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This Year’s Holiday Goals: More of What I Want, Less Emotional Labor

Plus: grief, Jewish-ness, and boundaries

Almost nothing about growing into the holidays as an adult human is easy. The holidays (much like wedding planning) are a process of grappling with tradition. It’s about dealing with things like faith, politics, and family in a public way. And ideally it’s about saying yes to what works for us, and no to what doesn’t.

We all know what happens to us by the end of the holiday season when we don’t put our needs, and our families’ needs, first. We end up crumpled on the floor in our New Year’s dresses, feeling like we’ve been run over by a very festive truck. While most of us know that’s what happens when we don’t set boundaries, it doesn’t make boundaries any easier to set.

The (good?) thing about the holidays, though, is that unlike wedding planning, we get to do them over again every year, and hopefully get a little better each year at figuring out what’s right for us. I—somehow—am in my 11th holiday season as a married person, and my 16th holiday season with my particular blend of families, faiths, and traditions. Every year, in an attempt to save myself from myself—or at least do a little better than I did last year—I try to get real about what I’ve learned, where I’m at, and what I’m trying this year. I hope it helps you figure out a little bit of your own holiday baggage, so by the time New Year’s comes around, you’re ready to joyfully raise a glass to what’s next, not collapse into pure soul-crushing exhaustion.

Boundaries are Important

Last year, we wrote about the problem of perpetual Millennial Holiday Adolescence, and it felt like the whole internet wanted to talk about it. Chalk it up to Baby Boomers who are unwilling to let go of their family dominance (Ok, boomer), or Millennials who are not ready to step into their own as fully grown adults, but whatever the cause, so many Millennials (and Millennial-adjacent folx) are struggling to put themselves first at the holidays. It’s easy to feel when your parents (and other parents, and other-other parents) demand that you show up for a tree trimming, or latke frying, or turkey carving that you have to say yes. That’s the holidays after all, right? The thing that takes place in the family home, and checks the boxes of your life long traditions?

Except, it’s not. By the time my parents were my age, they’d been hosting their own holidays for a decade or more. They would have laughed at the idea that their parents were still in charge of the holidays.

So, because sometimes in our family, we model our behavior on what our parents do, not what they say (and remind them of that every chance we get), early in our marriage, we made the decision that we were going to make our own choices about the holidays. That year, we ditched the Thanksgiving celebrations we were “supposed” to attend, and drove out to New Mexico, to have Thanksgiving with my grandmother in her retirement home. Now that she’s gone, I’m so glad we did, and remember that holiday so fondly. And fortunately, over the years, I’ve lost much memory of—or ability to give a shit about—how various family members expressed discontent over our choices.

What I’ve learned is that each time you break the holiday rules, and create your own traditions, the less resistance you get. At this point, our families know that there is no predicting what choices we’ll make for the holidays. We might host, we might travel, and if they’re lucky we might celebrate with them. They’ve learned to live with that. And we’ve learned to put the needs of our kids and ourselves first…which means we end the holiday season with a lot less exhaustion, and a whole lot more joy.

Make A List Of What You Actually Like

In our family the holidays have the double complexity of wider interfaith families. While that is a whole other story for a whole other post, it does mean that we do a more vigorous version of wrestling with tradition than most folx do. What Christmas traditions are we ok with including in our family life? Which ones are we not ok with including?

But our Extreme Sports version of wrestling with tradition has taught me some important things. This year I decided to take that knowledge (plus some healthy personal growth) and apply it to a rigorous review of holiday traditions. I decided to make a list of things that I actually like (which is very different than the list of things I feel like I’m supposed to like). It’s also much shorter. My current list looks a little like this:

  • Latke party
  • Elaborate holiday cards to keep in touch with family
  • Seeing the Nutcracker in San Francisco with my daughter
  • Small presents each night of Hanukkah
  • Decorating the house (we go with general winter themes, and currently use the collection of ornaments I got from my grandmother because I miss her.)
  • Matching holiday pajamas for the kids
  • Christmas morning breakfast
  • “Jewish Christmas” in the city, i.e. doing fun activities with no lines
  • Minimal gifts (that means one major gift for each of us, and an experience gift.)
  • Chinese dinner and movies the night of Christmas
  • Leaving the kids with my mom to ring in the New Year, and doing something just the two of us

Note that Thanksgiving doesn’t appear anywhere on this list, because I find it to be a generally sub-par holiday. Given that, we do something different for Thanksgiving every year. This year we’re staying at The Madonna Inn and spending time in LA with family.

Better Managing Holiday Emotional Labor

I have written in the past about how holidays have long been a struggle of emotional labor for me. It’s the time of the year that I almost fully manage, and some years the stress has been overwhelming. After writing about it last year, I spent a lot of time thinking about the issue, and about how I could improve it. I came to two conclusions.

First, I’m married to someone who, as our children get older, manages a lot of the logistics of the rest of our lives. I’m firmly in charge of our social life and holiday planning. But David manages day-to-day stuff like: grocery shopping, making sure the kids get their semi-yearly doctors and dentist check ups, getting homework actually done, and car maintenance. (That list makes it sound like he does it all, but with two careers and two kids that’s just a fraction of the stuff we manage on a daily basis. Plus: men shouldn’t get any special award for doing what womxn do all the damn time.) But suffice to say, pondering the logistics that he does manage made me feel much more peaceful about the fact that I run the show when it’s holiday time. We each have stepped into roles we’re naturally good at, and that’s a great thing.

But secondly, I realized that if I was going to continue running the holidays, I needed to get a handle on things much earlier. Which is how this year, the day after Halloween, I went to our whiteboard, made a list, and then started sifting through tasks. By the first week of November I had holiday pajamas ordered, holiday photo calendars designed, and holiday cards well underway. It felt really early, but I know that time somehow compresses in late November and December, and suddenly everything not done has to be done at once.

Embracing Jewish Traditions In A Dark Time

And finally, and more painfully, dealing with anti-Semitism.

I have had a complicated relationship to Christmas since I started my conversion process 13 years ago. But in the last year, with anti-Semitism on the rise, like many Jews the world over, our lives have been consumed with worrying about keeping our children safe, and fears of violent attacks on our place of worship. And this has made my relationship with Christmas much more complicated. In a time when it feels increasingly important to be visibly Jewish, I struggle with the fact that we’re still holding on to some remnants of the holiday I grew up with. It’s not easy.

I don’t have a neat and tidy ‘lesson learned’ to wrap this up with. In fact, I deeply wish we didn’t have to deal with it, and our kids were not going through the trauma of trying to absorb violent actions and rhetoric that seems to be coming at us from all directions these days. But the good thing is, this has lead us to some deeper family discussions about what traditions we want to be engaging with and why, and what we’re no longer comfortable with.

We don’t have clear answers yet, and like so many parts of the holidays, it’s a evolving process. But at just seven, our son has asked if we can stop participating in most parts of Christmas, because it’s, “Not our tradition.” #Proud. I don’t know what that looks like yet, but I’m grateful to get to have these conversations with my family… even if they’re being brought on by horror and pain. (You can read more of my thoughts about being Jewish at the holidays over here.)

And, Finally Grief…

I wrote last year about going into my first holiday season after losing a parent. In the end, I prepped for it so much that the holidays ended up somewhat emotionally uneventful. (Before and after the holidays though? Disaster. Grief is never not surprising.) We visited my dad’s grave on Christmas Eve, and I suspect we’ll continue that as a tradition. It’s slightly ironic, because he hated Christmas. But he loved his family, so there we are.

There are no easy takeaways I can give you about grief and the holidays, other than: it sucks, it will surprise you, it changes all the time. But for those of you navigating that this year, I see you and I’m sorry.

The holidays are never as easy and glittery as they seem. But I am convinced that better planning, better boundaries, and more listening to our own needs will serve us well, at this maximal and intense season of (sometimes forced) joy.

How About You? What traditions are you embracing (and discarding) this holiday season? What parts of the holidays stress you the hell out? If you were to make your own list of traditions you actually love, what would be on it?

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