Making holiday magic—without going nuts

Am I the only parent who experiences serious self-loathing during the holidays?

I spend every fall counting down the days until December. But by the 10th, I am usually ready to run for the hills. The presents mount, the decorations clutter every surface and the to-dos crowd my brain. And I hate myself for feeling this way.

Even deeper, there is this disappointment that sets in. With our consumer culture, with all the grumpy and rushed people I see around me every day, but mostly with myself, that I never live up to my expectations for this time of year.

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Photo by Yellow House Photography

The thing is, I really want the holidays to be magical for my girls. I know that this magic should come from warm and unrushed moments together, from doing the same special things we do every year, from the comfort and joy that comes from celebrating with your family.

And you know what? I actually think we achieve that— most of the time— when I let go of my expectations and more importantly, my self-loathing.

I can be unrealistic sometimes when I plot out my hopes for the coming holiday season. Well-intentioned yet wildly unrealistic thoughts swirl around me. This year, we will have no presents, and we will make survival kits for the homeless! We will go up to the mountains and bring down snow and then we will build snowmen in our front yard! Every gift we give will be homemade! We will spend the entire season quietly crafting together by the fireplace while harps play soft around us. The house will be clean and sparkling!

When measured against my hopes, the reality falls flat. Of course it does. I mean, I have three young children and I don’t even have a functioning fireplace. But I can get so rushed that I don’t stop and give myself a reality check, I just let the disappointment and self-loathing mount, clouding my view of the magical memories I really am making with my daughters every day.

I see friends fighting the same battles. The mom who cried on my shoulder after she yelled at her daughters during cookie-making, the dad who beat himself up that he was a stress-case while he and his kids hung lights together, the couple that felt ashamed at the last-minute convenience store run for stocking stuffers.


Photo by Bonjour Photography

I am far from perfect. But when I look over the last three weeks through my daughters’ eyes, I must admit that I am happy with what I see.

On Thanksgiving day, my oldest girl and I cut leaves out of construction paper, and then we all sat decorating them with images of gratitude before we taped them to the branches we collected and set in a mason jar in the middle of the table.

We’ve bundled up for countless pre-dinner walks to admire our neighbors’ lights and holiday decorations. We’ve cut out lots of snowflakes and taped them carefully to our front window. We’ve gone many times to visit the reindeer and camels at Swanson’s, and to watch the holiday train in action.

My daughters taught themselves to play the first ten bars of “Silent Night” on the piano, and then they played them over and over and over while their baby sister banged out accompaniment on the lower keys. We made our own “gingerbread” houses, patiently holding graham cracker walls and roofs together as my runny homemade frosting slowly dried, and then covering them with tiny candy canes, gum drops and chocolate rocks. Oh— and I forgave myself for needing to throw them out six days later and reclaim some counter space. And for eating some of the gumdrops while I pulled them apart.

And while there have been plenty of store-bought presents, there has been much gift-making going on. My oldest daughter has made dozens of clothespin dolls for friends and family members, and my four-year-old has strung beaded necklaces for those she loves.

I can’t help smiling when I think of our tree. Our tradition is to get the smallest one in the lot, then decorate it with carols playing in the background, eggnog in Santa mugs, and soup bubbling on the stove. This year, my husband and I were surprised and delighted to watch our six- and four-year-old decorating the tree almost entirely by themselves.

Sitting there, carefully tipping some eggnog into my toddler’s mouth and listening to the girls chatter happily as they pulled ornaments out of the box, I reflected on the sublime beauty that comes from doing the same special thing IMG_9411just once a year. I pictured my first girl, Quinn, encapsulated forever in my mind at six months, sitting surrounded by sparkling lights, transfixed as her father and I pulled ornaments from the box. The next year, my hand rested on my growing belly as I watched Quinn gleefully pulling ornaments from the box and scattering tissue paper everywhere. At two-and-a-half, she was carefully showing ornaments to her baby sister, who crawled happily around the base of the tree.

I am so grateful that lugging up that box of ornaments every year will mean seeing those sweet childhood moments suspended forever in time.

My life doesn’t look like Pinterest, but in the midst of these crazy, early survival years of parenting, we’ve somehow carved out some lovely and meaningful holiday traditions. I just need to let myself see them.

About the Author

photo 1-5Shawna Gamache is a former newspaper reporter and just launched a new blog Critical Playdate. She is mama to Ruby, 4, Quinn, 6, and Nora, 15 months. In her quiet moments, Shawna loves writing, reading and avoiding eye contact with her laundry pile.

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