Stop Trying: The Holiday Spirit Cure

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Every year at this time I start to surge with mild panic.  It’s not about the presents.  I buy and make gifts for people throughout the year so that my pocketbook can weather the inherent extra spending of the season. No, the panic is about this thing called Holiday Spirit.  I want to feel it in my bones.  I want to feel it in the way I smile at a stranger in the street and the way that stranger smiles back.  We know something:  we still believe in Wonder.  The proverbial “they” say that it’s in the little things, the in-between moments, the pauses.  The snowy walk.  The lit candle.  The Christmas cookies you place in your neighbor’s mailbox.  When I wrote this blog post six years ago, I wasn’t so sure about this being true.  I was still in the height of my fulltime house-and-child-keeping, traditional-torch-bearing motherhood.  Things have quieted down in that regard, with a daughter in college and my son on his way next fall.  I’ve given up a lot.  I’ve taken the heat off the high burner in more ways than one.  I’ve let go of so many things I used to think were mandatory in order to have a meaningful holiday season.  I read the words of this woman from six years ago, and want to say to her, “You’ve got the right idea.  Keep going.  Keep practicing.  It’s all going to be okay.  You’re going to learn how to feel that holiday spirit in your bones without even having to try.  You’re going to learn in these next years how to allow the season to give itself to you.  You’re going to learn how to not try.  In fact, not trying is exactly how it happens.  You can not try all the way through writing holiday cards, getting the tree and decorating it, wrapping gifts, cooking the roast beast, and gathering friends fireside.  So to the woman I was six years ago, and to all of you, and to myself still, I say:  have a Wonder-ful Holiday season.

I have had my share of Christmas trees fall down in my forty-five years. Lost balloons. Fallen souffles. Cancelled flights. Burnt toast. Tough meat. Lemon cars. I wouldn’t call myself unlucky. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I can say that the butterflies of Christmases past have sort of flown the coop. In the last few years, I’ve mildly dreaded the Holiday season for all its glut and Amazon boxes and blow-up Costco snowmen and braggadocio holiday cards with “perfect” families in matching white linen on a beach…only for it all to end in a hemorrhage of ribbons and bows and tape and wrapping paper, kicked into the mudroom and eventually burned.

I miss the little girl in me that used to sit in her window seat and gaze at the moonlit snow– who knew a holy night when she saw one. I’ve become resentful somehow of Christmas. In other words, I’d like to punch the Kay Jewelers people in the throat. It begins with the manic Black Friday and ends in buyers’ remorse and an overheated living room full of things you thought for a few weeks you couldn’t live without and turns out…you could. For a holiday that is supposed to be about love and wonder incarnate and stopping to honor it, I’m with Charlie Brown–Christmas has gone berserk. Mostly what I’ve come to resent is the expectation.

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This year I’ve decided to rethink Christmas altogether. I don’t need to bully myself into feeling “the Christmas spirit.” It doesn’t need to be a season that erases pain and promises much of anything. It can be whatever it needs to be this year. I want to go lightly and untraditionally. I want to see if Christmas comes without ribbons and bows, Grinch-style. I got It’s A Wonderful Life over with last week. It’s just not going to be like that. We’ll fight over the Christmas tree. Ornaments will break. Somebody won’t get the latest in technology they’ve been begging for. Somebody will forget a God-child’s gift. In fact, this year, so far, I’ve done it all “wrong.” It’s the 12th and I haven’t bought one gift. I didn’t plan a Christmas photo shoot– in fact, our card shows the four of us with greasy hair standing on a marginally frozen lake, taken by a complete stranger. I didn’t get my paper whites forced so we’ll have those beloved white blooms in time for Valentine’s day. We’re not having our sledding party– we can’t afford it. There’s no snow on the ground anyway. And yesterday, the tree fell over.

I used to do it all so well. Year after year. A Dickens-worthy Christmas party with a half mile of luminaria lovingly leading our guests up our snowy driveway. Live music and caroling and roast beasts laid out in my grandmother’s best china and silver on the diningroom table. Handmade cedar garlands splayed on the mantle, the olive wood creche placed lovingly in its branches. Pepper berries dripping from the crystal chandelier. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters cued up for the kids’ race down the stairs, all filmed with a fully charged movie camera. Santa had special wrapping paper. My father’s 1925 Lionel train ran around the dining room while we read Truman Capote’s A Christmas Visitor. Gingerbread houses. Cookies from scratch with marbled icing. Neighborhood gifts (usually homemade jam) delivered by Flexible Flyer and smiling children in hand knit hats. Sing-along Messiah. It all sounds exhausting to me this year. Maybe those butterflies will come anyway. But I’m not forcing them to.

I’m just going to let Christmas carry me this year. Quietly. Little moments in pjs. A walk in the woods with the dogs, even if no one wants to come with me. I’m making CDs for people. That’s about it. Sorry if you’re on my list. In fact yesterday when my son and I were making Christmas cookies, we got so giddy we started using the spare dough around the cookie cutters and baking those random shapes too. So along with our Santas and stars and gingerbread men, we made cookies that look a lot like Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and alligators. We almost wet our pants we were laughing so hard.

That’s what I want this Christmas to be. That’s my expectation: to expect nothing. And to trust that grace happens when we least expect it.


Filed under Motherhood, My Posts

43 Responses to Stop Trying: The Holiday Spirit Cure

  1. For years, I collected the Better Homes and Gardens “Christmas Ideas” issue. I catalogued recipes, studied directions for homemade ornaments, and made note of decorating schemes. We put up two trees and decorated every room. I wrapped gifts in hand painted gift wrap, and tied my own bows. The actual celebration lasted 26 hours straight, with 3 distinct stages of gift openings. And despite my efforts at achieving the perfect Christmas, the tree still fell. More than once. Dec. 26 became known as “Mom’s Christmas Hangover” day. By the 28th I felt obligated to clean up some of the mess, but was torn by some innate desire to shop the post Christmas sales “just in case.” Now? I’ve given away 25 years worth of those magazines. The gifts have indeed gotten a lot simpler, and it looks like a trend. The real gift of Christmas this year will be a long walk, time to put my head on my husband’s shoulder, and a little reflection on the good in my life.

    • lauramunson

      I feel you, Lynn! I totally get it. I just wish the kids remembered what those years were like! Here’s to simplicity this year! yrs. Laura

      • Laura, my daughter now has 3 children ages 1, 4 and 5. She remarked on Thanksgiving weekend that I “must have been exhausted” by the holidays in those kid-centered years. Yeah, I admitted, I was. I’d do it differently if I’d known then….they would still have wonderful Christmases to remember, but a little less neurosis from the person playing the role of Mom.

        • lauramunson

          I know— you wonder if the stress you’re feeling trying to be “perfect” takes a toll on them in the end. I want this one to be stress free! yrs. Laura

  2. Joy Weber

    Brilliant, Laura! Your last line is one, not just for Christmas, but for each day of our lives. “And to trust that grace happens when we least expect it.” Nothing can be more true.
    Thank you for that beautiful reminder. May you have at least one tiny moment of quietly gazing at the brilliant winter moon and breathing in the wonder.

  3. shannon

    I am so thankful for your post today. We are going through a tough time right now and I have been agonizing over the holidays and the “expectations.” This year is going to be about the experiences and less about the loot. I know there may be some disappointed little ones this year, but ultimately they will remember the moments together in bed watching Christmas shows and spending time with family….or so I hope.

    • lauramunson

      They’ll remember the whole span of Christmases I have to hope. And when I think of my safest memories, they were in my parent’s bed watching TV… Have a good time tucking in, Shannon. yrs. Laura

  4. Nan Kuhlman


    Loved it! For those of us without an inkling of Martha Stewart domesticity, well, we had to learn sooner than later that sometimes the best parts of Christmas are those things that happen without our planning or expecting. I believe it’s a truism, that “grace happens when we least expect it.” When we stop trying to control everything, we make a little room for grace (for God, IMO), and we’re actually still enough to notice.

    Here’s to watching for grace (unexpectantly, of course)!


  5. Laurie Blackwell

    Thanks for the sentiment I have been feeling. I think the Amazon “secret agent-$5.00 to spy on your local stores” caper was the game-changer for me! I will think of you walking in the woods, while I am hiking with my gleeful golden retriever in the quiet woods of Breckenridge, CO this winter!
    Peace and simplicity to you and your family this season.

    • lauramunson

      I think a lot of us are feeling it, Laurie. I almost didn’t post this b/c it felt so negative, but I’m glad I did. Peace and simplicity right back atchya! yrs. laura

  6. cindy Pitre

    Your tree looks alot like mine – by that I mean all colors with the children’s hand-made ornaments (althought they are now grown)
    and the 50 yr old christmas ornaments that came from my mother-in law…. I never gave in (well to be honest I would have but my husband did not agree) to the “modern” way of decorating a tree with only 2 colors – blue balls with white lights….. or whatever…
    My tree looks a little ‘Vintage” If I wait long enough I may even be cool…

    • lauramunson

      Yep– I’m all about the old ornaments– I have some that belonged to my father from the early 1900s, my grandmother’s wax angels from the south, all sorts of scary 70′s stuff…things the kids made with excessive glue. Love it all even though I get ridiculed!

      • Sue Engle

        My Christmas tree looks like this, too… and I would never have it differently. I have friends who do designer trees with matching ornaments. I’d far rather have the odd ones my son remembers from childhood that we exclaim over while we’re hanging them.

        Our Christmas will be far lighter this year and we’re OK with it… we have to be. But I wouldn’t exchange a brand-new Weber grill for the look of triumph on my son’s face for locating a gently-used one for $10 this afternoon (he smokes a turkey for his holiday party with friends and desperately needed a new grill for Christmas). Things don’t have to be pristine and shiny to be perfect. Life is still good a little banged-up.

        • lauramunson

          I totally agree, Sue. A little banged up indeed. I love the image of your son’s smoked turkey party and his Weber triumph. The small things, yes. yrs. Laura

  7. Laura, this wonderful blog is so timely for me. Last week our priest gave a sermon on how you don’t have to do everything the same, Christmas after Christmas, and I realized that I do, and that I don’t even like it anymore. I do a lot of things that Lynn used to do, and yet I have not enjoyed doing a single one of them this year! I’ve written myself notes on how I’d like to do everything differently next year.

    In keeping with what you wrote, I want to tell you a Christmas Eve story. About three years ago I decided what I really wanted was to sing a solo at Christmas Eve services at my church. I asked my priest, John, and the choir director, and they were thrilled. I sang O Holy Night, and my voice was in great form that night and soared into the rafters. And I hated it the whole experience. The usual exchange of energy — that I send my heart and voice out to the audience and they send me lovely “stuff” back — wasn’t there. I looked out over the congregation and saw blank, tense faces. I had not reached anyone, even with this incredible piece of music, even though I was feeling it.

    The next morning, I sang Christmas Morning services, as I had been doing for several years. When I had first started doing the morning service there were about 5-10 people who came. They were generally people who are lonely, who are misfits somehow, and who don’t like the huge celebration of Christmas Eve. Over five years there are now about 70 who come. People say it’s me, that my singing is why the service has grown so much. But I don’t think so.

    What was wrong on Christmas Eve, the reason why no one could really hear the music, was the huge expectation they were all feeling. And that is the only thing that changed from Christmas Eve to Christmas Morning. On Christmas morning, the presents have been opened, and all the expectation is gone. And when it leaves, there is a quiet that replaces it which is incredible. All that’s left is stillness and people. People who really look at each other, who really hear the music. Who really remember why we’re there, and what’s just happened to the world again. At least, that’s my take on it, and that’s what I said to John when he couldn’t understand why my singing didn’t have the affect on the Christmas Eve congregation that it did on Christmas morning.

    The same 5-10 people, who used to come when I first started this, are still coming. But now they don’t look depressed on Christmas Morning. They look open and happy and filled. And one of them said to me last year that Christmas Morning services was the best present she got every year. It feels like a best kept secret. Like, if I can make it through all the insanity, I get to have THIS. This incredibly quiet, this incredible way of just being with the Christ child for an hour or so.

    • lauramunson

      Oh, this has me weeping, ALison. THANK YOU for sharing this! I loved it. You know, I used to sing alto at Trinity Church in Boston and the Christmas Eve service was so magical for me…but then again I was in my early 20s, and didn’t have kids. Those were the years of the first Christmas tree… I am going to remember your story. We always go to a kids’ pageant service on Christmas eve, and I think it’s so informal that it gets everybody to settle into the reason for the season… yrs. Laura

  8. Hear!! Hear!! I totally agree with you. It is way over the top and afterwards the season is almost a let down when it’s over. It is the 12th I haven’t even started shopping I have had work (as an artist you have to take it when it comes) & I just received another job of 3 paintings…husband said He would shop…should be interesting??? Merry Christmas Laura!

  9. Mary Lindeen

    I just spent the afternoon putting the lights on our little Charlie Brown Christmas tree so my son can decorate it when he gets home from school. It looked so pathetic that I called my mom and told her how sad it looked. We are used to having bigger, fuller, more beautiful trees, but not this year. And she gave me wonderful advice, having grown up herself in a family in which there was precious little money to spend at Christmas ever (not just in the “hard” years). She told me to celebrate that tree with Benjamin like it was the best one in the neighborhood, and to celebrate the messy little living room it’s standing in, and to cuddle up close at bedtime and celebrate the gloomy day today and the wonderful year we’ve had together. “Mary, if you believe it’s wonderful, he will too, and that’s what he will remember.” He’ll be home in about half an hour, and we are going to have ourselves a merry little evening decorating our pitiful little tree. If I do my job right, he will close his eyes tonight with a smile on his face, absolutely believing that we do indeed have the best tree in town. Thanks, Laura (and Mom!), for putting a smile on my face today and helping me get my priorities in order this afternoon. Perfect words from both of you.

  10. B. Schoeller

    How wonderful the true spirit of Christmas is, one that goes far beyond material goods. Truly, the best part of Christmas for my husband, my children and myself is just being together. And, as much as we love having family and friends with us, it is the time when we are just alone together enjoying the memories that the ornaments on our tree bring us, that is the most special. And Laura, no more Christmas cards, I promise ;)

    • lauramunson

      I BETTER get a Christmas card, as yours is the best darn good-lookin family out there! I was just ranting today after the damn tree fell down…argh. xx to you and yours!

  11. wadenick

    Well, it sounds very much like “lowering your expectations”. Easy to say, hard to do. Your article in NYT and your book were stunning. If anyone can lower your expectations and “stay in the moment” i.e. be present, you can. If you stay present and just enjoy what happens, it won’t matter whether it’s “perfect”. I enjoyed your book so much, I get a little choked up just thinking about it now. I wish that either I or my ex had the strength you do. I wish you happiness this Christmas and all through the new year.

    • lauramunson

      Just because I wrote that essay and that book doesn’t mean I’m any good at this practice. I learn it and regain faith in it moment by moment. But you’re right, when I’m present, there is joy. Holiday time is so rife with memories and future hopes. Those Folgers commercials are killin me… Thanks for saying hi. yrs. Laura

  12. I blame the lack of snow. Snow makes everything better – the sounds softer, the trees prettier, the kids happier. Granted, it also makes the drivers more idiotic, but other than that, it helps even the most mundane errands become festive. There’s a reason we longingly croon for a white Christmas. We want to stop in our tracks, smack in the middle of a busy day, and be stunned by the beauty. Hard to do that when it’s just gray skies and bare ground. I guess that means I should blame my Scrooginess on global warming? Fortunately, there’s snow at the top of Big Mountain. I plan to be there next week and hope that lovely white blanket will work its Christmas magic. If not, lunch and a cocktail at the Hellroaring should do the trick. Merry Christmas and thanks for sharing! (By the way, the most vivid Christmas memory I have is of our tree falling over – you have a lot of company in the crooked tree department.)

    • lauramunson

      Big Mountain has some snow but Hellroaring might be a better bet. Meet up for a toddy perhaps? Happy trails! yrs. Laura

    • Sue Engle

      Yeah on crooked trees… I remember the year I had to attach ours to the wall with guy wires to hold it up! I still laugh when I think about it. Or the year I didn’t get a tree at all because I was going to be away for Christmas, so hung my ornaments on the chandelier… loved it! Yay for thinking out of the box (pun intended) at Christmas!

  13. Bonnie Hannigan

    Oh Laura, you are so funny. I will forever remember the picture of driving up to your house for your Christmas party when I was in town visiting Linda and Pete and gasping. Your house was beautiful, the cedar, the lights, the luminaries, it was like visiting the pages of a magazine. The real beauty was you though, you are such an amazing hostess, your children taking coats and serving food, your warm welcoming home and your fun singalongs with Kate O’Brien. That memory is a special one but what made it so special was you. xoxo

    • lauramunson

      That just made me cry, Bonnie. I miss those days. Must bring them back somehow… Come on over for a toddy soon! ox Laura

  14. Monica B

    Thank you for this lovely essay Laura! I think the best way to “celebrate” this time of year is to take our clue from nature and the animal kingdom – a time to slow down and go inward. Is there any wonder that for many of us all this “busy-ness” feels so utterly exhausting – trying to force what our body, mind and soul does not really want? This is a time to honor our nature and to give ourselves permission for simplicity. The challenge is how to do this when everywhere you go there is a frenetic energy – not to mention all the expectations (self-imposed and otherwise) for perfection. One year, from Thanksgiving to New Years Day, I would love to find myself on a quiet peaceful tranquil island away from all the craziness – tune out all the noise. May you all find some peace and calm during this season. Namaste.

    • lauramunson

      Thanks for this, Monica. I just bet you’ll find that island retreat… Blessings from a dark Montana morning which feels very much like an island this hour of the day. yrs. Laura

  15. Alison

    Laura, what a beautifully written reflection. I plan to refer to it time and again as the month progresses, especially since I possess none of the skills needed to create the more public displays of holiday “spirit.” You offer strong validation for infusing the holidays with warmth and affection, in one’s own and often private way.

    Thank you for once again encouraging us to do what feels right and real.

    Love, Alison

    • lauramunson

      Alison– I love that it can be private. The TV commercials tell us otherwise. My son said, “Our house looks so great and no one will see it because we live in the woods.” For a moment my heart sunk, and then I said, “We’ll see it, and that’s all that matters.” Peace to you! yrs. Laura

  16. Marjorie, Friendswood, TX

    I agree. I am also changing things up this year. No fancy decorating, not enough energy left. It’s been exhaused taking care of our 22 yr old son who is recovering from a bad motorcycle accident Sept 29. The miracle for us this Christmas is that he survived and can return to his independent self and job next week after 11 weeks of recouperation, 3 weeks being in the hospital and remainder at our home. My husband and I willingly stepped back into hightened parent mode to help him through the medical and financial maze a major injury requires. Prayer, greatfulness, love, family, friends are my simple joys this season because it could have all changed that day in September… So we dragged down the prelit artifical tree from our attic and set it up in our family room. No usual decorations from years past, those boxes are still upstairs in the attic. I wanted some meaning from whatever we had close by. Yes, the get-well cards and Christmas cards sent lovingly from our family/friends will do just fine to adorn our tree. This year nothing else is needed.
    Thank you Laura for reinforcing my simple holiday changes.
    Also I would like to encourage everyone to donate blood to your local blood center because that precious resource helped save our son’s life. Happy Holidays to all.

    • lauramunson

      Marjorie, I’m so glad you all are healing! May your Christmas be full of heart language and safety. Thank you for sharing your story. I hope somebody brings you many mugs of tea this holiday season after the last four months of trauma. yrs. Laura

  17. Wow! Kindred spirits! I generally dread Christmas because of all of the never ending “Wal-Martish” secular influence and because of the expectations I place on myself. This year, our family is going on a cruise to the Eastern Caribbean. We leave tomorrow and return on the 26th. Merry Christmas everybody!

    Thanks for the poignant blog – look how many of us share the same boat.

  18. Loved this Laura….I prefer to have a Christmas like the Whos down in Who-ville after the Grinch raided the place. All they need is a song and each other ^_^!

  19. Jennifer Devlin

    Laura, I loved this post! The Christmas pressure cooker is worthy of much thought. I approached this Christmas season with an impressively good attitude, my best ever I would contend. The weather was warm so I decorated the outdoors with a smile on my face. I hauled the Christmas decorations down from the attic without cursing or feeling sorry for myself. And I actually ordered our Christmas card in time to save on overnight FedEx charges that have successfully succeeded in depressing me for years. I spent time researching fun decorating ideas and crafts for the kids on Pinterest and followed through. We successfully hung a snowman made of wreaths on our front door! We made elf size cookies for our Elf on the Shelf! We actually set up a train set under our tree!
    But what saddened me was listening to my family bicker as we tried to pick out a tree. We were late to the lot and there weren’t many choices, but that wasn’t the root of the problem. The pressure was mounting. We later found ourselves, lost then late to the Nutcracker with friends, only to find that the people in front of us were LOUD and the people behind us were ANGRY and we were caught in the middle. What my kids will remember about the Nutcracker will have less to do with the dancers they saw and more to do with Mommy politely telling off the rude young man who wrongly accused her of chatting during the performance!
    Christmas morning arrived in a haze of unwrapping and good wishes and somehow, with my mother sitting there to witness it all, it felt even worse. I felt sick. None of us needed any of this stuff. We all spent too much time, energy and money making it happen. Time and energy we can’t get back. When all we really want is to feel loved.

    • lauramunson

      Jennifer, your note brought tears to my eyes. It’s so true. We all just want to feel loved. I have to believe that all that time you spent making the holiday beautiful and keeping the traditions in tact will root itself into the hearts of your family. They won’t remember the bickering. They’ll remember the magic. Happy 2012. yrs. Laura

  20. Amy B Scher

    This is everything. Thank you.

  21. Zoe Pagan

    I totally agree. I was always the one doing all the shopping, wrapping, baking, setting my alarm so that I could get up to put all the gifts under the tree for our two children, filming Christmas morning, it was nuts. The saying there’s a silver lining in every cloud rings so true for me these past 2 years. My husband and I are not divorced and the holidays are truly stress free for me. I no longer feel like I have to do it all because I now want to do it all but with less craziness. It’s just the kids and I on Christmas morning or my family and there’s no waiting for their father to take a shower and get his coffee before opening gifts. The kids can come down the stairs at whatever time they want and open their gifts. I haven’t filmed Xmas in two years and while part of me feels sad at times about that I also am able to be a part of the memory and not just watch it. Here’s to another stress free in the moment Christmas!!!!!

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