Grinch No More

I Get It. I Used To Hate The Holidays, Too.

Everything felt like a tinsel-filled pressure cooker. Something had to give.

Written by Julia Williamson
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock
Hilarity Of The Holidays

I am not a cookie-baking, carol-singing, mistletoe-hanging mom. That is part of a SuperMom ethos that just doesn’t fit my more laissez-faire, off-the-cuff parenting style.

When my kids were tiny, it was no problem; they didn’t know they could expect more from me than dancing around the kitchen to “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” But as they got older they saw their cousins’ and friends’ homes transformed into holiday wonderlands, complete with gingerbread houses, decorated yards and dozens upon dozens of fabulous baked treats. Their friends went to the Nutcracker, and Zoo Lights, and sat on Santa’s lap. They noticed, and wondered why we weren’t doing the same things.

For me, the holiday began to feel like a tinsel-filled pressure cooker. I was failing at Christmas, and I had no desire to join the party.

I tend to find Christmas stressful, filled with extra obligations. I was a single mother who only got to see her kids for half the week. Maybe it seems like that would leave plenty of time for shopping and decorating and planning for events. Instead, it just left me feeling sad and overwhelmed. And guilty.

To counteract that guilt, I relied on that age-old schoolyard trope: “I didn’t want to play with you anyway!” Every time I was presented with an invitation to engage in a holiday tradition that felt too expensive, too time-consuming, or too sappy, I’d respond with an eye roll. Or a dismissive comment. The kids mostly ignored me, but they didn’t love it.

It all came to a head one year when I realized I was basically ruining one of the highlights of my childrens’ year. It was time to regroup and decide what parts of the holiday I did like, and concentrate on those. I loved buying and decorating the Christmas tree. I loved driving around to look at holiday lights. I was willing to go to one big holiday-themed event.

I had my own little epiphany, finally: Holidays don’t have to look the same for every family. We’re not religious, so already Christmas is different for us than for people who are celebrating the birth of their savior. (When my oldest was about four, she asked why so many houses had babies in cribs on the lawn at Christmastime. Oops, it seemed we’d left out some important info about her favorite time of year.) I wasn’t “failing” Christmas by not going all-out with the decor and overscheduling us into the ground with seasonal spectaculars all over town. I just had to figure out what was important to both my kids and me.

For my kids, that meant doing at least SOME stuff, with a good attitude; for me, that meant fun and easy. And so in our house, we started prioritizing the parts that live in that overlap of those two things. Once I made the decision to take on only the stuff I wanted to, the whole enterprise became simple and surprisingly fun.

Here’s where we landed:

  1. No indoor decorations other than the tree, and placing a few things people had given us — a big wooden Nutcracker, a small wooden sleigh — on the mantel. One year I bought an evergreen swag for the mantel, as well. Once or twice we had a wreath on the door. But I had no expectations. But anything past the tree was pure Christmas gravy.
  2. I usually put lights up in one of our outdoor trees. It’s lovely when I make it happen, but it’s not a requirement. And it’s just the one.
  3. We watched alllll the Christmas specials and movies, from Peanuts to Elf. My kids had pretty limited screen time, so this indulgence felt special.
  4. The only event we ever attended was Zoo Lights, a magical traipse through the Portland Zoo lit up with animated animals made of lights and real animals wondering why their enclosures were so bright at night. We didn’t go to chorale performances or plays and we never got within spitting distance of a mall Santa.
  5. We made many of our gifts, and for the most part gave everyone on our list the same thing. Who didn’t love our felted soap or recycled notepads? Generally easing up on the gift-giving was a huge stress reducer. I’m a big proponent of giving gifts I know will be used, from bottles of olive oil to bath bombs.

Once I let go of the pressure to do everything and do it all seamlessly, I started to enjoy it. Now that my kids are older, I’ve out-sourced some of the work to them. My oldest loves decorating the tree, and we mostly let her do it. Both kids have embraced hand-made presents. Their family offerings range from original paintings to notebooks with a list of thought-provoking questions. One of my all-time favorites was a jar of compliments given to me by my youngest. That, I think, embodies the spirit of Christmas far better than hours spent hanging lights and wrapping yet another present at 1:00 am on Christmas Eve.

That’s the kind of Christmas I can get behind.

Julia Williamson is mother to two very nearly adult daughters. She’s a freelance writer, a decluttering wizard, and an inveterate optimist, regardless of reality. Visit her at