-by Christa Melnyk Hines
One December, while in my late 20s, I tagged along with my parents to visit my grandmother in Wiesbaden, Germany. I hadn’t been in Germany during the Christmas season since childhood when my father was stationed there while in the Air Force. While there, I was struck by how different the European Christmas felt compared to our own more chaotic, commercialized holiday in the U.S.
My parents and I decided to stroll through the Christkindl Market in Wiesbaden’s downtown square. Though the sunny afternoon was chilly, the breeze was gentle, carrying the comforting smells of breads, savory snacks and sweet pastries. A towering evergreen decked in glittering ornaments stood in the middle of the square. Vendor stalls were set up along the cobblestones in orderly rows around the square selling handmade crafts like delicate straw angels, simple wooden ornaments, souvenirs, and starched lace stars. Surrounding the market were centuries-old baroque and Neo-classical buildings grounding the landscape in a sturdy, protective sense of history and tradition.
Even though it was around midday on a weekday, Germans, dressed in business attire, their cheeks ruddy from the chilly air, sat leisurely socializing on bar stools in some of the stalls. Their hands were wrapped around glass mugs of Gluhwein, a warm mulled red wine. Bursts of laughter would occasionally waft through the air along with the peaceful tinkling of seasonal music.
As an American, I find it easy to get sucked into the more frantic culture of our holiday season. For those of us fighting perfectionist, people-pleasing tendencies, this time of the year can transform a normally calm, respectable individual into an unrecognizable, fevered harpy within days. Just ask my husband Jason, who has found me weeping in a corner or edging toward a precipice ready to jump if I have to problem-solve one more elusive gift for someone in the extended family.
Once I became a mother, the responsibilities and expectations I placed on myself mushroomed. I wanted to create memorable Christmases that my kids would look back on as happy moments in their childhood.
These memorable Christmases often turn out similarly to how I ramp up idyllic family vacations in my head: “Oh, we are going to have so much fun on the Road to Hana in Maui. Everyone is going to LOVE it!” In reality, our experience with the Road to Hana turned into the slow road to hell.
Similarly, as soon as the Halloween ghosts and ghouls vanish, my holiday anxiety begins to creep in. My stomach loops nervously. A persistent throbbing begins behind my left eye. The nerves in my neck bundle up like a necklace that tangled itself into knots while sitting undisturbed in a jewelry box.
I contemplate the must-dos and should-dos on top of the routine day-to-day to-dos. I think of the eerily quiet, snaking lines of stooped bodies shifting boxes from arm-to-arm at the post office. I recall the lengths I’ve gone to fashion the perfect Christmas. Like the year I ran to toy stores all over town, making phone calls and frantically combing the Internet in search of a canary yellow remote control Porsche. My seven-year-old requested it one week before the big guy was supposed to slide down the chimney. I gnashed my teeth and pulled my brown strands of hair, surprised at how hard it was to find this particular sports car in yellow. Jason thought I’d finally gone cuckoo. (This is why he’s only in charge of two gifts.) My persistence eventually paid off. But how anticlimactic when about an hour into Christmas morning, the car sat under a pile of red and white wrapping paper with a broken headlight because little brother allegedly crashed it into a wall.
Finally, a couple of years ago, I surrendered. After a particular grueling holiday season, I woke up on Christmas morning unable to speak. My throat screamed in searing agony as if demons had partied around a fiery barbecue all night. On top of that, knife-like stabs of pain jolted my ears.
Instead of cooking up a Christmas ham with all of the fixings, I sent my husband and two sons to pick up Chinese food for dinner. I spent the day in bed sucking on throat lozenges and sipping warm, honeyed tea.
The next day, a white-haired, bespectacled urgent care doctor diagnosed me with the beginning stages of shingles, a painful virus typically brought on my stress. He dashed off a prescription and sent me on my way. What I actually needed was a holiday intervention and to understand that no one forces me to participate in our society’s holiday frenzy.
No matter how much I try to control the outcome, the heartbeat of the holiday stubbornly unveils itself in the unanticipated moments, like that long ago German Christmas market that delighted all of my senses. It unwraps itself during an impromptu raucous Nerf gun battle between father, sons and uncle in our living room on Christmas day. It unfolds in the sounds of my kids’ giggles coming from the living room while they watch their favorite holiday movie. It betrays itself in storied family lore, like the time our naughty dog Marvin indulged in half of my son’s gingerbread house while we were at a school Christmas concert.
I’ll never conjure the spiritual magic I’m craving from unending to-do lists, chaotic gatherings, or chasing down trendy gifts that no one will remember anyway. This year for health and sanity, I’ll strive for the pretty-okay-Christmas. I’ll put up a few decorations, buy gifts that make me smile, bake when I feel like it, volunteer here and there when I can, and I’ll put my husband in charge of a third gift. Something tells me my whole family will love it. This year, I’ll actually be present and accounted for when something unexpected happens and we strike upon a new hilarious family memory that we’ll laugh about for years. And that’s good enough for me.
This article appears in the December 2018/January 2019 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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