“The holidays are about renewal, kindness, and joy. Judgment and oppression are the enemy of these sentiments. Just see how muchmore genuine holiday spirit you’ll generate when you follow your own bliss, rather than someone else’s holiday traditions.” – Martha Beck
So here’s a big question… how do you *really* feel about the holidays? Let me clarify- I’m not asking about how the holidays are supposed to make you feel, and I’m not asking about the way they used to make you feel. What I’m asking you is how they really make you feel right now. There’s no wrong answer to this.
And this question: If you could create a dream holiday that was a perfect fit for *you* and what *you* love, what would it be like?
As you consider those questions, let me tell you a story:
A few years ago, I inadvertently altered our holiday traditions. By “inadvertently”, I mean that it wasn’t really my intention to change how my family celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas, but the little suggestion I made changed everything for us- for the better.
Backstory: holidays are kind of… complex. When I was a little kid, we lived very close to pretty much all of my extended family- aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, cousins twice removed, friends who were considered family, etc. And because we were a large, close-knit clan of Italian people, the holidays were a BIG DEAL. It was pretty much non-stop festivity from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.
Of course, that was heaven for a little kid. There was always something fun going on- a ton of parties and tons of decorations to look at and tons of presents and tons of cousins my age to play with and tons of EVERYTHING that was good. It all felt sparkly and happy and I always came away from the festivities feeling very much loved and included.
When I started college, my parents retired and moved to Florida, far away from our extended family. From that point on, the holidays were *completely* different, but those first few years I was so relieved to be on break from school that the lack of festivities didn’t bother me at all. I just spent my holiday break off school luxuriating in sleeping late, reading in the sunshine, and not having endless assignments.
Then I finished school and moved into my own little place down here in Florida. Around that time I also discovered a little magazine called “Martha Stewart Living”. As my first holidays as a “grown up” approached, I imagined I would rekindle the holidays of the past and recapture some of the magic. I would deck the halls, spread joy to the world. I would cook a feast, shopped ’till I dropped, and make merry from the well before Thanksgiving until January 2nd. And Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s would magically be restored to their former glory. I would gladly carry the torch of Amazing And Fun Holidays.
But it didn’t work out that way.
Instead, the holidays were… weird. They were quiet. A little lonely, to be honest. Kind of tense at times. My parents were kind of over the “big celebration” thing but I think they didn’t really know how to break it to me. I felt like I was forcing everyone to try and rekindle the joy of holidays past.
Then I met my husband and I thought I might have a partner in holiday merry making, but it turned out that he had a completely different view of the holidays (his view: not that big of a deal) so he wasn’t enthusiastic. He went along with anything and everything I asked, but I could tell his heart was not in it. After a few years of trying to drum up some holiday spirit from my family, I started giving up.
Then my daughter Gracie came along. And with her arrival, I once again felt determined to make the holidays INCREDIBLE. The shopping, the stocking stuffing, the elf hiding, the advent calendar filling, the letter-from-Santa writing… I felt this intense pressure to try and make Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years as FESTIVE as humanely possible, for Gracie’s sake. It was so hard! But I was going to make it work, damnit! I would save the holidays for EVERYONE!
And then… oh, boy… a few years we had this disaster of a Christmas in which I convinced a number of my relatives to come down here for the holidays and there was family drama and then a snowstorm which prevented them from getting back home and it was… just the end, for me. I was done. I was ready to surrender. Give in. I wasn’t going to be the happy hostess who would rekindle the magical Christmases of my past.
The only thing I could really do was figure out what I loved most about the holidays and focus on that. And what I could do to make Christmas fun for Gracie.
And then I read this article in an issue of Oprah Magazine:
The Case for Staying Home (Alone!) for Christmas
“We were a family now, and as much as we loved our relatives, we’d be damned if we’d spend one more holiday celebrating with everyone but each other. We decided to compromise: We’d make the rounds on Christmas morning but have dinner at home. Alone. When I broke this to my mom after Thanksgiving, there was a pained silence. but come December 25, Adam and I stayed strong, heading home before dark to roast a duck and make bûche du Noël. The shift was small but significant: Christmas no longer felt like a series of obligations into which our celebration could only be penciled in. It started to feel like it could belong to us.” – Katie Arnold-Ratliff
At first, it sounded lonely. Holidays? Without the family and the crazy running around? But it appealed to me on a seriously deep level. And made me ask: what would happen if I took back the holidays and started from scratch, with an emphasis on simplicity, family, and fun?
So, the next year I made a simple suggestion before Thanksgiving- instead of having the traditional meal at either my house or my parents’ condo, how about we just do something fun and casual for Thanksgiving, like go to the movies and then out to dinner? My parents agreed readily. There was a restaurant we all enjoyed on that was open on Thanksgiving day, so we went to see a movie and to dinner after.
It was great, but the movies were packed (busiest day of the year) and the restaurant was packed (again, busiest day of the year!). But it was good.
No, it was not as festive as it could have been. Or magical. Or glowy and bright and twinkly and cozy or all those things that the pictures in magazines and catalogues and commercials and the movies say the holidays should be.
What it was, instead, was stress-free. We ALL had a good time, Gracie was very happy with the arrangement, and there was no drama. It was calm. It was peaceful. It was happy. It was a chance for our family to spend quality time together and everyone enjoyed themselves.
We repeated the same thing on Christmas- instead of the movies, we went to the Botanical Gardens, and then we went out to dinner (same restaurant, same packed crowd). Despite the three hours we spent at the restaurant, everyone agreed that they wanted to repeat this new tradition the next year for both Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The next year when Thanksgiving rolled around, I suggested we go out and celebrate Thanksgiving the day *before* Thanksgiving. The movies would be quiet, we could pick from any of our favorite restaurants, and then we’d have Thanksgiving Day as an extra day to do what we pleased.
My mom agreed and it was a total success. We had a great time at the movies (the theater to ourselves!) and then we went out to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants and had a lovely meal. And the next day felt like an extra holiday- Gracie went to my parents in the middle of the afternoon and shared a big turkey dinner with them, and Tom and I hung out in our pajamas and watched movies and ate vegetarian food and had a cozy, quiet time.
And thus our family has started celebrating the holidays on the day *before* the actual holiday. Together, we all go to the movies, or the Botanical Gardens, or the zoo, or whatever, and then we go to a restaurant we all love and share a meal. On the actual day of the holiday, we do our own thing. No big meals, no gathering around the table, no family coming together from near and far.
For many people, this whole plan sounds horrific. To be honest, it would have horrified me years ago. And I won’t lie- there’s a little part of me that wants a festive, magically BIG holiday every year. There’s a part of me that sees all the magazines and catalogs and the pictures of huge families gathering and hugging and having fun and wants that. Thinks that’s the way the holidays should be.
But you know what? There’s no pre-determined holiday ritual that is a perfect fit for all of us. Magazines and catalogs and movies, especially the ones that focus on the winter holidays, are all designed to sell us things. They rarely show or tell reality.
And I also realized this- Gracie didn’t come equipped with any expectations of the holidays. She’s not expecting a big family meal or a cozy snow day with tons of cousins. All she wants is to have fun and be happy. And there’s a lot of ways to make that happen, ways that don’t require huge family gatherings and sub-zero weather and endless dinner parties and get togethers.
The topic this week here at Bliss Habits is “celebrate”. And as I was reflecting on what “celebrate” means to me, I realized that one of the beautiful things about being an adult and having my own family is that I can figure out what works for us, and make it happen. And every year I get the opportunity to course-correct a little bit. Make little adjustments that match up with where we are as a family. Evaluate what I really love about the holidays and what I don’t love about the holidays and make mindful decisions that align with how I’m feeling. Now every holiday season holds fresh potential instead of stressy ritual.
Yeah, there’s a part me that mourns the holidays for what they were, and what I believed they could have been. But there’s a bigger part of me that LOVES what they are in the process of becoming.
Why am I sharing this with you? You may be perfectly happy with your holiday rituals, and if you are, that is WONDERFUL. Seriously. I know how that feels- I experienced it for many years when I was a child, happily along for the ride of a holiday season full of wonderful family traditions.
But if you’re not happy with the holidays… take heart. You’re NOT alone. But know this- you can change things. And you can continue to change things every year from this moment, on. Figure out how you want to celebrate, and go for it. Make this your season, one you can look forward to every year.
Chel Micheline is a mixed-media artist, curator, writer, and avid gardener/reader/swimmer who lives in Southwest Florida with her husband and daughter. When Chel’s not making art or pondering the Bliss Habits, she’s blogging at gingerblue.com (come say hi!) or posting new things in the gingerblue etsy shop.