Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I like the holiday season. I really do.

The weather turns brutally cold, people forget how to drive, night falls at 4:30 in the afternoon, and people become generally more irritable and depressed.

What’s not to like?

Seriously, though. I really do enjoy the holiday season. I think most people do, despite our perennial complaints about last minute shopping madness, gridlock, erratic and miserable weather, nauseating holiday music, and creepy uncles.

It's okay, we’ve all got one.

Aside from providing an excuse to spend money we don't have, the holidays serve another, more vital purpose for those of us in colder climates. They help break up the dismal monotony of a lonely season spent primarily indoors.

Between the bitter arctic chill, short gray days, and long dark nights, winter is a naturally depressing time of year. But that stretch of holiday madness between the week of Thanksgiving and the week of New Years keeps us so preoccupied we barely have time to focus on these naturally occurring discomforts.

Nope – during the holiday season, most of our discomforts are entirely man-made.


WHY are we so wrapped up in ourselves this time of year? Why do people experience mall rage and family overload? Why do people dread the holidays, for lack of a more dreadful word.

This is supposed to be a time of peace and joy. A time to celebrate long-held traditions. A time to honor the birth of Hayes Zeus if you’re Christian, guerilla warfare if you’re Jewish, or the fruits of Capitalism if you’re uncommitted. At least according to Wikipedia.

Yet for so many of us the holidays represent a painfully difficult time of year. Why is that?

It’s really not so much a mystery when you consider the annual convergence of holiday-related stresses. Together, these fretful forces tangle and swell to become the perfect holiday storm…through which our tiny vessels must sail year after grueling year. This week I'd like to explore a few of the specialized stresses common to the holiday experience.

Do any of these sound familiar?

You’re about to enjoy a nice slice of Christmas ham when you suddenly remember the huge report that’s due the day after Christmas…and you haven’t even started yet!

Talk about stress.

How can I possibly focus on the flavor of that savory swine, paired with a curiously spiced holiday wine, if I'm suddenly consumed with all those career commitments on the back burner?

We’re a nation of hard working people. It’s hard to turn that off – or to give ourselves permission to, anyway. The holiday season presents a challenge because, for many of us, there’s always that lingering dread of work piling up, even as we pile up our plates with delicious, starchy sides. I had a hard time relaxing this year thinking about all the stuff I wasn’t getting done.

A lot of people have to work during the holidays, including medical professionals, law enforcement officials, retail sales staff – just to name a few. For these folks and plenty of others, the holidays aren’t really a break in the action so much as a frustrating distraction.

And there’s a lot of wheeling and dealing involved to secure enough time off to make all those holiday meals. Holiday scheduling can create a lot of conflict in the home and place a lot of stress on an entire family.

I am not what you would call a "people person." If I know you and like you, I don't mind standing behind you in line at the store. If I don't know you, you're in my way. And the mall becomes full of people in my way this time of year. People with strollers. People moving way too slow. People wandering aimlessly unsure of their next step. People texting people. People texting while walking slowly and aimlessly, with strollers and shopping bags. Holiday shopping is a contact sport that requires great patience, intestinal fortitude, and perseverance.

Most people spend the holidays with family. And every single person in your family has an expectation of how the holidays “should” be celebrated. Try changing things just a little bit and you could become the subject of vicious whispers.

In most cases, the general rule is: don’t rock the boat. In this way, the holidays represent the purest of social bureaucracies. “We do things the way we do them because we’ve ALWAYS done them that way!”

Never mind that there may be an easier, better way. Just come ready to defend yourself if you plan to change anything at all about the holidays, including but not restricted to the following.

• The rules to a traditional holiday game: “These rules are confusing! Why does my grab bag gift have to start with the letter P?”

• The order of events: “We can't eat now. We ALWAYS open presents first. I just had lunch an hour ago!”

• The style of meal service: “What is this - China House Buffet? It's so informal!"

• The start time: “Why are they having us so early this year? Do they want us to LEAVE earlier?”

• The menu: “Artichoke hearts and pork loin? Things must be really bad for them this year.”

• The day: “How can you have Christmas Dinner on Christmas Eve? It’s just not right!”

• Gifting: “I hate grab bags – why can’t we just buy for everybody like we always do?”

That’s the way tradition works. Change things up at your own risk…and expect to hear about it – usually through the grapevine, and 11 months later.

Another source of stress around the holidays is being in a house full of people you only see once or twice a year. The first half hour is usually marked by everyone sitting next to who they came with, quietly avoiding eye contact like strangers in the waiting room at the family planning clinic.

Sooner or later, and usually after a glass or two of cheap wine, we loosen up enough to make small talk. And it isn't long after that that the gossip machine fires up. We’ve all been on the receiving end of a muffled inquiry as someone surreptitiously leans in for the scoop.

“Wow, I didn’t know she had another baby. That means she would have been pregnant last year. Hmmmm. Does she know whose it is?”

“They’re married? No way. He's totally gay.”

“What’s the youngest one’s name again? I always get those kids mixed up.”

“Is that the same guy she brought last year? I think I saw him on a Dateline special.”

“What happened to grandma’s face?”

“Who’s THAT guy – I’ve never seen him before.”

“When did Uncle Ron get out?”

“That’s not cousin Rachel is it? Oh my. She needs to put that plate of sausages down.”

“Is that a prosthetic?”

"How long has my fly been open?"

One of the most stressful of all holiday activities is the gift-giving ritual, and that’s because a lot of people are keenly aware that gifts say a lot about what you think of the person you are giving it to. For those of us who care what other people think, there’s a lot of stress in finding the “perfect” gift – or at least a gift that demonstrates a little thought. There’s also the stress of showing up to a family gathering without a gift for someone who was thoughtful enough to pick out something just for you. And then there’s the stress of keeping track of all the people in the family to buy for year after year.

For better or worse, most of us can instantly ballpark the relative value of the things we give and receive. And it can be a little bit nerve-racking when the calculations aren't close.

"Wow - we got your brother's kids about $100 worth of stuff, and they gave us another friggin' sock monkey. That's six sock monkeys now."

I had a relative who did all of his holiday shopping at garage sales. No joke. I once received a glass bust of a human head wrapped in the comics section of the newspaper. You can't even regift something like that.

As for the rest of us, we can heap a lot of stress on ourselves as we work toward establishing a fair exchange of gifts. We want to make sure we spend roughly the same amount of money on the important people in our lives so no one feels slighted. How did we become so sensitive?

How many times have you had to run out and get something else at the last minute to “even things up.” It can become a never-ending balancing act to even approach equality in spending. Unless you resort to gift cards, of course - the least imaginative of all gifts, but the easiest in terms of keeping everything fair and square.

I know a lot of people who are big fans of gift cards, but to me gift cards have always seemed uninspired, and even a little impractical - because they're like cash, minus the convenience and universal acceptance. Like receiving foreign currency.

"Those are Lire. You can use them to buy whatever you want...the next time you happen to be in Italy."

Death is an unfortunate, but inevitable life event that can forever mark a holiday with special sadness. This can create a lot of stress as we anticipate spending another season without someone for whom we cared so deeply. This profound brand of sadness has a way of controlling us and suppressing any happiness we might otherwise experience in the presence of the loved ones we have left.

Today’s families are mixed, extended, appended, extended again, and downright confusing. How many separate holiday celebrations did you have this year? I had six. There was Christmas Eve day, Christmas Eve night, Christmas Day morning, Christmas Day evening, the day after Christmas, and then two days later.

Due to the fractured nature of the contemporary family unit, a lot of people find themselves on tour for the holidays – booking multiple engagements over the course of a very busy week. This can be an extremely stressful thing to pull off with all of the different events to attend, gifts to buy, travel to coordinate, and schedules to accommodate. You almost need a tour manager, a tour bus, and a team of roadies to keep the holidays rolling smoothly.

Every year the holidays seem to come a little earlier, or at least retailers make it seem that way. Still, with so much work required to make the holidays special it seems there’s never enough time to get everything done. People fight stress daily as they work to cross off items on a never-ending holiday to-do list. Winterize the house. Buy stamps. Go shopping. Send out holiday cards. Decorate the house. Put up the lights. Buy a tree. Wrap the gifts. Make travel plans. Considering how busy most people are these days to begin with, all of these additional responsibilities can be a stressful burden.

Nothing creates stress around the holidays like that one person who gets underneath everyone’s skin. You know who I’m talking about. The chatterbox who never shuts up. The know-it-all who’s smarter than everybody, but especially you. The aloof snob who criticizes everything. The grump with the short fuse. The phantom menace who manufactures drama behind the scenes.

While most of us look forward to the holidays as a chance to catch up with loved ones, overeat, and enjoy the company of family and friends, there are a handful of malcontents who use the holidays as an opportunity to complain, meddle, badmouth, aggravate, and gossip. Just anticipating having to deal with these people can send stress levels soaring.

With the exception of those lucky enough to reside in milder climes, most of us in the northern hemisphere must brave the elements in navigating through the holiday season. Inclement weather creates messy, dangerous conditions for living and traveling. From cold, leaky houses to salty, icy roads, the season itself has a way of creating natural stress. It took me 3 hours and 15 minutes to get home from work last week, roughly how long it would take to fly to Florida and get away from all of it.

How do we say NO to all of this food?

The short answer is we don’t. We give ourselves permission to gorge with the understanding that we’ll start a whole new diet in the new year.

But that doesn’t make us feel any better when notice our outie has become an innie virtually overnight.

We eat way too much over the holidays. We know it, we let ourselves do it, and we feel guilty about it after. It’s part of the holiday experience, and a common source of stress for men and women of all ages.

Look in your bank account lately? The holidays sure are expensive!

If there’s one thing this year’s slow retail sales indicated it’s that we don’t NEED most of things we’ve been buying year after year. Stores are hurting because we finally managed to put the breaks on runaway spending.

I saw tables piled high with cheaply built pre-packaged gifts imported from China lining the aisles of department stores. Every checkout counter was stacked with boxes of “impulse” holiday buys. There were “sale” signs in every window of every store, in every newspaper ad on every page of every newspaper, and in every department of every store in every mall and shopping center.

In leaner times it becomes clear just how frivolous we have been – throwing money at stuff that ends up collecting cobwebs in the crawlspace. In the face of economic uncertainty, tightening our purse strings can be a stressful exercise in self-control as we seek out other ways to demonstrate to loved ones that we do care about them…just not enough to throw $20 at an electronic coin counter or flimsily constructed desk caddy.

If this economy keeps tanking, next year I'll be giving out hand-drawn caricatures of myself.


So here we are – staring down the barrel of another New Year, presumably thankful to have made it and relieved to have another holiday season under our belts, if tightly. I heard more than one person declare this year that next year they’d be on vacation. Now there's a plan!

Avoid the frigid weather. The aggravation of holiday traffic. The awkwardness of extended family gatherings. The conflicting schedules. The last minute running around. The pressure to conform to what everybody else wants to do.

Just get away. Fly away.

Sorry – can’t make it this year…I’ll be out of the country.

Just laying there in the warm sand on some remote beach with a chilly mojito thinking to yourself how this truly is “the most wonderful time of the year.”

Until your creepy uncle strides out of the surf in a speedo.