Dear Carolyn: I hate Christmas. I mean really, really hate it. I hate the expectations that are put on me: put on the family dinner because my mother’s health doesn’t allow her to do it anymore. Watching her and her husband drink too much. Figure out how much money to give the kids because they don’t want presents, they only want money. (Yes, my daughter told me to just give her the money I would have spent on presents so she can go on a cruise with her friends.)
I hate people asking me what I want and never ever listening. I know it’s the thought that counts, but really folks, I’ve been asking for the same thing for 15 years.
The pleas from charities every time I go someplace; I give plenty.
My sister, conveniently living six hours away, who won’t travel because her husband HAS to be home on Christmas, telling me how I should do it.
My husband loving to bake but even when he thinks he’s done a good job cleaning up, leaving a huge mess for me.
Being forced to participate in office baked goods for the bosses.
Gifts for a stepdaughter I never see and who doesn’t like me.
Going away is not an option. Going out to eat is not an option as “it’s not our tradition” and frankly, too expensive. Not doing it is not an option. How do I survive it without crying every day?
The Weeping Christmas Tree
There’s always a letter like yours when the holly terror is upon us, for the good reason you cite upfront. Expectations lurk behind every gap between desire and reality; they’re the engine of stress and disappointment.
You’ve apparently invested yourself heavily on the desire side of that pair, pushing aside everything you need, care about and believe to try to give others what they want.
Clearly it’s not working, and not just because you’re an advent calendar of tears. Your mother and her husband aren’t at peace, either, or they wouldn’t need to medicate themselves silly, and if your sister felt good she’d be at your side instead of up in your grill.
So this is really just a timeless stress-and-disappointment issue, with Christmas trimmings.
And that means the answer is to stop chasing desire and start embracing reality. Start by asking yourself: What is and isn’t possible to change?
And then: What is and isn’t worth changing?
Ultimately you have to answer these based on your own tolerances, but here are examples.
▪ You can’t change your mother’s expectations, but you can change whether and how you try to meet them. You can’t change what you can afford, but you can change how you spend what you have. Add these up and you’re still cooking Christmas dinner – but no one can stop you from streamlining the menu. Just expect the complaints, smile, and note that even traditions change.
▪ You can’t change your sister’s urge to interfere, but you can calmly state that if she feels strongly about how things are done, then she’s welcome to host Christmas herself. Or dodge all provocation by putting these on a loop: “Interesting.” “Thanks for the suggestion.” You can deny her traction in your psyche.
▪ You can’t prevent holiday chariteering, but you can choose to carry a stack of $1 bills wherever you go, and, for very little money, channel a morning-after Scrooge.
▪ You can’t change what people give you, but you can change what you hope for. You can know people won’t listen, and plan to exchange any gift you can for something you’d rather have.
▪ You can’t make your husband not bake or understand what “clean” means, but you can ask him to bake for your bosses, right? In exchange for doing the whole cleanup for him? More work, yes, but at least you'll know it’s going to be bad instead of letting yourself hope it won’t be.
▪ You can’t make your stepdaughter like you, but you can assign buying her gift to your husband.
▪ And you can be grateful your daughter values experiences and friends above material things, no? And be relieved at the abbreviated shopping list?
Our culture sees quitting as a failure, when in fact it’s an art form – it’s what stands between us and futility and recurring arguments. Please pour yourself something toasty and write your To-Quit List, topped by “Quit seeing others’ expectations as your responsibility.”
Email Carolyn at email@example.com.