There are so many ways to complete that sentence. The holidays are… an excuse to see friends and family, an excuse to eat and drink a lot, fun, stressful, busy, lonely, exhausting, a chance for a welcome break.

However we choose to complete this sentence is a reflection of the stories we write and tell ourselves about what “the holidays” mean to us and what we expect to happen at this time of year.

Ever since I read the Little House on the Prairie stories of Christmas to my daughter I’ve made them part of my Christmas story expectations. Life is in the details and these stories are filled with details. The letter that arrived in time for the holidays: a letter that was carried by hand by a family friend travelling across the frontier. The presents given out at church on Christmas Eve – hand me downs from those living in another settlement who had been more affluent. One year Laura got a fur muff. My daughter then wanted a muff. The hand made gifts that someone had spent hours making: knit socks, an embroidered hanky or maybe some special preserves.  I’m not being some naïve sentimentalist. I’m fully aware that it is a Christmas story from another time. But, I like this story because it documents a time when Christmas meant friends and neighbours coming together to share food, laughter and music; a time when kindness trumped competitive consumerism and all that goes with it. Expectations were attainable.  I think I will always like this story.

On more than one occasion in the last week I’ve had someone tell me about how hard the holidays are for some people. This is absolutely true.   Sometimes getting through a holiday can be very difficult and that’s okay. Not everything in life is easy. If we can accept that life can sometimes be hard then we must also accept that hard days are not only okay but that they are a part of what it means to be alive. As a widow, empty nester and now also parentless I’ve had and continue to have hard days. And I’ve learned that when I’m struggling with something or it’s stressing me out that I have to step back and examine the expectations I’m holding around a particular situation. This is the only way I can figure out if my expectations are realistic or socially sanctioned hooey. I’ve learned, sometimes rather painfully, that if I don’t let go of expectations created by others then I end up frustrated and unhappy.  Letting go isn’t always an easy thing to do but I believe it’s worth the effort.

So when my doctor asks about the upcoming holidays I can honestly tell 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 tell 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 one way or another.

Later on, as I replay the conversation in my mind I add 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. I’m okay with that too.

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