Stepping On My Seasonal Soapbox

The music, the decorations, the sale ads—the holidays are already here. While I promise to get back to humor next time, today I have to step on my seasonal soapbox.


Like a lot of people, I sometimes find this time of year to be hard. Between the loss of family gatherings due to time and distance, the rampant and unnecessary consumerism, no holiday break, a dash of deep depression and a partridge in a pear tree, I would much rather just skip to January 2.

There won’t be a big family meal, and come Christmas there won’t be many—if any—gifts. Times are tight and money is even tighter, regardless of the date on the calendar.

I’ve never been bitter because we don’t have money for things, but I do get annoyed that others are so obsessed with those things.

However, I get it. It’s easy to feel pressured to buy things, eat foods that don’t make you feel good and stress about spending time with people you might not enjoy all that much except in small doses.

When that’s no longer an option, you learn a valuable lesson—be better, not bitter, and be thankful for all that you have.

So this time of year I really have to distance myself from certain things online and on TV, as I can’t stand seeing people filmed on Black Friday – ravenous for deals on TVs, cameras, phones, etc., people in malls pushing others over, obsessed with getting things.

Then they show Christmas Day.

The mall is quiet. People are home with their families. The holiday is over. Until the next shot when it’s Dec. 26 and people are right back at the mall again, ravenous for after-Christmas sales and replacing the gifts they didn’t want. It’s like somehow Christmas didn’t happen for some people. It didn’t fill the hole. It wasn’t enough.

It’s different when you’re a kid, or at least it was for me, and so I understand that it’s different for parents.

The holidays were a magical time with no worries, only wonder. The fact that parents can take the time to create fun traditions and keep that magic alive is priceless, and something I keep with me now.

Growing up I was lucky enough that every holiday dozens of people in my big Polish family would be crammed around tables full of food and conversation. And while I might remember a few of the special gifts that I got, those “things” aren’t first on my mind.

What I remember much more are the things that we did and said, making the food that we ate and places we went every year.

So this year with every Black Friday ad, every person complaining about “surviving the holidays” like it’s a terminal illness, I’m going to try not roll my eyes.

Instead when they complain about feeling burdened to buy gifts, I might kindly remind them to connect to why the person they’re shopping for is special to them and how they want them to feel when they open the gifts.

Instead of overcommitting to events that just leave them drained, try to take a moment to stop and take in the sights and the smells of the season. Step back and ask, “What do I want to remember?” And if they have kids, “What do I want them to remember?”

Because even though some things are unavoidable—crazy uncles making “breast or leg man” jokes around a dead bird carcass stuffed with stale bread, awkward company parties, people freaking out over red cups at Starbucks—there are some things we can control.

We can be thankful for things that we have and make the memories that we want to keep–and that doesn’t cost a dime.

(Steps off soapbox, trips, has a piece of broccoli fall out of my shirt that fell in there sometime while I was eating dinner.)

Let the season begin.

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32 responses to “Stepping On My Seasonal Soapbox

  1. What you described about the bustling malls on both the start and the end of the Christmas season reminded me of a scene from a documentary called What Would Jesus Buy. I saw it several years ago (and the movie is uneven in terms of quality); however, that scene really stuck with me. The acknowledgement that people in real life are the opposite of the Who’s in Whoville is notable. In Whoville, even if the Grinch stole all of the presents, Christmas came nevertheless. And in our real world, even if all of the presents show up in hoards, Christmas doesn’t come at all for some people. It’s back to the mall to exchange and to buy post-Christmas sales.

    To give Christmas meaning, I try to stay away from the mall altogether, and like you said, instead think about the person and the feeling I want them to have when opening a gift. I tend to buy from small businesspeople/craftspeople on Etsy, or I make something by hand. (The only time I avoid that is for kids and for people who I know are underwhelmed by handmade items. I don’t relish giving a present only for someone to look burdened by receiving it.)

    • Exactly! I’ve never seen that film, but it sounds about right. Finding the perfect gift for someone–even if it’s only a card–is the coolest feeling ever. No obligation attached.

  2. As I get older, and all of our kids are grown adults and have lives of their own, with some of them living many states away, the time we get to spend with them is becoming more important than what gifts we can get them. I bet if I asked any one of them what they received on Christmas last year, they won’t remember. But as we all gather and talk and reminisce, the memories of holidays and gatherings of the past are what they remember.

  3. I’ve thought this for years, with the exception that I’ve always been amused with Black Friday, though I have never participated. And so I think this post is exceptional, Abbey. Love your work…all of it.

  4. Important post. Thanks for writing it. In recent years, I have also learned that the Holidays are tough for divorced parents. Negotiating whether the kids go to his Thanksgiving or your Thanksgiving. Who gets what part of Christmas day. Coordinating the big gifts. The stress about whether you’ve “ruined” Christmas merely by not giving them the storybook scene of parents and children gathered round the tree (or you do give them the scene and it’s all weird and wrong and you wish you hadn’t). It’s all tough.

  5. My favorite event of the holiday season has always been New Years Day dinner – all of the same people in attendance and not a single gift in sight.

  6. I used to hate the fact that all the holidays seemed to appear ta the same time in all the stores. Now at 72 I think it’s a good idea . One stop shopping appeals to me. Kids and grandkids are grown. Mom at 92 has cancer and this will be her last year with us and she never liked the holidays anyway. The Thanksgiving dinner will most likely be Chinese buffet. No one wants all those left overs anymore. If only I were a ground hog I wouldn’t get out of bed until February Jesus really is the reason for the Christmas crazies. He must be wondering where and how it all went to the Crazies.

  7. During the rest of the year, I’m happy to live in an area that is surrounded by nearly every store/mall/restaraunt you could possibly need something from, all within walking distance. However, from November 1st through December 27th, it becomes like something you’d typically find in the Thunderdome. Mix that with glorious Cleveland winter weather, and you have a recipe for multiplying SAD by Consumeristic Madness by Black Friday Sickness, which mostly equals out to I shop online. Oops, I think you missed a piece of broccoli 😉

  8. For some reason, I have this book “100 Tips on How to Simplify Christmas.” I usually find it at the bottom of the last bin of Christmas decorations after I’ve goaded and cajoled people around here to help me outfit the house like we’re a float in Macy’s parade, and we’re all so frustrated and tired that we’re ready for the season to be over (or at least I am) before it’s even started.

    Thanks for the reminder, ahead of time, that the season is not about the trappings, but the people.

  9. Great post. I am one who tends to LOVE Christmas and the whole holiday season – but I get depressed too, missing my mom, not being able to see friends as much as I’d like because of busy schedules, the pressures of gift-giving. I’ve worked in retail my entire adult life and the greed and the pettiness and the selfishness and the….insanity. The insane amounts of money people spend. I’d find people coming through my checkout line and buying $30+ watches for “a stocking stuffer” – and my head is spinning. It makes me sick to see the way people behave over Black Friday and the way corporations feed into it and make it grow. Ugh.
    I do think I was blessed as a child though – “return” was not an option. If you complained, it was taken away and given to someone who needed it. A lot of our toys came from second-hand stores when we were young because my parents didn’t have a lot of money. But what I learned to love about the holidays was the eating popcorn with the family and watching movies, listening to Christmas music while baking with my mom, the beautiful chaos of the annual tree decorating. Those were the things I learned to treasure and still do. 🙂

  10. It is a tough time for a lot of people. My parents went to a lot of trouble to make childhood memories, so I remember.

  11. Thank you, Abby, for this insightful and eloquent post. I think I’ll print it out and re-read it every time I’m feeling blue, numb or panicked. We are having serious financial problems this year, and while I feel awful about not get the kids any presents, part of me feels hugely relieved that it will be impossible to focus on that part of the holidays–we’ll HAVE to focus on the important parts instead. I only hope my typically materialistic teenagers will be able to do the same. It’s funny what you said about January 2. It’s my son’s birthday, and we celebrate not only that, but also the relief that is the end of the season. My father died on Christmas day last year…I guess I’ll find out how that complicates things even more this year.

  12. Thanksgiving is actually one of, if not my #1, favorite holiday of the year. Why? Because the only thing that is expected of you is to overeat while surrounded by family or friends. There are no gifts to buy except the occasional bottle of wine. I enjoy the December holidays too, but agree that they should be about creating memories rather than buying them.

  13. Love this. It’s so true that people way over stress about the season. I’ve become way less obsessed with getting and giving gifts as an adult, and I much prefer the opportunity of being with people and sharing memories with them.

  14. Great post!! I am a single mom with two adult daughters – one married living 4 hours away & one in a relationship with a boy across the country. Already I see them feeling the pressure to make time for everyone during the holidays…. their parents, grandparents & the significant others family as well.
    When I got divorced & there was the issue of split holidays. The kids struggled. Always feeling bad for the one kidless parent on the actual day. I decided then to try and instill that it is the spirit of said day that is important…not the number on the calendar. I’d rather have my family & loved ones all together and stress free to celebrate Christmas on February 11th than overwhelmed and crabby on December 25th. Plus the idea of Christmas in Belieze in February sounds perfect.

  15. Excellent post. While my children were young, it was always a struggle to provide more than a couple of gifts and I was always stressed about making sure everything was evenly divided, and everyone got at least one special gift. A few years ago I told them that from now on not to expect gifts at any specific time of year, if I had something for them, I would give it to them when the spirit moved me. Shortly after that I stopped having dinner with the family and have started serving dinner to others on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and I have found this to be meaningful for me. They now have no expectations and I’m not disappointed because I have none as well.

  16. good post. I grew up in a big Polish family, too, and I miss the chaos and the love. and the food. and the love.

  17. I actually love a lot of parts of the holidays! I like doing arts and crafts, so I make a lot of the gifts I give to my family and friends. Then I am excited for them to see the things I spent a lot of time working on! I really only buy stuff for the kids in my family.

  18. I don’t know if anyone caught Chris Rock’s opening monologue on SNL this past weekend. Most of it I found very distasteful (it will always be ‘too soon’ to joke about the Boston Marathon bombing and 9/11). However, he did touch on this very topic and how we manage to materialize everything. How we celebrate Jesus’ birthday in probably the opposite way of everything Jesus stood for and how economists measure “Jesus’ birthday success” by how well the retailers did. That part was worth watching….the rest…ummmm…
    Great post, Abby.

  19. I have a love-hate relationship with this time of year too. Depression, family estrangements, awkward in-law circumstances, the false promise of Rockwellian experiences, etc., etc. Thank you for this Abby. It’s an excellent reminder of what we can control about our own feelings with regard to this season. And “Better, Not Bitter” is going to be my mantra.

  20. What a beautiful post Abby. Made me cry into my coffee once again. Love ya.

  21. Thanks for posting on this topic. I always have to gird my loins before the holiday season, and I like the way you said it, “Better, not Bitter.” The evening news said tonight that KMart is going to be open at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day. I hope no one shows up, but they probably will.

  22. It’s so true. We didn’t have much growing up so we didn’t get much. We used to get new socks. No joke. My mom STILL buys us socks every Christmas and I kind of look forward to the tradition.

    It’s not about gifts. In fact, I have a strict no gift policy. Making it about gifts takes the focus away from where it should be. The point is that you get together and have fun. Gifts just make it difficult. I’m all about no gifts….which is why we bail on it all and go to Mexico for the season! The only gift I’ll get there will be food poisoning!

  23. I have mixed feeling about this time of year, and I am glad I’m not alone.

  24. carolinecilento

    I appreciate this so much. I have a rule: no Christmas music before Thanksgiving. Part of this is because November 1 is too early to start thinking about what I’m going to get people, but mostly it’s because Thanksgiving needs its day too. The holiday season has become too much about consumerism, when Christmas is about Jesus. Thank you for putting this into perspective.

  25. I think Christmas and thanksgiving should be only for the kids. Its a time to do good to help others. That is what we should teach our kids. I like you, will not go near the malls. Thanks giving is being with your family. Some of us on the holidays are hard if we lost or can not be with the ones we love. I know trying to put on a happy face when you can not be with your family is depressing at this time of year.

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