Because neurotic is the new black....

Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols
East Lansing, Michigan,
December 31
I write, I read, I clean up after people and I worry about things. I have a chronic insufficiency of ironic detachment. My birthday isn't really December 31; it's March 22 but it won't let me change it.


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DECEMBER 14, 2010 7:58AM

Christmas: Am I Doing It Wrong?

Rate: 41 Flag

Christmas is only eleven days away, and I’m beginning to think I did it wrong. I am not panicked, abject, or guilty; I am simply enjoying a relatively light workweek with the promise of family and a great dinner on the 25th. Outside of my mellow sphere, however, there are signs that we are waiting not for a holiday, but for the end of the world, as we know it. The guy in the Sherlock Holmes hat at the Post Office talking loudly to himself about how he “didn’t need this aggravation,” the parents searching frantically for the last few gifts, the women with jobs and children beating themselves up because they haven’t gotten their cards out yet…it’s out there. Are they crazy or am I a flake?

I have had Annie’s Very Hysterical Christmas (followed by Annie’s Very Bad Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), but this year I decided to let the red & green chips fall where they may. We got a tree (just), but when the day came to get the tree and Sam was busy at a friend’s house I chose not to have a fit and gnash my teeth because it was not our tradition and it was all RUINED. Rob and I went and had a lovely time, and we now have a lit and decorated tree. The process of bringing the Christmas decorations was marred by the fact that approximately 700 squirrels have taken up residence in our attic, and at least one of the boxes didn’t make it down the ladder, as a result of which we are missing the nativity scene, several angels and some snowmen, all of which are probably far above my head providing bedding and snacks for the bushy-tailed enemy. They had already opened the box housing the gingerbread house and eaten everything but the hard candy roof tiles. I declined offers from Sam to shoot the offenders with his airsoft guns, and from Rob to set the cats on them; why shouldn’t the squirrels enjoy Christmas, too?

I didn’t bake cookies this year, and I didn’t send Christmas cards because I had found, in past years, that the prospect filled me with such existential dread and stark panic that it really wasn’t worth it. I did buy gifts, but without the sense that they had to be perfect, and that I had one chance in all eternity to surprise and delight my loved ones with the objects that would change their lives forever from black and white to living color. Santa will be generous and thoughtful, but there will be no let down if I do not wake up on the 26th feeling that I have made the world a better place through the clever use of credit cards and stealth.

I did not sign up to decorate a second giant tree at my parents’ house and put up all of their santas, snowmen, angels, wreaths and garlands, working with a sense of dread as I contemplated the post-holiday necessity of taking down, boxing up and re-storing all of their decorations and then doing it all over again at my own house. I bought them a tiny, adorable real tree, and we will spend this afternoon at their house with the help of all of the grandchildren doing “Christmas Lite” and having lunch. I decided to take simple things to contribute to Christmas dinner – green beans almandine, a nice salad with pears and hazelnuts and a key lime pie. There will be no hauling a steaming and sloshing pan of au gratin potatoes over the river, through the woods and onto my floor mats, nor will there be a trashcan filled with the remains of four failed Buches de Noel. There has also been no eggnog, no hustling to buy teachers’ gifts, and we somehow managed to miss both “Frosty” and the “Grinch.”

There is nothing wrong with Doing it All, and I admire those who are able to get the cards out, buy perfect gifts, bake 14 dozen cookies and decorate every inch of their homes without requiring outpatient psychiatric treatment. I have, in fact, been there and done that, many, many times. Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that I was really kind of hating Christmas, that it was One More Damned Thing, and that no one in my family was happier or better off because I was cracking the whip and running myself into the ground. There is also the whole “reason for the season” issue; even if one is not actually celebrating the birth of Christ, the holiday is, at its best, a time when even the most staunchly secular can take time to relax with their families, create traditions that have some meaning, and celebrate the goodness in life. That's a lot of goodness to sacrifice on the altar of perfection.

The best moments I have had in this holiday season have involved friendship, community and a strong sense of being tied to the humanity around me: the church Christmas pageant with tiny children dressed as sheep and angels, a gingerbread house party with a serendipitous mix of old and new friends, a drop-in visit and wonderful conversation with people we hadn’t seen in years (because we’re all too busy), a mellow, hilarious family dinner at a great new restaurant, and a magical concert of Christmas music in a beautiful old church. None of these things were forced or calculated, and all of them left us with a sense of greater connection, and a reminder of how really lucky we are.

Interestingly, abandoning the idea that I have to have a perfect holiday has also dissolved the sharp-edged irony I have often felt about holiday hype and commercialization, and left me free to be the sentimental, open-hearted kind of person who gets all misty-eyed over the littlest sheep in the pageant. Like Scrooge, or the Grinch, my heart has grown several sizes this year, and I do not find myself in the midst of one activity thinking about the next, or calculating a perpetual to-do list in my head. I am fully present, engaged and interested in what goes on around me, whether it’s a conversation with an old friend or a haunting, antiphonal carol sung in a dimly lit church. There will be no crash because I am neither running hard nor climbing high; I’m just moving at a comfortable pace and tuning out the idea that “every kiss begins with Kay.” I could “do it all,” and in fact I have, but why would I ever go back?

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I will be back to read as soon as I can. I just am happy when you post.
Wonderful way to manage Christmas! I think the decision not to make cookies was a good one. And the sending of cards is overrated too. It comes down to choosing what you really really want to do and enjoy. My mother loves her cards. My daughters love their gingerbread houses. No one has to do it all. I do nothing. I like it that way.
I agree so much with everything. I see these houses almost bedazzled and I think gee whiz they just have to take all that down and put it back away and I realize I am more than content this year to do drive by's to see other people killing themselves trying to enjoy a season that is about sitting and talking with family.
As I listen to one of my girls at work bitch about the kids play and the tree and the class party I remind myself to keep my mouth shut someday she will see or she won't it is not my call.
Great thought provoking post.
Lovely! I finished up my Christmas shopping when I wandered into Nordstrom and let my eyes decide what might work...sudden, random, fun. (Makeup for my mom in the hospital, some shirts for the sweetie.)

I agree that the season is, for too many people, one more way to prove how Terribly Busy they are. Good for them! I had drinks last night with my agent, have a business-related holiday party tonight -- but that's about it. We attended a choral concert in NYC's 2nd oldest church of 16th century music and on the 22d will hear the Messiah sung at Carnegie Hall.

Slow, sweet, enjoy it!
700 squirrels!!! my lord, woman...what've you got in your attic that I ain't got. ;)
Simple is good. And screw everyone who says that you're not living up to expectations.
Maybe the squirrels had the right idea all along.
Eat the ornaments and spend a quiet Christmas in the attic...
Seriously, I understand what you are saying...great post.
700 squirrels! I only have a possum family, a raccoon, and some rats. in my post-Katrina attic. I guess I wasn't really trying. . . . goes off to buy gingerbread.
Loved this, Ann. Doing it All is highly overrated. We have commitments outside the house for all the usual holiday dinners so we are not decorating at ALL. I know blaspheme. We have decided, however, that we will watch two episodes of I Love lucy each day during our mutual vacation and laugh as much as we can. And Yahtzee. Do we know how to live or what?

Living in the moment, enjoying the kid who flubs his lines as a shepherd in a Sears plaid bathrobe, now that's living.

Wonderful essay. Congrats on the EP and cover.
Keeping this season simple does free us up to really savor the parts we want to savor. I love to give presents to my girl. I love decorating the tree. I love to twist my husband's arm into baking some pies. I love the lights, the decorations, the cards I receive. I love the magic that just seems to appear in people's hearts this time of year. The kindness, the generosity, the way people seem to soften.
Well, at least most of us...~r
Greek mythology is full of warnings about being perfect from Arachne to Narcissus. Perfection leads to self destruction. In other words imperfect people are a lot more happy. And the best Christmas memories and stories come from the disasters like the time the tree creased over on aunt Tilly and the dog drug the ham into the back yard.

Merry imperfect Christmas!
"Crashed" not "creased". Darn spell check, I need to turn that thing off.
I'm a grandma to 12 babies! I won't be ready for christmas until its over!
Way to dial it back and eschew the frenzy! Great read.
Be careful!!!!! If you begin to sound sane, you'll lose half your readership.
Exactly! This feels so good I am surprised everyone doesn't do it. I have been for a decade :)
Love it!
Merry christmas to you and the squirrels
I think this could be titled "Zen and the Art of Christmas." It's nice to read about a Christmas season of peace and contentment. I'm trying to let go of a lot of the expectations for the holidays that weigh on me - it can be a very enjoyable season!
Beautiful, if we could only just celebrate instead of worrying wether we were doing in perfectly.
rated with love
Good for you! I don't have a tree yet and the "norm" is the day after Thanksgiving. We adopted a family to buy presents for instead of each other and we are having a blast!
Great. Now the pressure is on to have a relaxing Christmas.
A sort of Buddhist approach--I like it! I am doing the same this year, without a plan and loving it.
When did it become part of our culture that we "must" enjoy the holidays? I love this and I will point my friends to it.
Every few years I decide to "opt out" of the holiday rush and always end up enjoying the season more. Happy Holidays to you.
Completely love your take on the season. It is rare to laugh out loud so many times while reading a relatively short passage. Thank you for the little bit of holiday fun.
Ann it seems like you are doing it right this year. It's never worth the self imposed stress we get caught up in. Your way is much better, and you did get a tree up. The lights are always the best during our cold dark nights!
Merry Christmas to you and your family.
What Joanie said......well, except for the part about getting my husband to bake pies. I'm just pleased he recently figured out where the potatoes are kept:) Merry Christmas, Annie, and keep on holding that stress light down low. You've already calmed me down:) Merry, merry!
As famed architect Mies van der Rohe said, "Less is more." Sounds like you nailed it.
You're definitely doing it wrong . . . but that's exactly what makes it so right, you little rebel, you!
Instead of all 12 siblings and a couple of my dad's ex wives getting together, the two siblings I actually grew up with and my mother and I all got together for a time. It was nice not worrying about 11 other families and their kids, and their kids' kids and my dad's exes. (I mean, really?) It was just my mom, my brother, my sister and her family, and my little family. Instead of buying a bunch of presents for people I don't see often or know well, I made a few special things for the special people in my life. Our tree just went up Sunday and the decorations are round pieces of paper I let my 4 and 2 year old color. My husband and I even made one. This year's theme for the holidays is Simplicity, and it's working well. I love your post. You're not just beating the holiday rush, you're ignoring it altogether. Isn't it nice to breathe?
Ann, I just love this post. I want to print it out and give it to every friend, every client, every person I know who is making themselves insane to make the "perfect" holiday. I always breath a sigh of relief come December 26th. I used to also be like the old you who pulled off ridiculous feats of accomplishment by December 25th, but was so worn out and cranky, there wasn't a creature stirring who wanted any contact with me. My best Christmas was when I let it all go...put out newspaper to cover the dining room table, made crab and melted butter and artichokes. No utensils were allowed and Silly Putty and Etch-A-Sketches served as appetizers. I've never done it the old way again. What joy to feel joy this time of year. Your post gave me a renewed sense of that joy. Thank you.
You didn't bake cookies?! What??!! (me neither)

I did, however, offer to do all this holiday mishegoss for others for a little payola. All of the gain, none of the pain. I'm also selling 'clean it up and get it out' services which are going like hotcakes. I have a love/hate relationship with December, but this year it may pay off.
I am a work in progress. I started to go down that path about completely feeling ruined that no one wanted to help with the decorating, etc., etc., but talked myself down as you did. Still, it's a challenge. But the goal is worthy!
i swear i was here this morning and rated and commented. gone. just gone. [sigh]

of all the posts that talk about dialing it back and not buying and not sticking stubbornly to every everything just because, this gets a big star. great writing and a good heart and your head in a happy place. have a lovely christmas, annie.
It has been many years since I've celebrated Christmas as a single red and green eggnog pine needle day. All days are precious, full of gifts we did not know we wanted until they appeared, the things that dollars did not buy. That sounds all sappypants, but maybe the greatest gift I've ever been given is that I really believe this to be true.
Ann, I am going to print this out and re-read it every December, to remind myself to "just calm the F*** down!"

Rated for your usual sanity, and for your excellent way of 'splaining it all to the rest of us.
Isn't it great to realize you don't have to be Martha 'effin Stewart at every holiday? I have also had "Luck O's Very Hysterical {insert holiday name here}" and it is never good, for me or the people I was Doing All of This For. I haven' t sent cards in years and really don't care. No baking yet this year, and so far the best times I've had this season are the day I spent with my sister and cousin in laws making hundreds of pierogi for Christmas dinner and gossiping high school style, and an unscheduled stop with my 5 yr old to see a drive through light display that we found on accident one night. I have forced myself to slow down and enjoy the time with my daughter more than anything, cause you only get one chance to create those memories. Rated Annie, you write so well!
Simple is good, Annie. Focus on what's important.
Heck, I haven't even started my shopping yet! (Tomorrow - may God have mercy on the poor cashiers at the mall who will have to do battle with me.)

I have found that we started going easier on Christmas once the kids hit their teens and were less into the spectacle. No longer a need to scour every aisle of Toys R Us, when a couple of bigger, more grown-up gifts would do.

BTW, I want a Kindle. (And tell Joanie it's cheating to say "first!" when she doesn't even plan to read it until later. But she looks good in a Santa hat!)
Yes, Ann. All wrong. It makes me so sad. All that peace and happiness doesn't mesh with Christmas.
An EL Christmas! How long ago and far away that seems! Merry Christmas any way you want it. It sounds wonderful.
Sounds to me like you are doing it absolutely right. :)