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I sat down a few weeks ago, planning to write a story about thankfulness, to be posted in time for Thanksgiving. I was looking forward to writing it because thankfulness (being more thankful) is something I’ve been working on lately. I thought I’d mention the gratitude journal I’ve been keeping and how I’m nudging myself to look for the “up” side of every situation. (To be honest, I can’t always find an “up” side, but I keep trying!) I wanted to write about how thankfulness has made me a happier person. I thought a thankfulness story would fly onto the keyboard.
Instead, I found my mind straying to the next story I wanted to write—the one that would talk about how I was dreading Christmas because of all the stress that precedes it, and how I recognize that there is something very wrong with this. I wanted to write about how the sound of Christmas carols—which should make me feel all warm and gooey and peaceful—instead creates a current of tension that begins at the base of my spine and travels all the way to my clenched teeth.
I get peculiar stray thoughts sometimes and as I was thinking about holiday stress, one of these odd thoughts popped into my head. I recalled a scene from a movie I once saw. A very stylish woman (played by Marilu Henner, I think) was giving advice to a less stylish woman. She loosely quoted Coco Chanel, saying that when you’re getting ready to go out, after getting dressed you should look in the mirror and take off one accessory: a scarf, a bracelet, a belt, etc. That way you can be sure you’ll never be overdone.
As is always the case with these seemingly random thoughts, my subconscious was trying to tell me something. It occurred to me that maybe if I “took off one accessory,” i.e., discontinued one holiday task or tradition, it might make a huge difference to me. Perhaps I wouldn’t end up being “overdone” by stress and I’d enjoy the holiday season more.
I thought about what I traditionally do in the weeks leading up to the holidays: baking, decorating, buying and wrapping gifts, doing some seasonal volunteer work, sending Christmas cards . . . uh oh! There it was—the thing that triggered all that tension. I thought about the fact that I’ve never enjoyed sending Christmas cards; that I’ve only ever sent them out of a sense of obligation. And that the satisfaction I get from seeing a stack of messaged, signed, stamped, addressed cards ready to go into the mail is minuscule compared to the amount of angst the whole process causes me.
As I considered the idea of discontinuing the Christmas card tradition, I felt guilty—like I didn’t have the right to stop. Wouldn’t I feel awful when other people’s cards arrived in my mailbox? Wouldn’t they feel cheated if they sent my family a card but didn’t get one in return? Wouldn’t it make me look and feel like a slacker?
My daughters (my best therapists!) talked sense into me. “Mom,” they said, “Christmas cards are optional; you can stop sending them if you want to. Other people probably won’t notice or won’t care. Maybe other people would like to stop sending cards, too, and they’ll feel relieved not to get one from you.”
It was still a hard decision to make for a “people-pleaser” like me, but I suddenly envisioned my daughters in the future, dutifully writing out holiday cards because I’d taught them it was a social responsibility. I envisioned them hunched over a pile of card-writing supplies, anxious and unhappy, fretting over their handwriting—already dreading the next year’s batch of cards even as the current year’s cards went into the mailbox. In an instant, my decision was made simple. The traditions I want to pass to my daughters and their future families are traditions of joy, not traditions based on what any other family does, or buys, or bakes, or puts under the tree or in the mail. I want to pass to them the freedom to make new traditions whenever they want to—like having hot dogs for Christmas dinner or spending all their gift-giving money to send goats to a poor village somewhere—if that’s what will bring them joy.
I’ve told several people of my momentous decision and now I’ve put it in print, so it’s a “done deal.” Each time I tell someone, I feel a little lighter, a little happier and a little more free. Apparently, card writing was the straw each year that broke this camel’s back; without it, my December to-do list seems manageable—even enjoyable!
Maybe you actually like sending Christmas cards: good for you! But maybe there’s something else that sends you over the holiday stress precipice . . . like baking cookies for everyone you know, or competing with your neighbors for the best Christmas lights display ever, or running up credit card debt that still won’t be paid off when Christmas rolls around again next year.
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