On Sunday night, I went on a Christmas tree hunting expedition. The group consisted of: me, BFF Kori, our adoptive son Brad, and his new girlfriend Chloe. The four of us walked down the street to the tree lot in scarves and big fleece-lined winter coats, wool socks, and beanies topped with festive pom poms.
Kori had her boozy hot chocolate and I was looking forward to spiking my Trader Joe’s nog with brandy when we got back home. We talked about our respective tree needs (budget, height, level of bushy-ness) and found our soul tree: a chubby 4-foot spruce with tres mucho personality. We brought it home, each of us adding our own personal flavor. Brad loves the Giants. Kori likes tasteful pastels. And I like glittery plastic food ornaments. Our tree looks, well, hodge podge, and it was admittedly very hard for me to release my obsession with a single theme and unified color palette. But it was ours — a symbol of our friendship and the choice to create something together.
This was the first time I had ever bought and decorated a Christmas tree with someone who wasn’t either my family or my boyfriend, and it felt significant and maybe even a little auspicious.
There are a lot of things I love about Christmastime: peppermint lattes, gingerbread lattes, eggnog lattes, the Pee Wee Herman Christmas Special, waiting in line with fellow 30-somethings to get our picture taken with Santa while anthropologically observing the mounting misery of the toddlers and parents all around us, snowflake nail stickers, cowl neck sweater dresses, Prince-themed holiday parties (really happening), white elephants where I strategize to get the wine rack or picnic tote with cloth napkins and miniature cheeseboard, the special seasonal truffles they have at See’s Candy, cookies shaped like reindeer, and the amount of red and/or sequins everyone is wearing.
In that way, Christmas reminds me so much of dieting (and ya know how much I hate dieting). When we are in dieting mode, we might not like what we are doing or how we are living, but we know how to do it.
The thing I hate about Christmas time, though, is the way a switch seems to flip, and people (including me) go into autopilot mode. Even people who are usually very thoughtful about where their energy and resources get allotted during the rest of the year, cave to the omnipresent xmas frenzy. All of sudden, spending hours and hours with family and people we dread seeing no longer feels like something that is subject to desire or choice. Spending hundreds of dollars on people out of a sense of guilt or obligation or competition is standard.
Usually, I myself let my normal commitment to intention fall by the wayside. Rather than asking myself: What do I want? I end up asking myself things like: “How long do I have to do ____ so I won’t feel like a horrible daughter/sister/friend?” It is really hard not to get swept up in a frenzy of social obligations and pageantry that are culturally sanctioned every December.
In that way, Christmas reminds me so much of dieting (and ya know how much I hate dieting). When we are in dieting mode, we might not like what we are doing or how we are living, but we know how to do it. And, honestly, there is great comfort in that. We know how to play along, not stand out, and acquiesce to the behavior of the majority. Even if charting our own course might feel better, it is unfamiliar and therefore intimidating.
I decided this year would be different for me.
I opted out of Thanksgiving because I found myself dreading the awkward meal: my aunt showing up with her internet boyfriend who we all think has committed violent crimes and who uses a name that is OBVIOUSLY fake, my mother making strange exclamations throughout dinner until finally someone asks her to please stop yelling and she has a tantrum, my brother refusing to make eye contact and playing games on his phone with his left hand while eating with his right, my grandmother telling us for 121,451st time about how awful her childhood was, and then me chattering idly in hopes that if I don’t shut up I can help us skirt a horrible emotional cataclysm (as if talking were some kind of spell that silence could easily break). Each of us there for my grandmother who wants everyone to act like a family even though the emotional groundwork hasn’t been laid for us to trust one another.
I was terrified when I decided to opt out. But I was also exhilarated.
I made a plan, bought snacks the day before (important!), and spent the day in bed watching horror movies and eating speculoos cheesecake bites. I thought it would carry the thrill of skipping school, but it was actually more mundane than I’d imagined. The real payoff came in a different form: the emotional risk of following my desire (rather than convention) left to an incredible sense of clarity, power and freedom. I had done the unthinkable: opted into loneliness.
I am still not sure whether I will go home for Christmas or try Round 2 of Cheesecake Horror Day, but I’d like to make a pitch for doing the holidays with intention. Whether that means having a Christmas that looks traditional or one that doesn’t, do it on your terms. In the midst of a tidal wave of cultural normalcy, choose you.
I think you’ll love it.