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The annual movie White Christmas reflects an expectation many of us hold, namely, a holiday should be perfect. For example, Christmas has to be white. I remember crying when I was a child, worrying that Santa Claus wouldn’t be able to use his sleigh on brown mud. After all, the Santas in the TV specials ALWAYS had snow. Did our weather eventually snow? No. Did Christmas happen, anyway? Yup.
The problem with having expectations of perfection is that—as children or adults—we stress over details, often putting ourselves in such a funk that it’s impossible for us to enjoy ourselves. Consider the stereotype of the bride who goes into a screaming fit because her wedding isn’t perfect (Neither was mine; laugh and get over it), or the host who worries so much than he can’t enjoy his own New Year’s party.
Women tend to shoulder the burden for making holidays meet expectations. We’re often the ones who bake and clean and decorate and wrap. We may write greeting cards, prepare guest spaces, or arrange travel. So, we feel like we’ve let down the team when preparations go awry. But women aren’t the only ones stressed. Lots of men stare into store windows or laptop screens, straining to guess which gift is going to be “perfect.” We all want to demonstrate love in the best possible way.
So what happens when our gifts are re-gifted or become jokes in subsequent emails? What happens when the turkey or roast beast is overdone and weird Aunt Harriet gets into a big argument with Cousin It between the appetizer and the mashed potatoes? How do we cope when family decides to go elsewhere and we’re not invited?
Where did we get the idea that a holiday is a show stuffed with obligations? Why should it be? Hollywood isn’t in charge of what makes us happy. It took me years to realize that I planned my wedding to suit my concept of what a wedding was supposed to be, instead of planning an occasion for me and my beloved. Who the heck cares if some other family would present the celebration in some other way?
To sort out the nonsense from the golden essence, we have to spend a little time deciding what’s really important to us. How many decorations do you really need to make your room feel festive? Would the family appetite be filled just as well with a dinner you could make ahead or present as a buffet? Aren’t little presents just as much fun to open as spectacular extravagances? (If not, what’s wrong and what are we teaching our children?) One year when our family finances were especially skinny, we exchanged token gifts with personally tailored notes, “If I had the money, this envelope would include all-expense-paid tickets to Paris and the fees for you to be a culinary student at the Sorbonne.” The recipient understood and was touched. The love arrived. The tickets didn’t.
In the original TV version of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Boris Karloff’s voice helps the viewer discover that Christmas comes even if there are no trappings at all as long as the people celebrating come together with love. When you start feeling stressed and unhappy, maybe it’s time to scrape away the excesses and get down to the reason you’re celebrating in the first place. Downsize your expectations and seek out what will make you and your guests laugh. Like toddlers who know enough to enjoy the fabulous wrappings with or without the gift, you may discover the best celebration your family has ever had underneath all the shine.