Perhaps it’s started for you.

You may already feel like the expectations around the holidays are getting out of hand: family is looking forward to traditions, coworkers can’t wait for your famous cookies, friends are praising your amazing gift-wrapping abilities.

It’s too much to ignore, and yet you may feel a lot of pressure as you pummel yourself with overly high expectations and extra responsibilities. “When am I going to find the time to do it all?”

The words you use create your reality…

“I have to get my house decorated before Aunt Rachel and Uncle Bob come for Thanksgiving.”

“I’m not done shopping. I don’t know where the time has gone.”

“I’d love to spend Christmas away from home just once. The kids are almost grown and it would be great to take them somewhere. But we’re expected to go to my Mom’s.”

With this kind of reasoning, who would even bat an eye when you say, “I’m dreading the holidays.” Of course you are. It can feel overwhelming, but that is largely because you’re trapping yourself in what you should, or must, or have to do.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

The holidays happen in a context…

The holidays happen in the context of life. Maybe the context is happy. Your first grandchild was recently born. Or you’re getting married. Maybe you found out your partner is getting a well-deserved promotion. Or maybe the context is painful. Your spouse is having an affair. Your best friend is dying of cancer. Or you’ve got a child crashing on drugs.

This holiday may have a more painful backdrop than others. The feelings you have don’t have to be shoved in a box, as if they don’t exist. Attempting to hide your real life to “celebrate” only makes it worse.

Honoring where you are in life, and where your loved ones are, is vital.

But what about ritual? I can’t not do them…

You, you actually can. You do not have to do them.

I love rituals as much as the next guy. Often they emotionally reconnect you with loved ones and cherished memories. Yet for rituals to retain their fulfillment, you want them to be rejuvenating.

Maybe this is the year to prioritize — to realize you have options. If these rituals are weighing you down rather than bringing you joy, perhaps it’s time to reconsider.

Both my parents died the week before Christmas in 2007, my dad on Christmas Eve Day. I’d traveled to my hometown for my mom’s funeral the past week, but had come home and in many ways, comforted myself by preparing food for the holiday meal, which we’d hosted for years. After learning of Dad’s death, my husband asked, “Do you want to go on and have people over for Christmas dinner?”

Close friends and my in-laws were invited. Would I be able to hold it together? What would they do if I cancelled?

I let myself consider the option, and even that was huge. I’m a pretty responsible type, and calling it off wouldn’t have been my norm. But this time, I realized I needed to consider myself. And that consideration — giving myself the option — felt like I gave myself a gift.  Literally.

I could decide that grief outweighed the ritual. I didn’t have to do what I’d always done. In fact, I didn’t have to do anything.

Within a day or two, I knew what was most important to me. I’d feel connected to my parents through the rituals passed down from them. I might tear up and I have to excuse myself if it was too much. But that would be okay because ultimately the rituals would bring me joy.

So, on that Christmas day, my prediction came true. Rituals soothed me. I choked back tears as I said the same prayer my dad always said. I lovingly used the goblets that graced my mother’s table, swallowing a bit of sorrow with each sip.

You can’t relish a ritual if you’re enslaved by it…

You can decide now which, if any, rituals are important for you to continue this year. Are there new ones you’d like to establish? Is it time to let go of others? Give yourself permission to have options.

So much of what we create during the holidays is for others – our children, our parents, our friends — and that is admirable. But if you dread going through another holiday season, burdened by the shoulds, the musts and the have-tos, they will strip you of whatever the holidays can mean to you, given the context those days are falling within.

Honor your family. Honor the rituals. Let them soothe whatever pain you have. Let them bring you and yours comfort and delight.

But also….honor yourself. Honor the context.


You can hear more about relationships and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!

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Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels.

Originally published on November 22, 2019; updated and republished on November 13, 2022.

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