December 2016

Keeping the Joy, Losing the Stress: A tale of Christmas past, present and future

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

I’m sorry to disappoint readers who depend on me for “feel good” stories and practical advice. So let me just put it right out there: I hate the holidays. I’m not sure exactly when this happened, but somehow, over a period of years, my attitude shifted from excitement and awe to anxiety and dread. Today, the mere thought of trying to make merry, while fretting over what to buy and how much to spend, figuring out which invitations to accept and whom to entertain, what to serve, what to wear and how to make everybody happy just fries me. By the way, I know I’m not alone; most people won’t say this out loud, but independent polls, unrecognized by major media outlets and/or department stores, indicate that the silent majority would just as soon hide under the covers for a month as endure the December holidays.

Since I have yet to find a means of escape, I got through the annual Thanksgiving dinner again this year, but not without threatening (more than once) to run away from home. Christmas is where I draw the line, and with a bit of healthy rebellion and gentle persuasion, the season to be jolly has finally evolved into a less stressful string of events. It has been a long, winding road of adjusting expectations, setting boundaries and deciding what matters. However you and your family celebrate your chosen holidays, I hope my story inspires you to lose some of the stress and find what brings you joy.

Christmas past
Times were lean growing up in East Point, Georgia. Our tiny brick home was within spitting distance of Hwy. 166, where traffic whirred and sirens blared. The smoky scent of creosote crept through the open window screens from the lumber yard just beyond the woods behind us, where tadpoles grew in murky creeks and stray cats put up heated fights for the pleasures of the night.

Our living room was empty save for a second-hand, upright, out-of-tune piano my grandmother scraped up the money to buy for me, and Daddy’s hi-fi (a fancy word for a record player). The “picture window” facing the road was bare, so we kept that room closed off at night so as not to be seen from the road in our pajamas.

But that all changed at Christmastime when we would wrestle a real pine tree through the front door, prop it up as best we could in a flimsy, three-legged metal stand from Woolworth, and hope for the best as we filled its branches and hid its gaps with shiny objects and tangled strands of lights. I delighted in the grand reveal from the front lawn (a fancy word for small strip of something resembling grass between the house and the asphalt.)
While there wasn’t much money for gifts, my grandmother, (the same one who bought my piano, who also walked to the bus stop and took the trolley to work each day), brought home scraps of leftover gift wrap supplies she salvaged from the trash at Rich’s department store in downtown Atlanta, where she was employed as a department supervisor. With these remnants, she had a knack for transforming everything from a box of Q-tips to a pair of socks into an extravagant package of mystery and wonder. (If I got three pairs of socks, they were in three separate packages, making a mountain of dazzling gifts, almost too pretty to open!) What was inside hardly mattered. It was the sheer abundance of mini-surprises dressed in colorful handmade bows that made Christmas seem magical to me.

When I moved away and created a life of my own, decorating the Christmas tree remained an important part of my annual tradition. My mom continued displaying hers, too, although it was finally flanked by a sofa, an end table, and a lamp, with a valance and some side panels from Sears on the window. I looked forward to my holiday visits home, seeing the familiar ornaments, while plunking out a few carols on the old piano. Meanwhile, my grandmother remarried and moved to Florida where she fished, watched soap operas, and bet on dog races, sending each of her grandchildren a card and a $25 check for Christmas.

When I was 30 years old, my mother passed away, so there was no longer any reason to return to East Point for the holidays—until one year when I went to Atlanta in December to visit an old high school friend. “You want to ride through East Point?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said, although a tad unsure.

We rode by my childhood home after dark, and someone else’s tree was there in the window. It was one of those artificial white ones with the revolving multicolored light below. That’s when I knew I could never go “home” for Christmas again.

Christmas present
Although I continued going through the motions for a number of years—planting pink and white Victorian style ornaments on my realistic-looking green artificial tree with pre-strung twinkly lights; baking cookies; sending out hundreds of greeting cards; and buying, wrapping and shipping gifts—one year I asked myself, “Why?” Having no children, I couldn’t come up with a logical reason to make such a fuss and get myself in a tizzy. So I gradually started cutting back.

First to go was the bulk Christmas card tradition. I could never bring myself to simply sign the cards or, God forbid, have the signature pre-printed. The idea of writing one of those cheesy, “let me tell you about my wonderful life” Christmas letters also fell short of my self-expectation. Consequently, I spent an inordinate number of hours writing personal messages inside each one. As my list grew, I realized that sending cards had become a dreaded chore instead of a source of joy, so I stopped. Instead, I sent out a few individually chosen cards and made a point of calling my closest friends. They seemed to appreciate the calls much more than the standard obligatory greeting cards, so the phone calls became my new tradition.

Next to go was the cooking. Less obsessed with leftovers, I opened up to the idea of going out for the big feast. While no restaurant could duplicate the cornbread dressing of my memories, my mother’s sweet potato casserole or my grandmother’s German chocolate cake, I decided I could accept that as a fair tradeoff for no stress, no mess. The guilt subsided quickly.

Three years ago, I took another step towards changing Christmas. Not being big turkey fans in the first place, my husband and I got enough on Thanksgiving to last the rest of the year and decided to have our Christmas Day meal at Nan Thai Fine Dining, an elegant Asian restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, where we agreed to meet up with the rest of the family the following week. The Thai food and the family gathering are now established as traditional “musts” of the season.

As New Year’s approaches, most everyone is ready for a change of scenery and taste, so we host an annual “in between” dinner in a private room at Bone’s, Atlanta’s premier steakhouse, known for melt-in-your-mouth beef, family-style side dishes, fine wine and exceptional service. This occasion includes my two stepdaughters and their husbands, their mother (i.e. my husband’s former wife) and her significant other, along with assorted stray members of our blended family who want to join in. The grandchildren (ages one and three) stay home with a babysitter and play with their toys, while the rest of us enjoy an adult night out. Everyone looks forward to dressing up and spending an evening as a family unit, and no one has to slave over a hot stove or face a sink full of dirty dishes. Save for the bill, it’s completely stress-free and perfect for now.

To top it off, I’ve stopped exchanging gifts with almost everyone, with the agreement that we will share an experience together (lunch, dinner, a show, a spa day, or a long walk) instead. And since nobody comes to our house for Christmas, I haven’t put up a tree in years—sweet freedom!

Christmas future
I have no doubt that my way of celebrating Christmas will continue to evolve. Traditions will change as families grow and children grow up, and I will roll with the changes. Maybe someday I’ll even put up a tree and cook a turkey. Or perhaps I’ll move further south, take up bingo and send everyone a check for Christmas. Whatever the future brings, my plan is to find a way to keep all the joy and lose the stress.

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