I'll admit it, for most of my life I've been rather ambivalent about the holiday season. Like honestly, I'd be okay skipping straight from Halloween (easily my favorite holiday!) to the New Year (fresh starts, resolutions, I LOVE that stuff). Why?
- The big gathering stuff. I have a large extended family and I've married into an even larger extended family. All of these people are fabulous and I love them, but being around everyone all at once, running around from one house to the next, as an introvert and one who has struggled with depression and anxiety for much of her life, I find it insanely OVERWHELMING. I even did as a kid--like I'd be excited about seeing everyone, especially my cousins, and of course I'd be thrilled about presents, but there was always this unsettled feeling that I carried deep in my gut and I couldn't put a finger on it until last year when we moved to Seattle and didn't have to do all of the holiday running around. I missed the people, but I was soooooo relieved. That made me feel like an asshole, but then I was like, wait, this is just my personality. It doesn't mean I don't love these folks just because I'd rather see them in smaller groups.
- The food at the center of the big gathering stuff. Before I even went vegetarian at the thirteen, I didn't like turkey (the Thanksgiving staple) and I didn't like ham (the Christmas staple). My immediate family would often have pasta for Christmas Eve (and it was just the four of us and occasionally a couple of visitors--a much more manageable size for me), which I did love and that tradition, which was always followed by a game of Clue, is what I miss the most. But the other food situations just made gatherings more stressful. Then once I went vegan, I had to bring my own food everywhere, which was nice in some ways (no more picking at sides and rushing home to eat a PB&J), but annoying in others (I'd cook at home, then have to reheat and there were always timing issues and it was never quite as good and I always found myself wishing I could just eat it at my own house, like when it was ready). Now my husband and I pick out exactly what we want, we plan the meal for when we want to eat it, we cook, and voila! Well, except we screwed up the mashed potatoes this year because we got so sucked into watching Firefly that we didn't monitor closely enough. Fortunately there were extra potatoes.
- The pressure to be happy and "on." This kind of goes along with my issues above. It's hard work for me to make small talk for hours, and especially during my teen years, it was hard work to smile. People say all the time, "Oh the holidays can be hard. They make people sad," but A. I always thought that was only supposed to apply to people who had harder lives or more dysfunctional families than mine and B. People say that, but there still seems to be that expectation to smile and be jovial despite the fact that even if you have a really awesome family, aren't an introvert with depression, the holidays are really freaking stressful because...
- The time crunch thing. It seems like we should all have plenty of time for the celebrating and the present buying because the holiday season is like a month long or something, but let's be real, it's also the end of the year. If you're a kid this means you have school projects or finals, if you're an adult you have work projects to wrap up, and... if you're a writer, you are probably on deadline. I am this year. I spent the days surrounding Thanksgiving working for twelve hours so I could have Thanksgiving day off. My book is due right after the new year, so now I'm racing the clock to see if I can get my book done before Christmas when my family arrives to visit. Like I said, freaking stressful. I had basically one day to do all the gift shopping, and I know plenty of people who aren't on deadline who are in the same boat, so this stress is pretty universal.
- The weather. Maybe in this case I am an asshole, but I don't like, want, or understand the appeal of the "white Christmas." Yeah, okay, it's pretty. But when you are rushing around to buy presents or trying to travel to see family, the inconvenience factor really outweighs that in my book. I'm also a St. Louis-born, Chicago-raised person who ABHORS snow and cold. I had one blizzard/snowpocalypse/Chiberia winter too many. Actually I had like five. That's what brought me to Seattle. Where the snow is pretty. Because it is generally on the mountains where I think it belongs and when it does fall in the city, everyone panics and everything shuts down and it's there just long enough to play in and it melts before it becomes a gross, blackened ice blob. Anyway, so I've mostly eliminated this particular holiday season problem for myself, but it has now been replaced with sort of feeling like a jerk when people ask if I'm going back to Chicago for the holidays and I respond with HAHAHAHA, NO, NOT EVER.
- The religious thing. My mom was raised Catholic. My dad was raised Lutheran, but when I was born, he was an atheist, and thereby I was raised... nothing. We celebrated Christmas and I knew the whole baby Jesus story, but in my house Christmas was Santa and presents and the lights and the tree, and you know after a certain point, there wasn't Santa anymore either, so... I kind of didn't get it. I mean, I liked presents, don't get me wrong, but the religious side was so confusing to me. It didn't help that occasionally we did go to church on Christmas and for a period we even had an advent calendar, but at that point I was ten and since I hadn't been raised in it, whenever I was thrust into a religious situation, I always felt like the kid who was several grades behind her peers. My mantra was always, just get through this baby Jesus play thing we are watching at my cousin's church and then we will drive around looking at the pretty lights. It was only in my twenties when I chose to go to the Christmas Eve services every year at the Lutheran school/church that my niece (my childhood best friend's daughter) attended to see her sing when I finally started to get comfortable with it all. Sort of. At the end of the day, I'm still the daughter of a man who has now remarried, converted to Judaism yet still celebrates Christmas because "I like the tree." I think that sums up why Christmas has always been confusing/awkward for me.
So at this point, you are probably thinking, Wow, Stephanie, you have a serious hate on for the holidays. You ARE a Scrooge. But I swear, I'm not. I honestly just think it's important to talk about why the holidays are uncomfortable (defying that whole pressure to jovial thing) AND I've been doing some serious soul-searching about why I feel the way I do and where I do see and experience the "spirit of the season":
- I really like giving gifts. (See! Not Scrooge! I told you!) The joy of finding something that you know is going to really put a smile on someone's face and/or show them how much you love them and how well you know them is unbeatable. Even though I only had like a day to shop this year, I'm really excited about the stuff I got my nieces, my mom, my cousin, and especially my brother. That present is gonna make him so nostalgic (and if you are reading this, Dan, there's another "clue.") Gift giving has improved for me when I took away the pressure of buying stuff for everyone for the sake of like... that's what you are supposed to do or worrying about getting things to people exactly on time.
- The stories. I love A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker. I love the opportunity to get together with people (in smaller groups) and hear the story of their year. As a writer, I love that the season is one of magic and stories.
- Self/family-created traditions. The one thing I miss about Christmas in Chicago is playing Clue with my mom and brother on Christmas Eve. That was the best. Also, even though most of my friends and I just buy each other presents for birthdays or randomly, I have a pair of BFFs that I met trading clothes and music, etc online. The website had a secret Santa gift exchange and these girls and I still always exchange holiday presents. I love that because it reminds me of how our friendship formed. I also love my new just-the-two-of-us vegan Thanksgiving with my husband.
- Gratitude. That's what is at the center of all of this, right? Or at least that was my answer when I asked myself, "Okay, the gatherings, the religion, the food, all of that can be hard for you, but what is the real spirit of this thing?"
- I try to spend as much time as I can thinking about (and in some cases expressing through gifts) what I’m grateful for. From the little things like the security guard that I saw feeding peanuts to a squirrel this morning to the big things like a husband who cleaned the house and did most of the cooking during the Thanksgiving weekend while I worked to meet my writing goals (and who will entertain my family if I don’t finish my revisions before they arrive). Like my niece who has grown from the little girl I used to brave my church uncomfortableness for to see sing in her pretty dresses into a high school senior who I have long conversations with on Skype during the holidays that always end with me teary-eyed and proud. Like a new baby “niece” born to my very best friend this year. Like living in this gorgeous city that is such a perfect fit for me and is filled with evergreens because like my father, I also enjoy those trees a lot. I don’t tend to put one up in my house, but they are perfect when outlined by a rainbow (quite common in Seattle winter):
Or backed by a snow-covered mountain:
That list might be slightly shorter, but it's way more meaningful, so I hope you don’t think I’m too much of a Scrooge!