When the Word “Holidays” Stresses You Out

You know what my idea of a holiday is?

A normal day.

Laundry, hanging with my kids, and, by 9:30 pm, watching a murder mystery with my husband while I eat raisin bran. Even better: doing all that in slippers.

Normal days are easy.

On a normal day, I have a routine. I know what’s expected of me, and what I expect of everyone else. I feel cozy in my home, I have a quantifiable to-do list, and no grandiose expectations or demands.

You know what doesn’t feel like a holiday?

Actual holidays.

I mean, don’t get me wrong—I like Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year. I enjoy them. I even look forward to them.

But they also make me uptight.

There’s decorating and schedules and budgets and presents and family expectations and my kids’ expectations and painful holiday-related memories and faith practices and trying to regulate our sugar intake in a sea of sucrose and the explosion of pumpkin-themed food.

And underneath it all, like an annoying Christmas ditty, is this refrain: Is it enough? Will my children remember it with fondness or existential dread? Is it MEANINGFUL?

In Isaiah, the prophet says, Comfort, comfort my people. How ironic that I need comfort about holidays themselves.

Except: you know what? The holidays have gotten better for me.

In fact, they’ve gotten more comfortable.

And it has to do with that word meaningful.

See, as I started adulthood, my holidays became my responsibility. This was a blessing (more molasses cookies!), but also increased pressure. I felt sure I had to make them meaningful by:

  • selecting presents thoughtfully.
  • being social but not busy.
  • giving generously.
  • engaging with my faith.
  • creating lovely traditions with loved ones.
  • avoiding stress about any of those very high expectations.

I thought meaning would come from my intention and effort. If I chose well and worked hard, the holidays would be rich, memorable, and worthwhile.

But if I screwed up—if I got too busy or too disorganized or too commercial or too uptight, my holidays would not be meaningful.

But that word—meaningful—is impossible to quantify.

What is a meaningful holiday? One that goes according to plan? Or is it something deeper?

I think by “meaningful” I wanted my holidays to be worthy. Hopeful. And (also ironically) comforting.

Yet in the very pursuit of meaningful holidays, I lost their meaning.

See, chasing after stuff at high speed isn’t comfortable or peaceful or meaningful. All that pressure to live up to those high expectations exhausted me. And as Brené Brown keeps telling me, worth is not something gained by hustling.

A few Christmases ago, I realized something.

I realized that creating holiday meaning is not my job.

(Neither is creating peace, worthiness, hope or comfort.)

No, my job in November and December is to pay attention.

Pay attention to what my heart yearns for. Pay attention to my boundaries. Pay attention to my blessings. Pay attention to my grief. Pay attention to my good and bad memories. Pay attention to my loved ones. Pay attention to the added chores and tasks holidays require. Pay attention to the taste of molasses cookies.

Pay attention to my life.

Not to make my life meaningful. Not even to change it. 

No: pay attention to where it is, period.

This is hard during the holidays.

Because the real problem with holidays is that they mirror our lives, our families, our values. They reflect back the kind of meaning we’re already living.

If we’re grieving, stressed, tired, broke, or angry, our holiday won’t have peaceful, restful, and sparkly meanings. They’ll look dark.

We’d prefer to engineer prettier, easier meanings instead of facing the messy ones we’re stuck with.

That’s why we work so hard.

But instead of covering over our messy lives with more intention and effort, we have to pay attention to messy reality.

Maybe the life reflected back isn’t what we want because we’ve experienced loss. Paying attention helps us grieve.

Maybe the life reflected back is lousy because we’ve gotten off course. Paying attention helps us ask for new direction.

Maybe the life reflected back is uncomfortable because we’re angry. Paying attention stirs us to seek justice.

If your Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year doesn’t look pretty, if it doesn’t have the meaning you hoped for, it’s not because you didn’t work hard enough. It’s because you need help.

Needing help is normal. Needing help is human.

Needing help is actually the real meaning of the holidays.

How else can we give thanks unless we have been blessed? How else can we honor the Prince of Peace unless He reigns over our chaos?

What better invitation into the abnormal, beyond-us comfort of the holidays than the messy reality we’re actually living?

The holidays used to stress me out because I felt sure my life wouldn’t meet their high expectations. But instead of viewing them as a measuring stick, a lofty goal, I see they’re inviting me deeper into my ordinary life–slippers, cereal, stress, and all. I see that to my surprise, they offer the help and comfort I yearn for.

Heather Caliri
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