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Fretful Fiasco

During my childhood, Christmas was, without question, my favorite holiday. The myth, the magic, the mirth: everything about it was wonderful. I was raised Catholic, but by the time my sisters and I entered adolescence, my family’s church attendance had waned. My father was the only one of us who kept going. And though we were taught in church that Christmas was the celebration of a magical birth – that of Jesus to a miraculously chaste Mary – when it came right down to it, we didn’t care about all that. To us, Christmas was about presents. Despite our parents’ and priest’s best efforts to drill all that Christ the King stuff into us, the person who really mattered to us kids was Santa.

My mother was born to play Santa. She would begin building suspense at the beginning of November, and didn’t ease up on the throttle until all four of her daughters were whipped into frenzied excitement come Christmas Eve. We were encouraged to make a list of coveted items, and to behave in a way that would make us deserving of them.

Each year, Mom put the family further into debt by procuring for her children not only everything that was on each of our lists, but also countless surprise presents — things only the all-knowing Santa could have imagined we’d love. Even in junior high, long after we’d stopped “believing,” a select number of gifts would appear on Christmas morning, their tags reading, “From Santa.”

On Christmas day, we unwrapped our gifts, drank cider and cocoa, sucked on candy canes until they were sharp enough to playfully poke each other, lit logs in the fireplace (even if it wasn’t cold out), and watched movies or played games until it was time for Christmas dinner – Mom’s chicken-parmesan and lasagna.

As a teen, things became more complicated. Suddenly, Christmas wasn’t just about my family, but also my friends. I itched to be excused from the dinner table so I could talk on the phone or, as I got older, meet up with my friends in person. I would rather to be off exploring the world, and making sure I didn’t miss out on anything that promised to be remotely fun.

After I left the house and got my first real job, Christmas morphed from Magical Moment into Fretful Fiasco. Rather than making a list of things I wanted from Santa, I made a list of what to get for whom and how much to spend on each. My grownup list grew longer and longer as the oppressive sense of obligation forced my hand to add the names of people I didn’t really like or hardly even knew. For years I heard news stories of the rise in depression and suicide around the holidays. Now I understood — Christmas had come to mean stress.

When my sisters started having kids, those small, impressionable and easily awed minds rejuvenated my mother’s insistence that everyone be together to lavish gifts upon the children. Her fairy tales returned from their sabbatical and were now back in heavy rotation to the delight of the little ones.

As the babies grew into toddlers, my sisters wanted to become Santa and have him deliver at each of their homes, not just at Nana’s house. And there were my sisters’ husbands’ families – in-laws who also wanted to lavish gifts upon their grandchildren. Christmas celebrations were suddenly nomadic – Christmas Eve at Heather’s, Christmas morning portioned among the families, and then Christmas day and night shared among all with guest appearances at Mom’s house and wherever else my sisters felt obligated to be.

I began to feel like I was watching the chaos from afar, even though I was often sitting right there, in the center of the room. The gatherings were bigger, the people were louder, the lights were glaringly bright. It was a carousel of anxiety, and Santa flashed a bone-white smile that appeared more and more menacing with every turn. Then, one day, I decided to get off the ride.

Fortunately, my family lives locally, so it’s not like Christmas is that rare, once a year opportunity to see them. It took me three years to convince my family to accept my decision to forego all Christmas-related festivities. Instead, on the 25th, I spend a quiet day with David. A bottle of champagne (or two!), cooking together, movies, maybe some Scrabble – a wonderful gift that I, and my understanding family, gives to me: some blissful downtime with my man while the rest of the world is distracted for a day.

A surprising thing happened this year, when the last grain of guilt I felt about dodging Christmas had dissolved: the magic of the season was returned to me. Fully liberated from all of the aspects that stressed me out, I was able to appreciate all of the wonderment the season still contained for me. I drive up and down suburban streets to gaze upon beautiful, sparkly light displays; I sing along to the holiday playlist David made; and, while most people I know are busy shopping or traveling, I take time during the holiday season to do the one thing I never seem to have time to do throughout the rest of the year: relax.

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