The Gift of a Guilt-Free Christmas

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

- Charles Dickens

Aaah, the emotional sleigh-ride of Christmas. Joy. Peace. Love. Hope. Guilt. Yeah, for me guilt is right up there. Guilt and inadequacy. And the triggers for that guilt - that kindling for a cold Yule flame - are everywhere.

The Christmas edition of any womens magazine can set me off. Better Homes and Gardens, Country Living, Woman's Day. They're all the same. The houses, the food, the people look so perfect. Where is the television? The dirty dishes? The decorations created by gummy little 6-year-old fingers? The Taco Bell wrappers and refrigerator magnets? And not one person is wearing a '49er jersey or a baseball cap.

This year I was lucky to find the stockings, put up a little tree and nag my indulgent husband into hanging a couple of strings of lights. I might dust off the Santa ornament hanging from the ceiling fan chain. He's been there since last Christmas.

And pardon me, but those people who say things like "We ALWAYS go home for Christmas" or "It's all about family" can really get me down. Isn't THIS home? And for many of us it's a question of which family. Mine? His? The extended-across-the-country family? Or our little nuclear family?

Whichever family you choose, there is another one that you didn't.

We are pulled and tugged and nagged and nudged in all directions. And each choice involves someone's feelings getting hurt. Want to know how I feel? No matter how much you think you love your grown children, if you make them feel guilty about not spending the holidays with you, you don't love them enough. I am grateful to my parents and in-laws for loving us enough.

The expectations placed for good cheer, and gifting and entertaining can make even terminally cheerful people like me feel downright blue. I know we place at least half of those expectations on ourselves. We think we know what everyone else needs to make the holiday special - almond cookies, chicken tacos, home movies - and we try like the dickens to give it to them. When we can't, we feel like we've let them down. Guilt sets in.

I'm betting women suffer from these feelings of inadequacy more than men, but that's because I talk with women about this. If you guys feel the same sense of responsibility for ensuring Aunt Edna or Cousin Jack's holiday happiness, you haven't let on.

Or maybe it's a mother thing. Is that when we start taking responsibility for everyone's holiday?

I remember many Christmas mornings surveying piles of loot and overflowing stockings, counting packages, mentally tallying expenditures to make sure neither of our daughters felt short-changed. Small wonder they began doing the same thing. As if their happiness, their self-worth and value hinged on how much stuff was in their pile on one morning out of the year. A sensible and educated person would know better, but when it comes to Christmas all that common sense goes up the chimney.

But this is more than just about children at Christmas. It's also about that loved one who never seems satisfied. You know who it is. Everyone has one. Except me of course.

Here's a thought: For people who are cheerful and loving 364 days a year, whatever you do will be more than enough. However, for those unhappy, cranky people, even a spectacular Christmas won't be enough.

Be gentle, be kind, but don't take it personally when Aunt Edna or Cousin Jack complains about the pie crust. Or the slippers. Remember, happiness is an inside job. Each of us chooses to be happy. Or not.

And it goes both ways. If I've done my job as a wife, mother, daughter, friend, human being all year, any gifts I give at Christmas are almost irrelevant. But if I haven't done my job - haven't been nurturing, generous, kind, thoughtful -Christmas is my reminder to do better in the year to come. The real gift is another chance to be my best self.

It took Ebenezer Scrooge a lifetime and one long winter's night to learn his lesson and to promise, "I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year." If we could all keep that in mind, perhaps Christmas can be what it is supposed to be, a joyful celebration and remembrance of love and hope.

Be good to each other all year. Take care of each other all year.

Maybe I'll let Santa hang around on the ceiling fan for another year, just so I don't forget.

Lorie Smith Schaefer, her husband and daughters wish you happiness from the inside out. Lorie is a reading specialist at Seeliger School.


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