There are two truths that I have long struggled to square at this time of year. One is the child-like anticipation and joy that wells up in me during the holidays. The other is the devastation I feel about the kind of family in which I was raised. For many years, I approached the holidays as an oncoming storm. I would batten down the hatch, endure my addiction and codependency-riddled family, and then breathe a sigh of relief when it was over. I could then go back to being myself.
But motherhood and the act of championing my son’s environment grew me up; I realized that it was time to shift from a come-what-may survivor attitude toward the holidays to an okay-I’ll-now-take-responsibility approach.
It took a bit of work, and of course continues to be an ongoing process, but I did discover what it takes—the recipe, if you will—for holidays I look forward to, can count on to contain moments of palpable joy, spontaneity, and—importantly, ease.
All holiday recipes begin with lists.
What if you were invited to write down a list of all of the pains and losses, resentments and disappointments, sadness and regret that you have ever felt during the holidays since the beginning of time—like, since you were born? Would you relish the opportunity? Remember the time your mother-in-law said maybe once you lost your baby weight she’d again give you an annual Banana Republic gift card? And the insensitive-but-practical gift your spouse gave you the year you became a mother?
Included in my list were these notes, stepmom crying that we didn’t love her after opening her presents, hating the vapid conversation at the Christmas dinner table and craving insightful discussions, opening my mother’s newspaper-wrapped presents in secret because they didn’t ask about her and I was ashamed of her.
The act of making this list is an invitation to disengage and let go of the weight of the items on your list.
A second list: once I purged the pains and losses, I wrote a list of my best holiday moments as far back as I could remember. My list included, running through that French village at midnight with my siblings while pretending we were spies, those solo early-morning walks by the sea in Iceland, pulling off my first beef bourguignon (thank you, Jaques and Julia), ducking into Starbucks for hot chocolate with my son just because of the rain, making snow angels in snow banks in NYC.
Looking over my list, I noticed (to my complete surprise) that physical activities and being outside played a large role in my holiday joy—as did spontaneity. This year those qualities are required ingredients: I will get outside, alone, when the town is quiet and mostly asleep, and I will be open to spontaneous fun (in fact I will attempt to court spontaneity).
The act of writing down this list of ingredients is the act of serenading joy.
Once you write this list, reflect on what you’ve written. What ingredients were part of your best holiday memories? Circle items, underline words, and connect common themes. Forget what you’re supposed to have enjoyed; it could be that the prescribed traditions are what have brought you joy but it’s entirely possible that what has thrilled your spirit falls quite outside traditional holiday etiquette.
Here’s the magic: the one small change we make will alter the whole. When we introduce just one new, different joy-oriented ingredient we not only create something of our own but it creates a balance that puts obligations to extended family in perspective. And of course, if we are truly enjoying ourselves, visibly, we’re modeling exactly what we hope to for our children.
What ingredients are on your list?