Holiday Misery


A journey into Christmas past, presented by Getty Images.

When I was a child, I remember getting an odd feeling in my stomach every Christmas. I saw things around me–on the telly, on the car radio, in the shop windows–that all promised excitement and so much fun. I was waiting for Santa, and that was an exhilarating thought when one is young and believes. But at the same time, I had this knot of dread too, over what, I wasn’t sure, but I realize now, it was the knowledge that something bad was going to happen at home. And it did, like clockwork, every year. Because my mother was stressed, like so many other adults at this time of year.

Holiday stress comes from the idea of “should.” What we think should be as opposed to what is, what we think we should do as opposed to what we reasonably can do, and who we think we should be as opposed to who we are.

Over the years, I watched my mother get frustrated, get angry, get depressed because of these beliefs. And she dragged us down with her too, because she and her feelings were the center of the household. As an adult, I see some of my friends get physically sick every year at this time because of the pressure they put on themselves. The result is a holiday filled with misery, not because the tree isn’t perfect, or the turkey burned, or the presents weren’t plentiful enough, or there weren’t the right people sitting at our holiday table. The misery comes from our idea of what ‘perfection’ is, and some people seem to have the toughest time accepting the imperfectness of themselves and their lives at this time of the year. It’s as though they say to themselves, “If it can’t be ‘perfect’ I might as well destroy it for myself completely.”

This year, as many of you know, I’ve had some health setbacks. I have a novel due in July to be published in October, and that deadline is looming. Then there’s our personal life: We have a sick relative whom we love, we have one son living overseas and three others living out of state. Their schedules and ours make it challenging to see each other as often as we’d like. There are other work problems too, for both me and my husband,which I won’t bore you with because you have your own, I’m sure.

In short, it’s stressful. Most days I handle it. Some days I don’t. But I never allow myself to get stressed over things like a Christmas tree or a meal. A child doesn’t really care if all the lights are working or whether those cookies are homemade by you or ones you bought. They care about that scowl on your face. And you should care about that scowl on your face–how you feel affects not only others, but you.

You deserve to be happy. You deserve to have an enjoyable holiday, but maybe you might have to change your idea of what an enjoyable holiday is. Maybe you have to accept that it’s not going to be your idea of perfect, and teach yourself to enjoy it, anyway.

Cynthia, one of my  characters in Cooking for Ghosts says, “The way this world works, to even have a shot at happiness, it takes self-discipline more than anything else.”

That comes from my own life, by the way. And it’s my truth.


  1. Wow, what a perfectly timed and powerful post. Glad I saw the link to it on Goodreads. I find this to be so true, especially of women. We put so much pressure on ourselves at this time of year to become Martha Stewart and Julia Child rolled into one, without any of their staff or other supports.

    This is my first Christmas without going to my parents’ in over a decade, and as such, I’ve put a ton of pressure on myself. I made a list of twelve recipes I want to make (not including Christmas Eve dinner, Christmas breakfast, and NYE dinner) and spent over $300 on groceries to do so…for whom? Me and my boyfriend? Seems excessive. Today I was stressing out over the expense of buying the ingredients for the additional meals, and he told me he didn’t expect me to make anything special. And he doesn’t. He’d be fine with a store-bought pizza. I’m putting this pressure on myself, and the same goes for the decorating, and trying to get the house “perfect” in a week…all while editing a novel, grading papers, posting blogs, returning comments, etc. It’s ridiculous, and I’ve done it to myself.

    I’m sorry to hear about your illness and other challenges. I had no idea, but I hope you’re on the mend and that 2019 is a better year for you. Thanks so much for this post and your wise words at the end. I’m going to start thinking of my holiday in a different way, which will ease the pressure on my poor boyfriend too. x

    • Patricia V Davis says

      Hi, J.H. So great to hear from you! I’m so glad this post resonated with you. Yes, we do this to ourselves. Let’s not. Our writing and our relationships and our physical and mental health is so mu more important. We all forget that sometimes. Happy Christmas and I hope we see each other soon.

      • That would be wonderful, and you’re so right. It’s completely self-afflicted. But the good news is, that means we can change it.

        One of the worst things I inherited from my mother (sorry, Mom!) is this idea that our homes and our appearance need to be perfect before we have company, etc. Not only is this impossible, it puts the focus on the superficial and has kept me from seeing friends or welcoming people into my home. That’s one thing I’d really like to let go.

        • I make sure the WC is sparkling clean if my guests are going to use it. And that there’s TP so they don’t have to go looking for it. I make good food and let the wine flow. They’ll notice nothing else other than how comfy they feel in your home.

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