Holidays as a time of joy, or stress?

Advent is a season rife with expectation, whether you expect presents under a tree, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, or if you simply expect waves of emotions, joy, anger, sadness, stress.  It’s not an easy time.

Time was when I would have shrugged off the season’s less happy emotions. I think that was before I had kids, in an interfaith family at that. As a child, I always loved Christmas. It was my mother’s favorite holiday, and a joyous time at our house.  We decorated the house, literally moving furniture in order to make way for the decorations of the season. We celebrated in a secular-religious style, attending an Episcopalian church on Advent Sundays. I remember lighting the candles in the church some years, giving a reading, or playing “March of the Kings” on my French horn, to not a dry eye in the sanctuary.  AAdvent Calendart home we baked batches and batches of at least six different kinds of cookies, and as Christmas neared, we bundled them up on festive plates adorned with ribbons and distributed them to friends, neighbors, teachers, and co-workers. At home, we moved the furniture out of the way in order to find the best place for the Christmas tree. Stockings hung from the hearth, and nutcrackers and French-horn shaped candlesticks sat on the fireplace mantle. We removed pictures from the walls, and replaced them with woven cloth wreaths in festive colors. When we moved to a home with a staircase, a fresh garland circled its way up the railing. Everywhere we looked, it was Christmas, and it felt joyful.

When I was in my early thirties, a sermon at my Unitarian Universalist church addressed the holiday blues, and attempted to help those who might feel blue, confused, sad, angry, or anxious at this time of year that’s supposed to be full of joy. I remember thinking that my holiday season must usually be a remarkably joyful one indeed. My Jewish husband had learned to accept a tree in the house, and I had learned to love lighting the menorah and hanging blue lights around the bookshelves and doorways, his own family’s way of adding festivity to the darkened days of December.

But when we had our first child, it seemed that this upped the ante of the holidays considerably. Suddenly, the traditions my husband and I had nourished for the few years of our marriage — holiday cookies cut in the shapes of not just Santas and Christmas trees, but now with menorahs and Stars of David as well, blue and white icing  joining the red and green—seemed ever more precarious and difficult, as I started to try to make the holidays more and more special for my daughter. Last year, when she was four and her sister only an infant, I remember the stress getting to me. That year, there might have been more stress than joy in the holiday season, and I didn’t cope well. I missed the joy, and I didn’t like the anxious person I’d become.

One snowy afternoon encapsulated this stress. I was at the mall, shopping, a baby in the stroller. Our older daughter’s school day was ending, and it was getting close to pickup time. But I wanted to duck into just one more store, and maybe another, when a colorful gift item caught my eye. The baby needed a diaper change. I hurried to the restroom and changed her. It was past time to be leaving the mall and embarking on the ten-minute drive to my daughter’s school. As we left the mall, it was snowing, and I could see a line of shopping traffic stretching from one traffic light to the next. I imagined that everyone else was rushing off to after-school pick-up, too.

We raced through the slush to the car. I clicked the baby’s car seat into place, wiped the snow off, and started off, glancing anxiously at the clock. If I didn’t make it to the pre-school in the next twelve minutes, they would start charging me for being late. The traffic crept slowly forward.  I decided to take a different road, one with maybe less traffic. It would overshoot the school, but just maybe, I would make it. The minutes ticked on and I finally turned onto my alternate route. Nine minutes till pickup time. I stopped at a red light. I kept driving. Seven minutes till pickup time. I hadn’t reached my desired cross-street. Five minutes. There it was, or a street of the same name. I turned onto it, but it didn’t look right, and after a few minutes, I pulled over and called my husband. There was no way I’d make it in time. I called him, and started crying about how I was spending too much time at the mall, and I’d be late, and the school would charge us, and our daughter would worry where I was, and could he call the school and let them know I was on the way? Oh, and I was, as usual, lost, and it was snowing?  Ever patient, my husband urged me to calm down, that it would be ok. I wasn’t so sure. I was lost, after all, and it was snowing a wet slushy snow, and my daughter always asked where  I was if I wasn’t one of the first cars through the pick-up line.

Eventually I found the right road and made it to the school. I was over ten minutes late. Breathless, I hauled the baby’s car seat into the school. “Mommy! I’m with Mrs. P! We’re drawing!” she called out happily. I brushed back tears of relief and frustration at having made it there, while she danced around with delight, happy to have spent time with a favored teacher.

As we enter yet another holiday season, I find myself looking back on this moment with a mixture of awe and amusement. What I had thought was going to ruin my daughter’s day actually was a real treat: she could spend time with a teacher whose company she truly enjoys, doing an activity she loves. She hadn’t worried at all, and there I was, stressed, close to tears.

The moment teaches me that this season, I should, as the phrase goes, be gentler with myself. It takes very little to bring joy to the heart of a child, and what seems like a disaster is just another memory, another adventure. I don’t know if we’ll bake six batches of cookies. I expect we’ll bake several, and I’ll try not to worry as much as I did last year about what that means for my waistline, and accept instead the joy those cookies bring to other people, including my kids. We probably won’t replace our pictures with wreaths. I’m sure we’ll light the menorah, decorate a tree, and string blue lights here, multi-colored lights there. And I know I’ll be thinking of ways to keep the stress at bay, to have a happier Christmas season, even if that means forgiving myself, others, the world at large, when it isn’t quite what I’d hope it will be, for my family, for myself, for the world with all its brokenness.

What are you doing this Christmas to handle the stress of the season?

I'd love to hear your thoughts!