What if I told you, you don’t have to do it all this holiday season?
Depending on the type of person you are, you might nod in agreement or roll your eyes. Either way, the majority of you will say, “Yeah, BUT…”
But it is the holidays.
But I need to make it magical.
But it is tradition.
Here’s the thing: You do not need to maintain traditions which no longer bring you joy. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed for months, it is time to let go of that stress. Do less. In doing so, you may actually recapture the joy of the season. My family and I have never been ones to try to do all the things. I have always cherished my downtime.
Still, for many years we felt like there were some things we had to do simply because they were traditions. We would try to squeeze it all in, feeling rushed and harried, snapping pictures with forced smiles as proof we were doing it all. But we weren’t enjoying it. It wasn’t fun. It didn’t make me merry. I wasn’t feeling festive, I was frazzled.
The things that should have been fun had been sucked dry; all that was left was stress. That is not how the holidays should feel.
I was obviously doing it wrong but, looking around, I only saw people doing even more than me: elaborate decorations, hours spent constructing gingerbread houses, caroling walks, special visits with Santa, elves that come to life and create mischief each night or elves that leave gifts and sweet notes or elves that encourage acts of kindness (the point is, these people have elves that do something every night).
The whole season had gotten so out-of-hand that I began to dread it. Parties and grab-bags, buying and wrapping, light-seeing and letters to Santa and the incessant, “What do you want? What’s on your wishlist? What is Santa bringing you?” coming at my kids from every direction. The non-stop messages to buy more, want more. More. More. More.
And the influx of stuff. I struggled with this so much. I still do. Gift-giving is such a generous act. I am always grateful and flattered to be thought of, remembered. But it often feels like holiday gift exchanges are out of a sense of obligation or expectation. Many times it seems like gifts are given simply for the sake of checking a name off a list, with little thought behind it.
I know I’ve found myself grabbing last-minute gifts, just to have something to hand someone. It wasn’t that I wanted to give a meaningless gift, I had simply run out of time and energy.
At first, I thought that if we weren’t doing it all, I was failing.
I thought my husband wanted to do all these things. I thought our extended family and friends expected us to do all these things. I thought the kids needed me to do all these things to make their holidays magical. I thought everyone would be disappointed. I felt like a grinch, at my breaking point with all the noise, noise, noise. Not audible noise (though I do love a silent night), but the deafening hustle and bustle of the season. I worried that others would think I was grinchy, that I was doing it all wrong, possibly even that I was depriving our kids. Maybe some do but, truth-be-told, everyone is so caught up in their own holiday frenzy that they likely never took notice of what we were (not) doing.
Now, I have come to a point where I am proud of the fact that we don’t do it all. We have made a very conscious effort to do the holidays our own way — celebrating what is important to us and forgetting about the rest, going against societal norms and setting our own pace.
Year-after-year, we have made changes, small and big, adjusting our holiday traditions until we finally found the joy again.
I am sure, if my kids compare notes with their friends at school, they notice that we do things differently. We do have an Elf on the Shelf, (ShuShu was a gift my eldest received as a baby), but our elf never gets up to any antics and only occasionally moves to sit in a different spot. We have never gone to take pictures with Santa. Indeed, we never made a big deal about Santa, at all. He only ever brought our kids one gift and filled their stockings. We never pushed the myth and never lied when asked about the truth. We actively try to minimize the influx of meaningless stuff, buying only a few modest gifts for each other. We don’t schedule special trips to see lights. We don’t bother with gingerbread houses. Our decorations are not elaborate. We no longer host an annual holiday party (which had been a tradition of mine for decades).
The list of things we don’t do is extensive. I think most of our contemporaries would be shocked to learn how little we do for the holidays. But this I know: The less we do, the more we enjoy it.
The truth is, we don’t miss any of it. What matters is that we are spending time together in the ways that make us feel happy and cozy and full of love and generosity.
We have movie nights cuddled on the couch and hot cocoa with marshmallows. We place importance on time spent together creating memories over accumulating more and more material things. We go shopping to answer letters to Santa from kids spending their holidays in homeless shelters. The last couple of years, our kids’ letters to Santa asked that their gift from him be given to a kid in need, instead.
It took years for me to finally realize that we did not have to keep up with all the demands and expectations of the season.
To recognize that we did not even need to keep maintaining the traditions we had always had. If it no longer brought us joy, we could let it go. We could create new traditions, or better yet we could leave some sweet empty space to simply sit and be and soak in the holidays without any agenda.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, if you find yourself forcing smiles and going through the motions just to put that checkmark on your to-do list, why not try letting go of a few traditions, this year? Have your family vote on their favorite activities and see which don’t make the cut. Find what works for you. It may very well be that you, too, will find more joy in doing less.
This post originally appeared on Medium. It has been reprinted with permission.
Elizabeth Joyce is an essayist, poet, and aspiring novelist. Her work has been featured on Scary Mommy, The Mighty, and InspireMore, among others. Elizabeth writes her truth as a cancer survivor, mom via IVF/FET & gestational surrogacy, anxiety struggler, family historian, budget traveler, and simple, ordinary life enthusiast. Follow her on Facebook.