un-grammable moments

The Worst Holiday Traditions That No One Talks About

You can’t have the good without the bad.

by Emily Lee
A Very Scary Holiday: The 2022 Issue

Listen, kissing under the mistletoe is all nice and romantic. But have you tried hiding in the pantry with a mouthful of mint-flavored marshmallows and the beginnings of a hot toddy hangover? It’s my most treasured holiday tradition, and I’m frankly baffled that no one is talking about it.

But so it goes with all traditions that don’t make it into the family photo album. You know which ones I mean: the offbeat, cranky, and deeply un-grammable moments that come with every holiday season.

I’ll be the first to agree that holidays can be downright magical — that twinkly top layer of snow sparkling under the moonlight, those lopsided gingerbread people cooling on a rack, your kids’ lit-up little faces as they ponder whether Santa shopped from the recent Amazon holiday mailer. But those aren’t the only memorable moments.

Think: A kid bawling on Santa’s lap, while a disapproving helper elf tries to draw out any expression not resembling abject terror. A mom beaning her husband with a bag of ribbons after a fight over who gets snow-shoveling duty at dawn. Tipsy Uncle George carrying a flask on his holster, like a deranged John Wayne. Hours-old sushi congealing on the buffet table, because Aunt Janine went to Japan over the summer and has now made it her entire identity. (“You dip the fish in the soy sauce, not the rice, my kodomos!”)

Cue the annual pantry escape.

These less-than-idyllic moments sit in wait, squirming underneath the warmer, happier rituals of the season. No one wants to talk about them, but you can’t deny them. And you know what? Annoying as these traditions are, I wouldn’t want to completely ignore their existence. They are part of the tapestry of the holidays, in all their chaos and richness. You can’t have the good without the bad, and the holidays are no exception.

Below, a few funny, unhinged, and irritating holiday traditions that we should all acknowledge, because misery loves company. Are we laughing or are we crying? No one knows! But don’t worry — whatever happens this season, I will leave that pantry door ajar for you.

Arguing about current events over the cheesy potatoes.

Whose mind has ever been changed by a dinnertime rant, on either side of the political divide? Certainly not belligerent Uncle George’s, or the emo teen who’s just discovered Ayn Rand for the first time. Add profuse quantities of alcohol, simmering indigestion, a baby face-planting into the yams, and the physical discomfort of being pressed way too close to Grandma’s jingling sweater at the dinner table, and you’re well on your way to that trusty holiday breakdown.

Hunting for the matching family pajamas.

One of the most frustrating parts of raising kids is that they keep growing?! I mean, how many sizes has little Timmy leaped in just six months? This means that if you want an adorable matching pajama moment, you either need to get a new set for the whole family every year or try to relocate new sizes for the growing giants from retailer backstock. You’re also probably not going to wear your matching pajamas more than a handful of times either, so the cost-benefit analysis is not impressive. But I guess you could use your retired PJs as handkerchiefs to weep into once you wake up on Christmas morning to find out that everyone has contracted food poisoning yet again.

Introducing a new partner to your family.

Once you’ve escaped the usual flurry of “Sooooo, are you dating anyone”s that pummels you at the front door, like a series of snowballs packed around bricks, you think you’re in the clear. But this is just the start of a military-style interrogation that would send anyone fleeing back to the nearest train depot. Your cousin with the perfectly manicured nails will be comparing your shiny new partner against her boring hedge fund husband. Your mother will be making subtle references to the steady decline of your reproductive eggs. It’s just best to pretend that your significant other is a K-pop star who can’t possibly take a break from touring, not even for Aunt Janine’s now-warm spicy salmon rolls.

Elf on the f*cking shelf.

Need I say more?

Aggressive drivers and endless streams of traffic.

If you’re thinking that the world seems to collectively forget how to drive once December 1 rolls around, you would be completely right. Perhaps we’re all in a fog of seasonal stressors or perhaps we’re just running around a lot more with gift buying and company dinners. Compound that with a kid or three yelling over the iPad in the backseat and so much Mariah Carey on the radio that your brain feels like it’s made of tinsel, and you’re due to pull over for a good, long laugh-cry.

Awkward company holiday dinners.

Speaking of company dinners: Once I worked at a place where spouses were forbidden to come to holiday dinners, because they tried it out one year, and it was so painful that the owner made a sweeping proclamation to never repeat the performance. Because the company holiday dinners are awkward enough without also involving your significant other. If you work at a company where you enjoy small-talk with your coworkers, then great, please let me send you my resume. But if, like the majority of the world, you would rather spend that two to three hours plucking the hairs from the top of a mall Santa’s sweltering toes, the company holiday dinner will be an event that summons great foreboding. Because you know exactly what’s coming: Brenda from HR will have had too many mistletoe margaritas and commenced her annual tradition of hitting on a petrified (and married) Dave from IT. Your Elon Musk of a CEO will probably take that opportunity to pat himself on the back while also announcing impending layoffs. Even your work bestie has disappeared among the traveling canapes, like a ghost ship in the night. And after all that, your only reward comes in the form of an ornament with the company’s logo emblazoned on the front.

Remembering how much eggnog sucks.

I feel gaslit by the grocery stores! How have we as a human race not found a better substitute for this iconic holiday drink by now? You could milk a goat right into my glass and add a swirl of diesel fuel, and I would count myself blessed not to be offered eggnog, at least. You might be saying, “Hey, you jerk, I love eggnog!” To that I say: indulge your passions and buy up all the d*mn cartons in the store so I don’t have to look at it anymore.

Wrangling the kids in the midst of their thousandth sugar high of the week.

Teachers are angels, and you’ll never catch me saying otherwise. But those classroom parties come with a lot of sugar. And the room parents cram it into the treat bags too, so the sugar never ends, like the Capital One bills I keep trying to unsuccessfully stuff under the couch cushions. So with all the candy canes and sugar cookies and Santa-shaped bonbons comes the inevitable melange of kid meltdowns and hysteria that usually results in Tiny Tim leaping from a coffee table onto his face, in perilous proximity to the raging fireplace. The worst part of all this sugar is that those little kids keep track of their stash, so I can’t even make off with a well-deserved parent tax.

Keeping track of all the people you buy gifts for.

I love gifting and showing my appreciation for people, especially those who are typically under-appreciated (looking at my favorite mail carrier, who regularly gets chased down by unleashed dogs). But it’s the sheer influx of gift expectations that brings out my inner curmudgeon. Is there a way for me to just give early (or late) gifts in March and say, “Happy holidays! I didn’t forget you; I just get overwhelmed easily!”? Or maybe there’s a way to standardize the more impersonal gifts, like Oprah does with her erstwhile giveaways. You get a bottle of artisanal olive oil. And you get a bottle of artisanal olive oil! Everyone gets a bottle of artisanal olive oil! Honestly, I’ll just default to coffee shop gift cards, as usual.

Sending family holiday cards.

My kid exemplifies a really high level of cute (as does yours! It’s not a contest, Sharon!). But when it comes to pictures, her face takes on either a) the befuddled expression of a septuagenarian encountering TikTok for the first time or b) the grimace of any one of Matthew Perry’s coworkers after reading his memoir. And listen, I’m no Emily Ratajkowski myself. My mouth is always slightly agape and I haven’t seen my jawline since Ohio was a blue state. Yet! We are all expected to somehow smile at the camera at the same time, while wearing cute, unblemished clothes, among a backdrop of fir trees against a wintery blue sky? Why don’t you ask for the moon, while you’re at it?

Fighting with a stranger over the last carton of ricotta.

There’s always a shortage of some sort over the holidays (Butter! Sour cream! Recreational cannabis!), and the worst part is that you never know what it will be, so you can’t plan. It’s like a terrible game of roulette where the thing on the line is not so much your life, but your dignity as a parent intent on giving everyone the best frickin’ holiday of their lives. So when you meet the beady gaze of a handsy shopper reaching for that last carton of ricotta — your ricotta — my unhinged advice is to give a blood-curdling shout while brandishing a giant candy cane like Donatello with his staff. Because, listen, you need that ricotta for your husband’s favorite Christmas cookie from his deceased grandmother’s ancient cookbook. There will be no merry times without it!


Okay, here’s where I leave you. I think this is also where I should make some statement about how this is all totally worth it. How I’d do it again and again, for just a brief glimpse of the holiday magic. It’s true — I would. But honestly, one of the more fun holiday traditions is the glass of wine (or three) I have with my fellow mothers-in-arms, complaining about the funny, bizarre moments from this season of excess. Because we’re all in it together. So imagine me raising a glass of not-eggnog to you, encouraging you to embrace what fills your heart, and let go of the rest.