Thursday, January 14, 2016

It's the Most Wondeful(ly stressful) Time of the Year

"You Do It To Yourself, You Do"

So we survived the chaos that is the Holiday season.  It's no easy feat with small children, but we all made it to 2016.  The emotions oscillated between the highest highs and the lower of lows, and the tears were plentiful, sometimes of joy, mostly of frustration and exhaustion.  Given the fact that two of our kids celebrate birthdays between Christmas and New Year's (Gus' actually being on Christmas Day) and my wife and our oldest share a birthday just before Thanksgiving, the last six weeks of the calendar year are usually awash in celebrations.  This year was no different.  It started the week before Thanksgiving with a birthday tea party for Isla with a dozen other 5 year-olds, included multiple Thanksgiving and Christmas Celebrations, and found us making our inaugural trip to Chuck E. Cheese for Havi's 3rd birthday.  The #brunsfamilyfun culminated with Jess and I celebrating our 7th wedding anniversary in style at a rock show^ the weekend after Christmas.    

As a cynical realist, I always get a little miffed at the general approach to the Holiday season.  It's the "Most Wonderful Time of the Year"; with so much "misletoeing" how can our hearts not be glowing?  A time to sit inside by the crackling fire and watch the snow fall outside because we've no place to go.  All of this Holiday Merriment tends to stress us out though.  Between decking the halls, going over the river and through the woods to grandma's house, or putting presents on the tree (who actually puts presents on the tree?), there never seems to be enough time, energy or sanity to get everything accomplished.  Without fail, we get a little closer than we want to snapping a gingerbread man's head off* and cancelling Christmas.

I tend to think of myself as a relatively calm person.  An old coworker once asked me what sedative my doctor prescribed me and how he could get his hands on some.  Even though I did do a few things this Holiday season that I vehemently swore I'd never do, like put up outdoor Christmas lights, I felt my typical stressfree self going into the whirlwind that is the Christmas celebration.  I did however have my moment of overwhelm the Monday after Christmas, after returning from three straight days of celebrations.  In the process of making my third trip to our recycling container with empty boxes from new toys accumulated by the kids, I noticed the smear of finger prints on our back door.  I was certain these were from Gus, as one of his top five favorite activities is to give continuous high fives to any glass window he can find, and that they could range anywhere from a few hours to a few months old.

As I sighed, realizing all of the other things I had neglected over the past few weeks while we were rocking around the Christmas tree, I recalled something my 94 year old Grandma said when we stopped by her apartment on Christmas Day.  Gus had found his way over to her patio door to engage in his typical window banging, and I offered to windex the glass before we left.  She told me not to bother because she hadn't cleaned the ones off from the last time we were there a few months prior.  What I saw as another thing to add to the cleaning list, she saw as a memento of the time she got to spend with her great-grandkids.    

My Mom, another preserver of grandkid fingerprints on windows, has a quote on her fridge by Cesare Pavese that reads "we do not remember days, we remember moments."  I think this is particularly poignant during the holiday season, as we bend over backwards to find the best gift for our kids or loved ones or try in seeming vain to create those perfect holiday moments.  I remember standing in a lengthy return line at a large retailer shortly after Christmas a few years ago thinking of how stores have to build in the expense of return cost when pricing an item, and how all of us probably pay more for things because we are overtly picky and bad gift givers.  Along with including a gift receipt with the gift, the most common thing that seems to be said after a gift is open is, "you can return it if you want."  'Tis the season.  

I once read a suggestion about doing a "buy nothing" Christmas with your family, and I really hope my family can do this at some point.  Not because I am cheap (though I am pretty cheap), but because I think the concept could resonate powerfully with young kids.  Of course at the time it would be powerfully negative, as they would be pissed as hell.  But hopefully they might understand the reasoning eventually as they get older.  Whether you celebrate Christmas in the traditional fashion or not, taking a break from the excessive commercialism that roles around at that time of year can offer a needed respite from the stress that tends to come with "buying" into those societal norms.  We all know "things" don't make us happy, at least not in the long run.  People do, relationships do, moments do.  If my parents had done a "buy nothing" Christmas when I was growing up, undoubtedly that would have been the most memorable Christmas I ever had (in a very bad way then, in a good way now).

The hard part comes with the kids, because they can easily get filled with the Christmas "magic".  We want to see their eyes light up on Christmas morning when they are tearing through their presents.  It makes us feel accomplished as parents to see the smiles on their faces.  Or as author Lisa Earle McLeod puts it, "childhood happiness has become the scorecard by which adults measure their success or failure as parents."  But I think it is important at a young age to help them understand what really is the Christmas magic.  After a while, typically a lot shorter than you probably think given the price tag, the allure of the toy will probably fade.  The kid will be on to the next thing (or more interested in the box it came in), and you'll be left stepping on the many pointy accessories that came with the toy and never seem to get put away.  But the real Christmas magic is in the happy moments together with the people you love, no matter where you are or what you are doing.  Fortunately, or not in some cases, thanks to our memory bias, you typically remember more of the good ones than the bad ones.  I think about the irony of this, as I'm currently going through our photos from 2015 to create our annual year-in-review slideshow montage, deleting the bad ones and keeping the good.  And of course creating that 2016 photo folder so we can do it all again next year....

   This is probably where that family photo 
of us from Christmas should go.
Had it gotten taken.

Yes Mom, I will gladly eat this cake you made for my birthday.

Nothing like a little video arcade road rage at Chuck E. Cheese.

^Okay, bit of a stretch.  After a two year hiatus, the "band" that I "play" in conveniently booked a show on our anniversary.  Her gift to me was allowing me to pretend to be a rock star for a night - best present ever.  I bought her a drink at the bar (with her money of course).
*I know it's sexist, but I don't want to condone violence against women

Subtitle courtesy of Thom Yorke  

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