold before Thanksgiving, and with both my now young adult children living in other states, I didn’t anticipate much of a holiday.
But the joke was on me, because the house didn’t sell and all of a sudden it was December and there I was dragging ornament boxes in from the shed, grumbling the whole time. I didn’t want to decorate. I didn’t want to bake. I didn’t want to hunt down the perfect gifts. I didn’t want to do anything. I was, quite frankly, over it.
And when my firefighter husband said he was unfortunately going to have to work on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I did the unthinkable. I canceled Christmas.
Not entirely, mind you. I still put up a tree, and I still made sure that my loved ones got at least one material token of my affection. But I told my extended family that there would be no big Christmas Day dinner, and told my kids that they should feel free to enjoy time with their friends if that’s what they wanted, because Christmas was going to be a very low-key affair this year.
When I broke the news, I figured the fallout would be legendary. I knew my brothers expected their older sister to host a feast (because heaven forbid they be required to do so) and both my parents (long divorced but still friends) usually came to my house. More importantly, I was worried that my children would be disappointed, because even though they are now in their 20s and have their own lives, I still felt like no one could make their holiday as perfect as I could.
Surprisingly, no one seemed upset. No one even seemed that concerned. They all made alternate plans, we decided to do a smaller dinner on New Year’s Day, and that was that. I was left with nothing going on for Christmas, and suddenly wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.
I thought back to all those years of my somewhat frantic Christmas planning, and while I’m still happy and proud that I’ve been able to give those memories to my family, I also realized that so much of the holiday magic I insisted on creating wasn’t for them. It was for me.
It was for that little girl who wanted so badly to believe in the spirit of Christmas, who had a nearly empty stocking some years and a stepmom who told her Santa wasn’t real when she was 9 years old. The girl who still left cookies out for him, even though she knew he wouldn’t come. The girl who sang Christmas songs alone under the tree after everyone else had gone to bed, watching the lights blink on and off. I spent so many years making it up to her, thinking it all had to be perfect, because my childhood holidays weren’t.
I realized that so much of my stress around Christmas was my own creation, and that the expectations I thought my family had were really my own. The things my kids remember have nothing to do with the tree, the gifts, or even the food. Because the real magic, the real Christmas spirit, was always about being together.
This Christmas Day, I’ll be lounging around in my pajamas, watching movies and snacking on the few cookies I did make. I’ll FaceTime with my kids, chat with my husband, maybe have coffee with my brother. And we will still be connected, we will still enjoy ourselves, and the memories will endure. It will be fine. We are all just fine.