Earlier this month, a meme made the rounds which I remember seeing for the first time last year:
I am the person on the right.
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I spent many years frankly telling my friends, "I hate Christmas." I didn't mention this sentiment much to my immediate or extended family (most of whom are represented by the person on the left in the aforementioned meme). Nevertheless, I was open about it to just about everyone else.
The whole shebang represented Season of Pressure to me. If something reminded me of Christmas in, say, May, I would feel a pit in my stomach followed by a quick calculation and then the cold sensation of relief that many months yet remained. If I thought about it in mid-October, the same would be followed by a sense of looming dread.
I never quite understood the reasons, although I had my theories. Part of it may be the introvert-raised-by-extroverts thing. Childhood Christmases were exhausting: up before light to exclaim over presents at my mother's house, then on to my grandmother's house for a few hours, then to my other grandmother's house, or possibly an aunt. Somewhere, the handoff, from my mother's family to my father's family, as was no doubt cordially agreed-upon outside my hearing. Perhaps a stop to see a friend of my father and stepmother. Finally, an hour's drive farther, and opening more presents long after dark. Collapsing into bed on the foldout couch, tired and a little sick from too many cookies.
Christmas presents worried me even as a child. Would I be convincing enough when I opened the paper and smiled and said Thank You? I never felt that I could manage to be enthusiastic enough. It may have been all in my head, but to me it always seemed that I disappointed people -- I didn't rip the paper off fast enough, I didn't squeal loudly enough. "You're no fun," I would hear. "Why don't you get excited?" I am excited -- and tired, is what I would like to go back in time to say. That wasn't really okay though.
And then there was the terrible situation (again, probably created in my own head) where I felt traitorous to be too excited about my father's gifts in front of my mother, or about my mother's gifts in front of my father. I'm not sure that either of them ever were anything other than neutral about presents in front of me. But somewhere deep down I was certain that to be too enthusiastic about one's gifts in front of the other would be met with hurt feelings (in one case) or mockery (in the other).
Don't even get me started on the year of the Cabbage Patch Doll shortage.
Growing up did not make me any less worried about Christmas presents. I never knew what to get people. Money wasn't a problem for us, except that the knowledge of it seemed to make its own problem.
I didn't want Christmas to be all about gift-giving, and I didn't want my kids to be centered around presents; but I couldn't very well tell people who meant well and wanted to be generous and had few opportunities to do so, not to spend money on my children.
I worried that if I spent too much money on other people, I would be encouraging the gift-giving to spiral out of control, and buying into a materialistic interpretation of the season, and possibly that people would think I was showing off.
I worried that if I spent too little money people would think I was stingy.
I worried that if I bought something that a cousin or aunt disliked, that they would think I didn't care enough about them to find out what they wanted.
I worried that if I gave people a list of things I would be happy to receive, that they would think I was being demanding. I didn't want to ask for a list from other people because then they would want a list from me.
I fretted and fretted even about the totally low-pressure $25 random buy-a-gift-for-a-person-of-your-gender, pick-a-number-from-a-hat exchange that my husband's family does every year. Nobody ever seemed happy with the thing that I would buy (even though it was the kind of thing I would have liked). I dreaded every year when mine would be the last gift picked.
The only people I enjoyed buying gifts for were children. Still are.
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I never hated Christian Christmas: Advent and St. Nicholas and midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and Epiphany. When that all came into my life the first year I lived away from home, it was like a brisk wind swirling snowflakes into a stuffy, hot room. It gave me a brief hope that Christmas could be different. Maybe I could adopt a new identity as A Person Who Takes The Christmas Season Seriously. (After all, I was clearly no good at having fun with it.) I found real peace before the manger. Because of that, I tried to form my nuclear family into a Family Who Only Does Small Meaningful Gifts.
Well, that would perhaps work if I stayed in Minnesota for Christmas (which I managed to do a few times by having two winter babies and one bout of stomach flu). But because we are not an island unto ourselves, of course, it didn't work. I tried saying "Let's not do presents; I'm just going to give money to such-and-such a scholarship fund, and you do the same for me." Relatives would agree, and so I would do that and not buy a present, then they would go and donate to the scholarship fund AND buy me a present. "I just wanted you to have something to unwrap." Sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach.
All this anxiety touched everything about Christmas. I had become, from an early age, a bona fide Grinch. The whole thing: cards, decorations, cookie-making. I just -- I just hated it. I procrastinated on EVERYTHING. It all made me feel depressed and -- like I had many other things that I was required to do, on top of all the many things there are to do every day anyway. I imagined that the rest of the world could somehow do all of it at once: perhaps I lacked the enzyme that is crucial to extract energy and motivation from the scent of gingerbread and from peppermint-flavored lattes. I would be paralyzed almost every year.
I might, in mid-November, have a surge of hope and buy a box of Christmas cards and a couple of envelopes of stamps. They would sit unopened on my counter all through December, because I kept thinking that I could not send one of them unless I sent all of them, because it would somehow be unfair. As if a friend from high school and a great-aunt were going to compare notes and say, "What?! She sent you one and she didn't send me one?" Apparently I would rather be the kind of person who just doesn't send cards, than navigate the minefield of prioritizing whom to send them to.
It's the thought that counts, right?
Well -- deep down, I just never have been able to believe that any of my thoughts count.
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It was really only this year that I sat down and really considered what was going on with all this Christmas-related anxiety. I tried to imagine what a good Christmas would be like.
It's easy to point to my favorite Christmas. Back in 2009, we stayed in Minneapolis because I was eight months pregnant with my fourth child. We went to our friends' house on Christmas Eve and shared cookies and played games all evening by the lights of the Christmas tree. "If we leave here soon, we can make it to Midnight Mass and not have to go in the morning," Mark pointed out. That sounded great, and so we gathered up our tired children and went to our own parish for the first time ever. The children fell asleep in our laps at Mass to the sound of Christmas carols. We took them home just as the snow was beginning to fall, and put them to bed. Next morning it was still snowing, and it snowed all day (21 inches!) The children slept in a good long while while we drank our coffee together. We had cinnamon rolls for breakfast and chili from the crockpot later, and Mark and the children built an igloo in the back yard.
Even though that was a beautiful Christmas, it turned out, I missed seeing friends I usually see at Christmas. I missed Christmas lunch at my grandma's house. I missed my extended family, actually, but didn't miss the presents.
So just this year I figured out:
I don't hate Christmas. I actually love many, many things about it. It's just the Christmas presents. I can't deal with them, and I have so many anxieties wrapped up in them that I have trouble relaxing and enjoying all the other things. Without presents there would be food, and friends, and catching up with family members I don't see often, and cookies, and music, and singing, and the Holy Child in the manger, and joy. All things I really and truly love, and wish I could just enjoy.
I just... get really, completely irrationally, stressed out about Christmas presents. Giving them AND getting them. It's nobody's fault, I think. I'm just weird that way.
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There are probably people who can't really relax and enjoy the holidays because, even though many wonderful things happen, they know they will have to deal with being around alcohol, and they can't really handle it, and it's stressful.
There are definitely people who dread the holidays because of fear that they will lose control of themselves around all the copious cookies and mashed potatoes and pie and candy. Or maybe that they will have an allergic reaction because Aunt Betty forgot to tell them she put pecans in the snickerdoodles.
Me? I, apparently, have a gifting disorder.
If I frame it that way, at least to myself, I think I can start groping back to a place where I can admit to myself that Christmas isn't so bad, overall.
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Over the years I have developed a few coping mechanisms.
One of them is to accept that my husband will make the Christmas shopping decisions for most people (something that often happened anyway as I covered my ears and went FALALA I CAN'T HEAR YOU every time he broached the subject.)
For the handful of people whose presents I still had to buy myself: I got over the notion that a gift had to be carefully picked out to express the nuances of my relationship with each person, and have defaulted to: JUST BUY PEOPLE LIQUOR AND/OR CHOCOLATE. This rule has served me pretty well as almost everyone seems to be happy with one or the other, if not both.
(In the case of the girl-gift-exchange, I finally just started buying chocolate liquor. I might not go for it myself, but it's clearly an acceptable random gift between females of the species. And if we wind up with a bottle of it at the end, Mark will blend it into chocolate malts.)
I also helped ease the oscillating-on-the-spectrum between "I'm stingy" and "I'm a showoff" by going for small quantities of luxury items, like chocolates that are SO FANCY that you only get nine of them in a box. Let people wonder which end of the spectrum I am!
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Ultimately, the stress comes from being self-focused instead of other-focused at a time when looking outward is especially important. For reasons unknown, I have fixated on what people will think of me. I'm hyperfocused on gift-giving as a performance, or as a statement. This has made it nearly impossible for me to give gifts, authentically, as an expression of love for another person. It's not that I want it to be like that; it's a cycle I'm trying hard to break out of. It starts with thinking less about myself and how I will be perceived, and more simply about the reason that the gift-giving tradition arose in the first place