Look, like many people I know, I spent years hating Christmas. For all the usual reasons. Being broke and feeling pressured to buy stuff. Juggling visits between all the different households. Caving to social pressure to partake in holiday traditions I find meaningless. Biting my tongue to keep from explaining why I find them meaningless. Struggling to add “prepare for Christmas” to a life already full of multiple jobs and children. Watching plastic crap flood American households. Smiling over gifts I didn’t ask for and don’t want. Giving gifts for the sake of show rather than delight. The consumerism! The waste! The strained familial relationships! The Christmas season typically triggered dread, stress and resentment.
And then I kinda figured it out.
1. Gifts, giving: First, opting out of gift-giving is an imperfect solution, because you’re cheating yourself, too. Now, make a list of all the people you’re “supposed” to buy presents. Cross off anyone you’d have to ship something to unless you really, really love them. Cross off anyone you don’t really, really love. Cross off the people who are impossible to shop for even if you really, really love them. (They’ve brought it on themselves.) If necessary, tell these people, “I hope you have a wonderful Christmas. Quick heads up that we’re not doing gifts this year. Looking forward to seeing you in the New Year!” Etc. Be cheery. Don’t explain. The reason for doing this is twofold: they’ll know not to expect anything and also they’ll be off the hook when it comes to buying a gift for you. If they buy you something anyway, accept it with a “thank you” and no guilt.
Now, go find the people who remain presents that will delight them. Giving gifts is so much fun when you’re excited because you’re giving something great to someone you love who will appreciate it. If you can’t or don’t want to buy stuff, be creative in all those ways that seem corny, but can really make for a good time: Write a lovely letter, invite someone to go on a Christmas hike, put together a collection of recipes, figure out what you’re good at and make that your gift. Maybe you’re great at playing music. Go on a holiday mini-tour with some cookies and your guitar. Whatever. To emphasize: Bringing joy into other people’s lives is way fucking fun.
2. Gifts, receiving: If someone gives you a gift you like, say, “Thank you!” If someone gives you a gift you don’t like, unless it’s really offensive, which I’ll get to in a moment, say, “Thank you!” You can always donate or regift it later. Mostly, just say, “Thank you!” If you like the gift, you’re sincere in your appreciation for the item. If you don’t like it, try to channel appreciation for the attempt, for that person’s own struggles in life, whatever it takes to let a little grace into your heart.
If the person or the gift offends you terribly (one year I opened a package to discover Dr. Laura’s book about stupid things women do), quickly ask yourself, “Is instigating conflict worth it?” The answer in these situations is most always, “No.” Commiserate with your friends instead — “Can you believe that shit?” — preferably post-holiday over many of the drinks of your choice. If the person involved is related to you or your spouse, but isn’t so awful that you’ve already cut ties — more on this under “Family,” below — you don’t get to do it now. Sorry. Life sometimes involves moments less than pleasant. Accept this, do your best to minimize them, move on.
Now, maybe you have well-intentioned people who want to give gifts, but just aren’t very good at giving you the right ones. Maybe you think to yourself, “If they really cared about me, they’d know better than to give me this ugly shirt/horrible cologne/gift card to Applebee’s/etc.” Well, perhaps you ought to consider the possibility you’re indulging in a judgmental, self-centered, smug reaction to someone’s sincere efforts. Instead of whining about their selections to your long-suffering spouse, plan ahead. Tell them (or have your partner, sibling, whomever) tell them what you’d need or like. A cocktail shaker. A contribution to your travel fund. A month of car insurance. This exact sweater available at this store in this size and this color. When you get it, say, “Thank you!”
3. Decorating. Do it if you want, don’t if you don’t. If your life partner wants you to, do it. Because part of being in a successful relationship means understanding you don’t always get your way. And that’s okay.
4. Social obligations. Social capital is a good thing, especially if you’re not tight with your family. Do attend what you can. Be gracious. Use this opportunity to practice being your best self, whatever that means to you. If you can’t be gracious, sign up to volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, because clearly you need a perspective shift.
5. Family. Here are the situations in which you can refuse to spend time with family: They live far away; Someone has done something heinous to you; They have a history of imposing their political, religious or cultural beliefs on you in a way that is so deeply offensive, the circumstances transcend “agreeing to disagree”; They’re awful to your spouse or children; They’re much richer than you and have no tact about that fact. Otherwise, learn to talk about noncontroversial matters, focus on the fact that these are people who, silly as they might be, care about and are connected to you — that may not seem like a blessing now, but someday, it might be.
If none of the above helps, let me leave you with this: Lighten the fuck up. If nothing else, Christmas and New Year’s provide an excuse for nearly two weeks of increased partying, decreased work expectations and other people feeling more generous to your narrow-hearted, cynical, wounded self.