Friday, January 7, 2011

The Post-Holiday Exhale

Even this tree is slumping from the stress of the season.
It’s over.

I mean, I still haven’t taken down the tree, and ours are the only house lights left up on our street (hey, it’s cold out there!), but Christmas has definitely come and gone for another year. On the one hand, I’m a little sad that my very favorite annual event—the one that involves so much planning and preparation and anticipation—has passed by already. On the other hand [ahhhhh], the time has come to just breathe, arms splayed wide, body collapsed on the couch with a steaming peppermint hot cocoa by my side.

The holiday season, for me, feels a little like running in a weighted snowsuit up a mountain, alone. The end of the journey promises a Norman Rockwell experience filled with family love, twinkling lights, and the smell of fresh pine needles. When I finally get there, though, what I mainly feel is exhausted from the climb. The hubby and kids? They’re already at the top, waiting in a snug cabin with their feet held to the fire.

My husband and I have very different views on the “right” way to celebrate Christmas. While I happily embrace all the sparkle and hustle and traditions of the holiday, his perfect Christmas would involve a long nap, a rousing pick-up hoop game, and plenty of time to read the paper. (Dream on, couch-king!) Our reality, though, is filled to the brim with family gatherings (his, mine, and—modern families being what they are—mine again with the other parent), lots of gifts given and received, hugs, chaos, and mounds of shredded paper.

I am married to an economist who sees the world as a series of cost-benefit analyses. Exchanging presents just doesn’t make sense to a guy like him. Oh, he’ll participate in the family gift exchanges (and will smile and say thank-you like he should), but he’s never going to be the recipient who lights up the room with his delight at your thoughtfulness. The way my husband sees it, if he needs or wants something, he should just buy it himself (and vice versa). That way, everyone will get exactly the right thing without the hassle of a return. The appeal of trying to guess what someone else needs or wants simply escapes him.

My economist husband is married to—I guess you could call me an emotionalist. I don’t think gift giving can be placed on the same scale as other types of purchases. That sort of thinking leaves out very real non-tangible benefits for both the giver and the receiver. I get so excited when I find just the right gift for someone on my list (like these goofy "Road Rage" signs that went in Hubby’s Christmas stocking). Often, I find myself awake in the wee hours of Christmas morning, more excited than even the kids to see how each person likes what I chose.

This Christmas, my mother bought me a beautiful new buttery-soft brand-name leather purse. It’s the type of splurge I would never dream of buying for myself, but now it's one of my most cherished possessions. A simple economic view of the transaction leaves out all of the joy she felt when I gasped after tearing away the paper, and the extra warmth I feel when I use it knowing it was a gift from my mom. To put all of that emotional goodness in economic terms, we both derive more utility from the purchase this way than we would have if I had simply bought it myself.

So (surprise!), the gift buying is not really a shared experience around here. His primary contribution to the holiday—and this is not to belittle the very real effort he makes in this regard—is to try to ignore all of the time and money I spend to find just the right gifts for everybody on our list. Even though I know his economist inner self is cringing, he never says a word, no matter how ridiculously overstuffed the kids’ stockings get each year. My job, then, is to decorate the tree (and the rest of the house), buy and wrap the gifts for our boys and extended family, stuff the stockings, cook Christmas dinner (and the deviled eggs for Christmas morning at Grandma's), create & send the Christmas cards, and rally the troops for all of the many holiday gatherings with our two extended families.

Like I said, when I finally get to the Norman Rockwell moment, I’m often too exhausted (and, let’s face it, a little grumpy) to enjoy it quite as much as I feel I should.

I have about eleven months to figure out how to make the holidays easier and better and more fun for both of us next year, but the solutions—as always—elude me. (Which branch of the family should we cut out to make time for the hoop game?) I do have a few tiny seeds of ideas that I may float out there, though (additional suggestions are definitely welcome).
  • My Christmas gift from Mr. Hates-to-shop could be one day of professional housecleaning and one spa massage, to take place at the same time a couple of days before the holiday. I’m thinking that would go a long way toward bringing more peace on earth to our little celebration.
  • I should really loosen up my “package prettiness” standards and let the wrapping job fall to the boys and their all-thumbs dad. [Gulp] The wrapped gifts were only under the tree for about ten minutes this year anyway because of our chews-everything fluffy mutt (last year’s best gift ever).
  • Maybe—and this would be a big change for others, too, so it’ll take some discussion—family could come to our (new!) house this year, reducing the number of trips we make over the river and through the woods. Hey, and since the house would already be clean, Hubby might even get that nap!
 How do you handle the balance between multiple extended families and different celebrating styles at your house?


  1. The best Christmas I ever had was my first as a single adult; when suddenly I was faced with making my own holiday with no help from the usual suspects. Looking back, that Christmas was a huge change for me. I was afraid of what Christmas might become if I let it just happen, so I did some extra things to make sure I'd be OK. The effect this had on my support group (you) plus you doing the same thing for me, is something I will never forget. The best gift of the year might easily be five pints of frozen chili prepared by someone you love. So take a little time out to remember who is doing those little things (and sometimes not so little) that make life worth looking back on and remembering. Happiness might be an autographed David James Duncan novel or a fine leather purse just when you least expect it.

  2. Your comment brought tears to my eyes. Beautifully put... and I think your last sentence might be my new favorite quote: "Happiness might be an autographed David James Duncan novel or a fine leather purse just when you least expect it." Amen to that!


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