There’s a picture of me from my graduate school days — way back in 2004 — where I’m wearing a Elmo-themed holiday sweater from a second-hand store with the sleeves torn off and drinking a PBR tallboy in front of my Christmas tree. The Christmas tree is decorated solely with empty PBR tallboys. I am smiling.
It is very clear in that picture that I knew how I felt about Christmas. I was 23 years old, I was single and childless, and it was very easy to embrace the holidays in whatever way and at whatever level that I wanted.
I wasn’t responsible for making other people’s magical holiday memories. Just my own.
I wasn’t responsible for upholding any traditions. Just for celebrating and relaxing.
I wasn’t responsible for making sure that everyone I loved and, in turn, everyone that they loved received a thoughtful and appropriate gift, including but not limited to relatives, friends, teachers, bus drivers, babysitters, mail carriers, and on and on and on. I just gave what I wanted to who I wanted.
Now, 18 years later, things are a little different. I’m newly divorced. I have two kids, who are 7 and 9 years old. And I am solidly in charge of making sure everyone around me has a satisfyingly delightful holiday season.
It’s stressful and expensive, yes. It also means that I don’t get to do everything exactly my way.
What I’m saying is: There is not a single PBR tallboy in sight.
I still have a holiday sweater. It’s one I picked up at a thrift a few years ago, to wear at an ugly holiday sweater party. It’s a black cardigan with red trim and just absolutely covered in random, colorful Christmas imagery — sleighs and stars and snowmen and things. It’s completely ridiculous and I wear it every now and then during the holiday season. Recently, I wore it to pick one of my kids up at school and a fellow mom stopped me.
“I love that sweater,” she said. “It’s so adorable!”
And that’s when I realized I didn’t even know how I felt about the sweater. Did I love it, and if so, did I love it because it was funny, or because it was unabashedly festive? Is everything I do during the holiday season just because it’s expected of me? Why hadn’t I ripped the sleeves off?
I literally had no idea what I got out of wearing the sweater any more. I just put it on like a joyless Scrooge-y robot.
Driving home, the bigger realization hit me: my feelings about my Christmas sweater were the same feelings I had about Christmas: I love Christmas, but I hate the feeling of being forced to check all the boxes of Christmas. I love Christmas, but I often feel like I’m doing Christmas instead of experiencing Christmas. I want to take a sleigh-shaped time machine back to a time when I could enjoy Christmas without the obligations, the outside judgement, and the pressure.
I often wonder what the holiday would look like if I was just doing the holidays for me. Forty-year-old me, who doesn’t drink a lot of tallboys anymore, but also who also doesn’t really like stressing over having the perfect holiday cocktail at my parties — you know, the ones that have entire sprigs of rosemary in them and freaking cranberries floating on top. Forty-year-old me, who loves having a family of her own to celebrate with, but who has kind of sort of forgotten how to chill out and celebrate. Forty-year-old me, who doesn’t want my two girls to grow up and feel like Christmas is something that they are responsible for and something that rests heavily on their holiday-sweatered shoulders.
There’s probably a good middle ground in here. A place where I can have my holiday sweater cake and eat it, too. A place where I can happily manage the tasks that come with Christmas while also making space to be silly, spontaneous, and less worried all the time. You know: to have a tree that has my grandmother’s vintage ornaments and also just one or two beer cans.
Can you wear an ugly Christmas sweater sincerely and ironically at the same time? I don’t know, but I’m really going to try. For me and my kids.
Sarah Aswell is the Special Projects Editor at Scary Mommy, where she contributes her editing and writing across the website and runs Scary Mommy Book Club. A humor writer and stand-up comedian, Sarah’s work has appeared in places like The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, National Lampoon, MAD Magazine, Reductress, Funny or Die, and more. Her writing about comedy, entertainment, and parenting has appeared in Vulture, Forbes, USA Today, Vice, The Advocate, and Working Mother Magazine, to name a few. Sarah lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two daughters and slightly too many cats. She was recently named one of the best unknown comedians in America by Thrillist, which is one of those insults that sounds like a compliment. Follow Sarah on Twitter at @sarahaswell and/or check out her comedy at sarahaswell.com.