Sewing a stocking for my son sounded like a great idea. Finally, I could replace the mangy dollar-store sock bought in a rush for his first Christmas with a handmade creation that would grace our hearth for years to come.
Before I knew it, 10 hours were lost to fashioning an elaborate felt stocking with grosgrain ribbon, a flannel lining that folded over the top, and little cutouts with appliqued frames to showcase the dancing penguin fabric my four-year-old adored. I ended up cursing the day I'd asked a friend if I could borrow her sewing machine. But I'd grown up with a vintage stocking passed down by my mom, and dollar-store kitsch for my son wouldn't do.
There's something about Christmas that makes normally sensible parents go all Martha Stewart, determined to conjure up a magical holiday for their kids. Driven by nostalgia, we whip ourselves into a frenzy to create memories they will treasure for life: the tree hand felled in the forest, potato-print cards slipped into neighbours' mailboxes and the whole family gathered for a turkey feast.
The fantasy of the "perfect Christmas" is hard to shake, even if, like me, you don't particularly buy into it. The tropes of the season – images of St. Nick delighting children everywhere, carols promising peace and joy – exert a powerful emotional pull, says Keith Dobson, a psychologist at the University of Calgary. Despite our resolutions to keep things simple, we are seduced by the dream of a Norman Rockwell Christmas. "There's a cultural sense of what Christmas should look like," he says.
Glittering wreaths, gift wrappings and garlands on trees become symbols of perfect harmony. The meanings we attach to the trappings of Christmas only add to the pressure of getting them just right, he explains. "There's no doubt that some people get caught up in that whole spirit, that sense of perfectionism," he says.
However, setting the bar too high for the "most wonderful time of the year" may be a perfect storm of magical thinking, fear of disappointing loved ones, overindulgence in booze and tight quarters with family members who never did learn to get along. For many people, Christmas is the only time they gather with extended family, says Renee Trudeau, a life coach based in Austin, Tex., and author of Nurturing the Soul of Your Family:10 Ways to Reconnect and Find Peace in Everyday Life. "Our expectations are unrealistic around family, around the holidays, around what's going to happen or should happen," she says. "When we start going down that path, we're in for trouble."
Although stress tends to skyrocket during the holidays, depression levels are highest in January and February, Dobson says. Depleted by the emotional and financial demands of Christmas, "people look back and find that maybe their expectations weren't realistic."
Perhaps there's a case to be made for the "good enough" Christmas.
Dobson suggests adding a dash of salt to the sugarplums by remembering how previous, harried holidays turned out. "We know from a psychological perspective that one way to have better memories of events is to have lower expectations," he says.
Barb Lindstrom, a career consultant in Burnaby, B.C., identified gift-giving as a source of holiday stress – so her family decided five years ago to not buy presents and focus instead on enjoying their time together. "We decorate, cook, play games and visit," she says. "Giving up gifts took a huge amount of stress away."
Setting an intention for Christmas is an excellent strategy, Trudeau says. She recommends pausing for a few minutes and asking, "What do I most need and desire at this holiday?" The answer may be relaxation, spiritual renewal or reconnecting with family and friends. Others may see the holidays as a time of service to those in need or an opportunity for creative expression through baking and crafts. "But it's not about doing all those things," she says.
At the end of the day, the pursuit of the perfect Christmas and all the effort that entails may have the opposite effect on the people we love. Most children, friends and extended family, Trudeau says, don't care if the meal is perfect or the presents just right. They want their parents or hosts to be happy and excited to be with them, she says, "as opposed to being exhausted and acting like the Grinch."