No more holiday guilt! Simplifying the Silly Season.

One harried late-October evening, I rushed through a store’s costume section in a frenzy of last-minute preparations. To my horror, the reds and greens of Christmas cards and wrapping paper beckoned from a nearby aisle.

“Oh, spare me,” I said aloud. “I haven’t finished feeling guilty about Halloween yet.”

After all, I hadn’t cooked up a bunch of popcorn balls to hand out to neighborhood trick-or-treaters. I hadn’t volunteered to chaperone at my daughter’s seventh-grade Halloween dance. And I certainly hadn’t made a costume from scratch – that’s why we were in the store.

I’d known that this might be the last year Abby would want to dress up and, as in years past, I’d never quite gotten around to helping her prepare for it. The Christmas items a few aisles over were a maddening reminder that another season of ineptitude lurked just around the corner.

I’ve never been a Super Mom, the clever and organized and inspired woman everyone seems to want as a maternal influence. If I were, I would have gone to my cute and cozy sewing room weeks before. (Heck, if I were Super Mom, I might even have a sewing room.) There I would have handcrafted a costume out of odds and ends left over from previous craft and decorating projects. The result would have been creative and breathtakingly beautiful, and probably biodegradable.

In a fit of perverse inspiration, I bought a roll of that holiday wrapping paper instead of a costume. Then I went to another store for a plain white bedsheet. We cut eyeholes in the sheet and super-glued strips of the wrapping paper to it.

She went to the dance as the Ghost Of Christmas Present.

The thrown-together costume got a lot of laughs, but I wasn’t chuckling. That’s because I’d realized the costume represented the Ghost Of Guilt Yet To Come – namely, the holiday season. Or, more to the point, the stuff I had to do for the holidays.

The shopping. The holiday foods. The decorating. At that point in my life, it all just looked like more work – but it was work I couldn’t seem to ignore.

They don’t call it the Silly Season for nothing

Sure, modern women are supposed to be beyond all this. Technically, we’re aware that none of this stuff is strictly necessary. But being aware isn’t the same as knowing – knowing deep down, being absolutely sure, that your days will be just as merry and bright whether you put yourself through Holiday Hell or not.

Like so many other women, I was still convinced that certain things are just done. You only wear white between Easter and Labor Day. You always write thank-you notes within a day of receiving a gift. And every Christmas you make butter spritz cookies with a cookie press. You just do.

They don’t call it the Silly Season for nothing. You love the holidays and you hate them. You know they’re bad for you, but you’re addicted. You can’t quit any time you want, and there’s no 12-step program for holi-holics.

Which means, of course, that our holidays often stink on ice.

You keep tabs on all the leaked Black Friday ads, making sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck and also taking advantage of frugal hacks like price comparison websites, cash-back shopping or online discount codes.

That is, unless you’re all about buying locally (and a happy Small Business Saturday to you, too!), which brings you consumer karma points but sucks a lot of time out of your life. If your giftees live out of town, it also means boxing up the goods and waiting in line at the post office, or paying more for a private carrier to deliver your tidings of comfort and joy.

You plan and cook special holiday foods, which means more stores, more lines, more hours of preparation. You also spend time whipping something really special for your open house or your office potluck. (After all, you can’t serve your friends and co-workers the same one-pot-glop you feed your family.)

You bring a present to that potluck, having drawn a name from the office gift exchange. Fun, isn’t it, trying to anticipate the desires of someone you don’t even know that well. (Sometimes, you only know them well enough to know you don’t want to know them any better.) And no, you cannot cop out with a gift card because then they’ll know exactly how much you spent on them. Unless, of course, you buy it discounted, through a gift card re-seller – but then you run the risk of receiving a card with wedding bells on it. It’s your call.

Somehow you also have to find time to decorate your house, inside and out. Christmas lights! Christmas trees! Christmas candles! Christmas crafts! And don’t forget the Excedrin, in its festive Christmas-green bottle!

Ho, ho, no!

Okay: Why do you have to do these things?


Because you’re supposed to. Because these traditions have to be kept up, or your children won’t have any glorious holiday memories. Because if they don’t get homemade cookies and hand-crocheted stockings, their little psyches will be warped, and they’ll take up smoking, or petty theft, or politics.

Never mind that you don’t have time. You still have to do exactly what your mother did, so that your kids will have the kind of Christmas you always had.

Don’t have any kids? Doesn’t matter. You tell yourself that these traditions have to be kept up because you don’t drop a tradition. You just don’t. If you don’t have what you grew up having – the goose, the tree, the plum pudding, the whatever – your holidays won’t mean anything.

Yeah, but what do they mean now?

Are your kids merrily enjoying a picturebook-pretty holiday? Not if you’re stressed out, they’re not. More likely, they’re ducking out of the kitchen as you scream at them to leave the mincemeat tarts alone because they’re for company. Or they’re sitting in front of a crackling Xbox game because you’re too busy to roast chestnuts on an open fire. Some fun, huh?

And hey there, you without the kids: Do you really want a 12-foot Christmas tree, or would a 2-foot table model make you just as happy? Do you care whether fake snow is sprayed over stencils on your front windows? And admit it – you have a secret hankering for pizza, not roast goose, on Dec. 25.

It’s a wonderful life – or could be

Whose holiday is this, anyway? Is it a pseudo-memory distorted by selective recall and the passage of years (plus way too many December TV commercials)?

Or maybe your childhood celebrations really were perfect. If they were, it was probably the magic feeling of the holidays themselves and the love of your family and friends, rather than just the trappings, that made it all so great.

Sure, I sometimes wished I could do all the things my mom did for us. I spent years trying, but it never worked. I’d have a great Thanksgiving dinner with half a dozen guests, but I’d wind up too weary to snap the wishbone – and secretly guilty that I didn’t make my own bread from scratch. Near Christmas I’d bake special cookies, but feel guilty that I didn’t make enough extras to give away.

Eventually I realized that my mother’s holiday celebrations came at a tremendous personal cost. She worked a full-time job and was a ferocious housekeeper, so the additional burdens of shopping, wrapping and creating those homemade goodies – all while keeping to a strict budget – meant major-league aggravation and worry.

Did she have any fun? Probably, for fleeting moments. She probably felt proud when visitors tore through the cookie platters like Sherman through Georgia – see, they like my baking! Or when her three daughters posed for the camera in perfectly curled hair and perfectly starched Christmas dresses – aren’t they adorable? (And can I succumb to exhaustion once I’ve cleaned up all the wrapping paper?)

Moments of satisfaction were bought with many hours of work and worry. Somehow, I don’t think that’s the real Christmas spirit.

I have a choice

My drugstore epiphany made me re-think the way I looked at the holidays. For starters, I simplified my gift-giving. I allowed myself a certain amount of mail-order: some family members got magazine subscriptions, others received plants or fresh fruit. Then, in a couple of short, tightly contained bursts of shopping I bought everyone else’s gifts, sometimes, before Thanksgiving even rolled around.

About those Thanksgivings: I stopped inviting my husband’s entire department and “orphans” from my own. With just the three of us to fuss over I had a wonderful time, and more leftovers to boot.

Six years ago I filed for divorce and moved to Seattle. That first Thanksgiving was just me, my daughter and a family friend. The next year it was just me and her, which meant we each got as much stuffing as we wanted.

Incidentally, this year it’s going to be just me and a couple of pork chops. I’ll wait until 2011 before I desecrate another turkey.

Christmas cookies? Sure, I still bake them. But until my daughter moved to Phoenix last year, we did this as a time-trial event: Together, we could churn out a surprising number of goodies in one hilarious, assembly-line afternoon. It brought back fond memories of baking with my mom, and it was handy to have them around for guests or as last-minute gifts. Now know that I have the choice not to bake — and this year I’m not going to, because I’ll be up in Anchorage in December.

None of these changes happened overnight, or easily. Off and on over the years I’ve felt selfish for not wanting to spend every non-working hour hunting down the perfect candied fruit for my holiday baking. But too many other things kept getting in the way. Things like work deadlines, meals, sleep and the occasional library book.

I hope you have a healthier attitude toward the holidays than I did. If you don’t, then get yourself one. Don’t wait a couple of decades to do it. Life’s too short to obsess over whether your gift tags match the wrapping paper.

Bet you I’ll have as much fun this year as anyone else, and without mixing a single batch of eggnog. Although it might be tough to convince my family members that those are Christmas bells, not wedding bells, on the Target cards.

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