The holidays are: a) an excuse to see friends and family, b) to eat and drink a lot, c) stressful, d) fun, e) busy, f) lonely, g) exhausting, h) a welcome break.
How we complete this sentence is based on the stories we write and tell ourselves about what “the holidays” mean to us and what we expect should happen at this time of year.
Over the years my expectations of the holidays have changed. Raised in the sixties and coming of age in the eighties, Yuppiehood was where it was at. The holidays meant “over the top, all out consumerism,” and it was good.
Parenthood in my thirties and The Little House on the Prairie stories of Christmas made me question the validity of these beliefs. Strange but true. For those unfamiliar with these books they involve little Laura Ingalls and her life growing up on the prairies, hence the title.
Laura’s Christmas’ looked nothing like the ones I had been groomed to expect. As my daughter and I read about little Laura’s Christmas’ I began to have my own Grinch – “Maybe Christmas is a little bit more” moment. The stories were a reminder that life is in the details and that the details are what matter.
The Ingalls family spent hours making gifts (knit socks, embroidered hankies, special preserves). Everyone loved these gifts so we figured we’d give it a try. Thanks to my brother for eating a piece of fudge with a sugar content that should have been illegal. Your niece never knew- ‘so yummy.’
The Ingalls family was thrilled to receive a letter that arrived in time for Christmas. The letter was delivered by a family friend who carried it by hand through a river to get it to them. Now, that is a really good friend. Not being a Christmas letter writing family we opted to send cards to friends and family (some, of course, were handmade).
The stories of little Laura’s Christmas’ tugged at our heart strings and made my daughter thoughtful. Mostly, she was thinking she wanted a muff like Laura who got one for Christmas (spoiler alert: this luxurious gift was a hand me down from another child in a different settlement- awwww).
I still like these stories because they are simple and they tell us about a time when kindness and community trumped competitive consumerism and all that goes with it. Expectations were attainable. I think I will always like these stories.
Holidays after loss are unfortunately, anything but simple. Because of this, it is all the more important that during these times we remember to be kind.
Several times in the last week I’ve had someone remark on how hard the holidays are for some people. This is absolutely true. Sometimes getting through a holiday is very difficult and that’s okay.
As a widow, empty nester and now also parentless I’ve had and continue to have hard days. These last few years have been tough and Christmas looks a lot different in my fifties than it did in my thirties. Consequently, I’ve had to again adjust my expectations of the holidays. Turns out this is going to be an ongoing process.
Readjusting my expectations usually starts wth me struggling with or getting stressed out about something and realizing that I’m getting stressed out. When this happens, I need to step back and ask myself ‘what exactly is it that I’m expecting should be happening here?’ Once I’ve figured that out, I get to ask myself if these expectations are realistic or simply socially sanctioned hooey. You’d be surprised at how many things I used to believe turned out to be hooey. I’ve also learned, sometimes rather painfully, that if I don’t let go of expectations created by others then I end up frustrated and unhappy.
Expectations Today (for now)
Last week my doctor asked me how I was feeling about the upcoming holidays. I told her “I’m trying to avoid creating any sort of expectations around the holidays and how they’ll play out. I’m trying to not worry about how I might or might not be.” I told her “ I’ll do the family turkey dinner thing and worst case scenario, at some point in time I may end up having a good cry and eating a bunch of comfort food. Then I’ll sleep and get up the next day likely feeling better. And that’s okay. It’s been a hard year. And if that’s what it is, then that’s what it is.” There is no judgment on my part. In accepting this as a possibility and being okay with it, I have no expectations that it must be one way or another.
Later on, as I replayed the conversation in my mind I added that it is just as likely that I could reach for my skates and head to High Park. I could just as easily be one of the countless skaters working their way around the crowded rink smiling at the young couples holding hands and stopping wee ones from crashing into my legs. I could end up just enjoying being outside. Either scenario is possible- maybe even both.
Life is full of stressors. They don’t go away. So in choosing to let the holidays play out as they will and accepting that either scenario is okay I lessen the pressure. By not working towards creating a scenario some television special, commercial or social media post has put into my head, I eliminate this socially constructed expectation. I write a different story or at least, I’m open to other stories. To me all of these stories are acceptable and as long as I am healthy and safe, they are all okay. And as silly as it may sound, I’m grateful to Mrs. Laura Ingalls Wilder for sharing her stories of letters, muffs and Christmas Gemütlichkeit. It’s a reminder that there are and always will be many, many different Christmas stories.
Wishing you all the best for the holidays and a story that works for you. Heike
P.S. Emily got her muff that Christmas.
Gorgeous hand knit socks courtesy of my good friend Diane T.
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