Christmas Stress for the Holidays

Christmas Stress

Isn’t it strange that so many people find Christmas so stressful. Why would “the most wonderful time of the year” lead people to say they hate December and drive them to work themselves to misery?

I have a thought as to why. Try writing down a list of all the traditions that have been constant in your life from childhood to present which existed before you and which might outlast you.

How long is the list? Does it contain Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July (maybe)? Then you might be a mainstream American.

Many cultures have all manner of traditions which go back for generations. These traditions are touchstones. No matter how bad or unpredictable or scary things get, those traditions remind you that the world has gone on and the world will go on.

America is a land of shallow roots. We eschew tradition because we see it as stodgy and regressive. We think it holds us back.

In some ways this is correct. Traditional ideas of gender and race have certainly held us back. We are good to be rid of many terrible traditions.

But the baby has gone out with the bathwater.

We lack common cultural traditions, which means that our traditions do not stand the generations.

When things become uncertain, we have nothing to hold on to. No comfort in the storm.

When two practicing Jews marry, they both bring Jewish traditions. Like they and their parents and their grandparents, their children will have bar/bat mitzvas. They will light the Menorah together. Their wedding will be like that of their parents and grandparents as will their funerals.

All these traditions bring comfort. When things are uncomfortable and unstable, traditions show us that we endure.

In America we have this asinine concept of creating new traditions. This is mostly the invention of Madison Avenue who wanted to convince us to buy lots of new crap which would serve as “heirlooms”, but which will likely be discarded by the next generation as advertising teaches them to be out with the old and in with the new.

The magic is not in the activity!

Why is most of the Christmas music we listen to from the 1950s or before? Because it is comfortable and unchaning. We have listened to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and Frosty the Snowman all our lives.

They are comfortable.

I used to hate Christmas music. It was trite and silly. I would turn it off when it came on the radio and walk out of store if I heard it on the speakers.

Now I listen to Christmas music stations on Pandora. Life today is unpredictable, and we are hardwired to seek comfort in the familiar. Even Christmas songs that are objectively bad music bring comfort in their familiarity.

When you see a haggard parent around Christmas and ask them why they are stressing so much, they will say that it is because they owe their children a magical Christmas.


Let’s look at some of the things people stress to get done. Think about how many of them will make Christmas magical for your kids:

  • Get gifts for relatives, coworkers, distant relatives, former coworkers, neighbors, strangers, etc
  • Buy clothes (ugly sweaters, dresses, etc) for holiday festivities
  • Cook elaborate, expensive feasts
  • Fight through Black Friday sales to find deals

These things don’t make Christmas magical for your kids. And, if they stress you out and make you cranky, they are likely to teach your kids that Christmas is a time of stress and expectation.

Some people really do a great job making Christmas magical. They festoon their home with lights and decorations and smells and foods throughout the season so the kids feel they are living in a Christmas wonderland. They take the kids to special Christmas festivities.

Unfortunately, many parents are too busy doing the stuff on the first list to do the stuff on the second.

Over the past few weeks, I have had occasion to don a Santa suit and travel around town. I walked through a grocery store the other day in a Santa suit. Four out of five people didn’t even look up to notice Santa walk by.

If you are shopping for your Christmas dinner and you don’t notice Santa walking past you in the store, there is something wrong with your priorities.

So, if you’re not working yourself to death to make Christmas magic, what are you doing?

Saving the last tradition

Imagine that you had one lifeline, one touchstone to a simpler time. Perhaps you were a refugee. Before you had to flee, life was good, but then you fled into fear and uncertainty and the only thing you could bring with you was a teddy bear.

What would you do to hold onto that teddy bear? Anything. You’d do anything to maintain that link

I posit that for many Americans, Christmas is their last tradition. It is the last and only touchstone to a simpler time. Not a time when the world was simpler, but a time when their world was simpler.

Althougth their family may have had their own “new traditions”, those traditions did not survive the years. One by one, those “new traditions” with their shallow roots withered away.

But Christmas with the lights and the music and the shopping and the tree and the meal: that survives.

It is the one and only chance to reach back through the years and touch that simpler, better time.

Traditions require continuity. You can’t miss a year or else you might miss the next and the next, and then it will be like every other tradition you remember from your childhood that is now gone forever.

Christmas becomes a ritual, any missing piece of which could ruin Christmas forever. This one food must be on the table. That one plate must be used. This one ornament must be on the tree. As if it were a spell that requires all ingredients for the magic, and without any of which it will be ruined forever.

This is why so many people spend money they don’t have and exhaust themselves to make Christmas “magical.” If only they can buy the right gifts, make the right meal, send the right card, get the right tree, then maybe, just maybe they can touch the simple magic of Christmas from their youth one more time.

Just maybe.

This is why people across America are risking their lives and the lives of their families to gather for Christmas although it could literally kill those they love.

This is why people spend themselves into crippling debt on gifts that will be forgotten by January.

In chasing this imagined Christmas magic, we become too busy to see the real magic.

Finding the magic

In your heart, you know the answer to where the magic is, although your head may be too busy to hear it.

The magic of Christmas is not in the perfect gift. It’s not in fulfilling a thousand obligations.

The magic is in slowing down to find what really matters.

What really brings you joy at Christmas? Is it listening to the old songs that are older than you? Is it watching that movie that you can recite every line of? Is it the joy on a child’s face as they open a present? Is it walking through downtown and enjoying the lights and hustle and bustle?

Do those things! Focus on those things!

Everything else can go on the back burner. Who cares if you don’t get gifts for every teacher and every co-worker? Who cares if you don’t get every Black Friday deal (which usually are exactly the same as the after-Christmas deals)?

Stop chasing the magic of Christmas long enough to enjoy the magic of Christmas that is right in front of you.

Michael Whitehouse is a coach and motivational speaker. You can get a motivational message from Michael right in your email every morning free by signing up here.

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