[Body, Mind & Spirit] Not My Mother’s Christmas: Navigating the Holidays

My mother gave from her heart all year long, but tripled her efforts during the holidays. She loved everything about the season: baking, cooking, cards, caroling, shopping, wrapping, giving to charity, hosting and attending parties, and decorating. “You need a little bit of Christmas in every room,” she’d say. She shopped all year long for Christmas, safely securing gifts in her walk-in closet the way squirrels stash nuts. “It’s best to buy something when you see it,” she’d say, never leaving her shopping to the last minute. I can’t count the number of hours she spent on her feet in the kitchen preparing tins of baked goods, which she sent to friends and family near and far.


When January rolled around she’d always end up in bed with a cold, the flu, or excruciating back pain. “I guess I overdid it,” she’d say.


I used to think she sacrificed her own joy doing so much for her family and friends during the holidays, and I sometimes wonder how much of her doing came from obligation, despite her telling us repeatedly how much she loved the holidays. But Mom was a woman with a mind of her own and she wouldn’t have done everything she did if she hadn’t wanted to do it—even if it meant she’d “crash” at the end of the season.


It took me years to figure out that I am not my mother and I don’t have to do what she did in order to create a meaningful holiday season for my family. I learned this the hard way.


In my early adult years, I jumped through holiday hoops and tried to live up to Mom’s example, which created tremendous stress. I dreaded the holidays, which were complicated further by my husband’s birthday, a week before Christmas. Every year, when Thanksgiving rolled around, I’d want to go to sleep and wake up January 2.

Since I knew that wasn’t going to happen, I’d set aside my writing and plunge headfirst into celebrating Christmas. Fortunately, I had help from my husband, who’s a much better cook than I am, and enjoys it too. Somehow we’d muddle through, and I’d enjoy myself—especially once the holidays were over!


Every year I have to remind myself:  this is my holiday season, not my mother’s. I’ve had to dig deep and ask myself what’s important. My sanity is important. Sharing from my heart with loved ones is important. Being together. Remaining happy and calm. Writing! A life that is too busy for writing is not a life I want to live. A life that is too busy for meditation is not one I want to live. A life too busy for yoga, ditto.


I also love being open to spontaneous Christmas joys. My most memorable Christmas as an adult came when my daughter was in preschool. Her teacher, Annie, had been dumped by her fiancé and was moving from where she was living in LA back east to live her with her parents. Annie needed to sell her car and was having a hard time doing so. Maria, the cleaning lady at Helen’s school, had been in a car accident. She wasn’t badly hurt, but her car had been demolished. She desperately needed a new one and her insurance wouldn’t cover it. For several days, along with a couple other moms, I stood on the carpool line at school asking parents for donations to buy Annie’s car so we could give it to Maria. We were able to raise the money, and the looks on both Annie and Maria’s faces when they learned what we’d done made that holiday season happy beyond measure. Who would have guessed that this simple, spontaneous act would have created my most memorable Christmas.


Last year, in early December, my sixteen-year-old daughter asked what I wanted for Christmas. “Joy, peace, happiness, and love,” I said. “If you could bottle those, that would be great.”


On Christmas day I unwrapped four mason jars labeled “Joy,” “Peace,” “Happiness,” and “Love.” Each was filled with water and glitter. When I shook them I realized it was time to shake off the sadness and grief I’d been slogging through after losing my mom, and time to activate my joy, peace, happiness, and love. And, importantly, I realized I could do this anytime I wanted—as long as I remembered to do so!


This is what I want from the holidays, and from my life: a little ease. Some grace. A knowledge that whatever I do is enough, and so am I. I can create my own rituals. My own meaning. My own holiday. And I don’t need to sacrifice my writing or any of the other things I love.


“Do less,” an inner voice says. “Pay attention. Flip off your autopilot switch and consider what you’re doing. Don’t do things because your mom did them; make conscious choices.” It’s hard to listen to this wise voice when I get busy. But sometimes doing less really is more. And authenticity is a winning gift we give to others, as well as ourselves.


I encourage you to take the time to reflect on what’s important for you this holiday season. Would you like to set your writing aside in order to more fully participate in festivities? If so, feel free to also set aside your guilt. Let yourself have fun. Embrace life. Or, perhaps you’re chomping at the bit to begin a new writing project. Maybe you’ve had an idea that’s been swirling inside your head and heart and you’d like to give yourself the gift of starting to write it. Or maybe you’d like to resume working on something that’s had you stumped. Maybe you’re ready to move forward, and will find joy in that process. Would you like to get up an hour earlier to work on your writing this season?  Or stay up late into the night? Whatever choices you make will be fine if they are conscious choices. Seek joy, listen deeply, be true to yourself, and your holiday season, happy or not, will be yours.


I’ve resumed work on my memoir, The Raw Years: A Midlife Quest for Health & Happiness, and will be completing Chapter 13 this season. That’ll be a gift I’ll give to myself. What gifts will you be giving yourself? I’d love to hear how your writing fits into your plans this holiday season.


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  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Catherine Marshall-Smith: I resonate with what you've written! Thank you for clarifying my relationship with Christmas. Addiction is the perfect word—and one I never would have thought of using in this context. Also, I appreciate what you wrote about questioning your motives. What am I trying to prove? Contrary to what I've absorbed from advertisers, spending money has little to do with love!

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Pat Sabiston: I'm so sorry to hear about your loss. How lovely that you've offered to edit and post your grandson's work. Your comment here shows such wisdom and strength. I'm glad you've given yourself "permission" to "pull back" "from all the manic behavior that can take over the season!" This is so well-said! Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my post. Your words move and inspire me. Blessings of healing light to you and your family during this challenging time.

  • Pat Sabiston

    Last week, we lost a grandson in a tragic automobile accident.  My husband and I have given ourselves "permission" not to send cards this year, but instead we'll "pull back" from all the manic behavior that can take over the season and just enjoy the true reason for the season without undo pressure in any area of our lives.  And, the time spent with family will be a bit more precious I can assure you.  The young man was a writer, and I have offered to edit his work for posting on a special site. 

  • Catherine Marshall-Smith

    Comment by Catherine Marshall-Smith 1 second agoDelete Comment

    Christmas is a bit of an addiction for me and I go at it like I'm taking down a Grizzly. In the last two years I've had this nagging feeling that I'm overdoing it. Reading your post made me realize, I'm setting the bar impossibly high for my twenty something year old children. I also question my motives. If I didn't buy so many gifts, wrap them in perky paper and arrange them wall to wall under the tree, would my family love me less? Would they feel any less loved by me? It's a hard habit to stop, especially when it is so heavily reinforced by our culture.

    Thanks for posting this.