Hitting My Holiday Stride

At 41, it finally feels like the time to get my holiday related sh*t together. As the baby of the family, I’ve never gotten to host a holiday, never been the trendsetter of holiday traditions and never had the opportunity to even find my own holiday path (without a staggering amount of familial guilt).  In fairness, even if I wanted to create new, healthier family traditions, I learned everything I know about the holidays from two separate yet equally dysfunctional sources: my own family and The Days of Our Lives.

The first time I went to visit my husband’s family for Christmas, he stared at me incredulously when I asked what the schedule for the holiday was. “What do you mean schedule?”, he said bemused (with a barely contained eye roll I might add). There was no tightly set schedule, no militaristic changing between activities and I honestly didn’t know what to do with myself.

I sat uncomfortably waiting for the next activity on the roster, to be told what I was supposed to be doing, but nothing came. His family members wandered from room to room chatting, striking up the odd board game while half watching whatever show was on the tv and just generally happily engaging in unstructured relaxing. It was wholly unnerving.

Growing up my mother was the de facto annual host of all things holiday. Her self-imposed yuletide perfectionism stemmed from having a heart of gold and the ardent desire to make the holidays ideal for everyone else. After my mother simmered her sweat and tears into the abundant spread to feed the familial army, my aunt would saunter in toting her extended family with a crusty store bought platter of crudité in hand and occasionally her own liquor. The disproportionate level of investment of time, money and sweat equity always left my mom at a distinct disadvantage and kept tensions uncomfortably high.

Barely surviving the food carnage that is Thanksgiving, my mother would turn her sights on transforming the house into a winter wonderland version that would make Martha Stewart ashamed of how little effort she put in.  Each year, a color theme for the decorations would be carefully crafted, a flurry of purchases made (much to my father’s chagrin), and my mother would set out on achieving decorative perfection.

As Christmas Eve approached, she would remind us all, at least 10 times each, of the schedule on which the success of “the best Christmas ever“ depended. Family will arrive at 5, hors d’oeuvres at 6:15, dinner 7:30, presents 8:30, dessert 9:00, with the first wave of seat savers needing to leave the house by no later than 10PM to secure seats for midnight mass … and just when you thought the schedule was finished, it would pick up in the morning for another full day of Christmas festivities.

Christmas always felt like a harried sprint to the finish. Could we finish this year before a fight broke out? Which relative would be the first to have too much to drink? (I think we all know who the big money was on.) Who was going to draw the short straw and get stuck sitting in a vacant church holding two rows worth of seats? And, for all that’s good and holy, how much longer till this is over? Despite my mother working hella hard (admittedly on a self-imposed fool’s errand), the holidays were always miserable and were directly correlated with an increase of dread and anxiety meds.

Throughout the years, I tried feebly to strike out on my own and to create traditions that felt homey and comforting. One year in college while visiting my boyfriend’s parents, my car’s alternator left me stranded on Christmas Eve several hours away from home. I secretly hoped to celebrate the holiday like the ones I had seen on tv, filled with love, crackling fires and hands wrapped around warm mugs. I had painstakingly painted a dozen or so ornaments to give to my boyfriend’s mother, each emblazoned with the names of every member of their family, and I envisioned the moment she would open my artfully wrapped package with the whole family watching.

Clearly his mother did not understand the significance of the Horton family tradition (I had directly pilfered from my favorite soap opera family) as she looked down at the half opened package puzzled and signed, “Why is this?” In her defense, my fumbling sign language skills may have led to some error in translation, but nevertheless the nonplussed reaction did not give me the happy montage of hanging ornaments while singing “Oh Holy Night!” I had been hoping for either. (Note to self: a. not everyone watches Days Of Our Lives and b. do not expect a sweeping soundtrack for your happy montage in an all deaf household.)

After getting married and having kids of my own, I had grand visions of starting the tradition of the advent calendar. With 9 years separating my two kids, I wanted to include something to appeal to both of their interests. The first year, I researched special holiday themed things to do and spent an hour cutting out little messages for the kids to find behind each door. “Read the Christmas Story together with hot chocolate” “Go to the Holidazzle Parade” “Take a ride to find the tackiest lights” We crammed activities into each of the days leading into Christmas and exhausted ourselves with effort.

Once we moved halfway across the country, I realized we would only make it through a fraction of the little doors before we headed back to Virginia for an extended holiday break, and it just took the wind out of my sails. The first year in, I made a feeble crapped together effort just for show but by year two, I’d just ask the kids to look away while I shoved a piece of hastily grabbed candy into that day’s little cubbie. The advent calendar tradition really reached its lowest and most shameful point the year I was blogging (but really, doesn’t everything?).

Like a good home blogger, I carefully crafted, photographed, and posted a DIY advent calendar complete with little bags meant to be lovingly filled with advent treats and activities.  And, while it won accolades from magazines and made the rounds on the interwebs, it hung there guiltily hiding the fact the bags were stuffed with rocks (which photograph so much better) and not treats (which makes your children love you so much more). (#MotherOfTheYear #StillAshamed)

I’ve started to wonder over the last several years what traditions my kids are going to remember and if any of them will be fondly. With my son graduating from high school this year, I am feeling a crushing weight of responsibility to not screw up his last holiday season at home. (Luckily for my daughter, I have at least 10 years to up my game before counting her childhood as a complete loss.) And, like anyone who overthinks things to the extent I do, I sat my kids down to ask about their favorite holiday traditions, what they wish we did better, and what they’d like to see more of in the future. And, frankly, their answers surprised me.

They talked about the year we made our own paper hats, wore our pajamas, and suddenly decided to do a “party parade” around my in-laws’ living room on New Year’s Eve. And, that time when we saw a blow up penguin on someone’s yard and we fully convinced my son that something called “Pappy the Penguin” delivers treats to kids who really believe in him. (Kudos to my husband for his on the fly ability to come up with completely outlandish, but fully believable fibs.) And, on that first car trip back to Virginia, how we celebrated each hour of the very long journey with a Blow Pop. (Sure, that makes 18 Blow Pops for those who are counting, but luckily it didn’t do any permanent damage.)

The funny thing was their favorite traditions weren’t traditions at all. After all the planning, all the work, and the heaping quantities of mother’s guilt, their favorite holiday traditions were actually all spontaneous moments and that left me feeling uncertain. How could I give them more spontaneous moments? What do I do to plan for spontaneous moments? How do we work spontaneous moments into the holiday schedule? (All of my anxiety prone OCD friends out there can hopefully relate.)

I finally realized all I can do is get out of my own way and leave more room for them. Planning a million activities, having a rigid schedule, holding on to traditions that don’t fuel us, none of that is creating the moments that I want my children to remember. Letting go, making the best of the new and shifting and (surprise!) those moments of unstructured relaxing make way for all that is ultimately important.

This year, I’m going to stop trying so. damn. hard. to create new and lasting traditions on this constant quest to prove myself.  In full disclosure, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to bring out the advent calendar (because frankly I am in need of a little personal redemption on that one). While I fully recognize my children’s childhood is not actually dependent on having the perfect treats and activities in a magazine worthy advent calendar, letting the tradition die because of a blog still feels like a failure. But, beyond that one act of redemption, I’m willing to let go. I’m ready to let in a lot more whimsy and spontaneity and to finally find my holiday rhythm (which apparently you can’t plan for) in the unexpected.


Grace Ray is a former child forensic interview specialist, reformed home decor blogger, writer and editor (who has a difficult time being serious whenever there is a camera around). She is proud to be the co/founder of Do It Well, Co.