Christmas Day 2004 was the straw that broke the camel's back. It was the Christmas where the proverbial poop hit the fan—when I finally said to my husband what I'd been stuffing down for the eight years we'd been married:
"I hate Christmas!"
Taking my cue from some of the psalmists, I decided to vent. I grabbed a pencil and paper and scribbled down everything I hated about Christmas.
I despised traveling at Christmas—the stress of packing, crowded airports, and traveling with kids. I disliked the lack of physical and mental space I experienced when we stayed in someone else's house with two other families. I love my extended family, but living under one roof with them for 10 days does not foster "peace on earth and goodwill to men," moms, or nephews.
Trying to come up with gift ideas for 19 relatives who already had everything they needed exhausted me. I was bitter about spending my evenings and weekends shopping. The facial expressions of the strung out shoppers around me all seemed to ask the same rhetorical question: Why are we doing this? When our kids unwrapped gift upon gift from loving, well-meaning relatives, my husband and I pictured our house piling up with more toys than our kids could possibly play with. After we'd loaded all of the gifts into our van, we stared in shock at the snapshot of excess and consumerism before us.
The final item on my list was the pressure I felt to try to fulfill the expectations of my parents, in-laws, grandparents, husband, and children, and the stress I experienced when one person's expectations conflicted with another's. Trying to make everyone happy was emotionally exhausting and impossible.
When I put my pencil down, I felt a deep sadness that the Christmas season, which was supposed to be a time of worship and meaningful reflection, was instead a season of strain and stress. I sat with this sadness for several minutes in a silent prayer of lament.
Then I had an epiphany: Christmas doesn't have to be this way! I awakened to the reality that I could choose to say "no" to excess, people pleasing, and the things that, for me, crowd Jesus out of Christmas. I realized that in saying "no" to these things I could say "yes" to a more peaceful Advent season that gives my family and me the space to ponder the mystery and miracle of Christmas.
Since my "a-ha" moment, our Christmases have gotten progressively better. We've stopped traveling at Christmas, and instead travel to see extended family during the summer. We gently encourage our parents to give our children fewer gifts, and we spend less time shopping by giving relational gifts of quality time. (We make and give gift certificates that are for spending time together, doing something we know they'll enjoy—taking my parents to a play, for example.)
My husband has released himself from the pressure to spend two cold, miserable Saturdays on a ladder hanging up and taking down Christmas lights. I've released myself from the pressure to send out a Christmas card with a shiny happy photo of our family. I've also finally rejected two culturally ingrained mother myths—one, that there's such a thing as a perfect Christmas, and two, that it's my job to make everyone happy.
Is God nudging you to re-think the way you approach the Christmas season? Trust the Spirit's promptings and enjoy the freedom and space to worship Jesus fully this Advent season.
Marta Oti Sears is a writer, speaker and contributing author of the book Just Moms: Conveying Justice in an Unjust World (Barclay Press). Her articles have appeared in 19 magazines in the U.S. and Canada, and she is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. Connect with her at www.MartaOtiSears.com, Facebook, or Twitter.