November is here. The Halloween candy is on clearance and Christmas decor is stocked on the shelves. The fall that just began is already fading into winter here in the northeast. Let’s be real—some of us are already playing Christmas music, while some of us feel completely overwhelmed by the to-do list the upcoming holidays create amidst our already full lives.
Whether you fall into the first or second camp, there is something that we need to address before diving into (or hiding from) the Holidays. It can make or break them. One simple word that carries so much. It can weigh women down like little else— expectations. Unmet or unmanaged, whether it’s the pressure from culture at large, people we dearly love, or ourselves, they ruin more dates, days, and plans than much else. Expectations can feel extra heavy around this time of year when there seem to be no shortage of holiday parties, white elephant gift exchanges, and charity needs.
Before I keep going, I want to be clear— I don’t have this all figured out. I still have meltdowns when my husband and I have a date and it doesn’t go as planned. But, I’m learning true freedom lies in our ability to shake off the expectations (read burdens) that others, ourselves, or a holiday lay upon us that really, don’t need to be met.
For example—do I really think that me and my two and four year old kiddos are going to effortlessly bake beautifully frosted sugar cookies for our neighbors, all while smiling and dancing around the kitchen to Bing Crosby singing Christmas music? Yep. I do. That’s how I see it in my head. That’s why it sounds fun! But if I hit pause on the idealism and take a reality check, (like reading it right now) I find my expectations laughable. I quickly remember how chaotic it is when we’re all in the kitchen, and try to have a more realistic expectation. I hope we will have some fun together and that the box of baking soda doesn’t get poured into the batter when I’m not looking. That’s doable.(maybe!) This new expectation is healthier. Left unchecked, unrealistic expectations will weigh heavy upon us, burying us with disappointment, stealing our joy, and pining for what doesn’t exist.
No matter what we do (especially if you’ve got some littles) it probably won’t be perfect, but it can still be fun! When we burn the cookies we can laugh and run to the store for a box. We can opt out of mama having a catastrophic meltdown in the kitchen. What a relief—a gift, really— when we can learn to roll with the punches because we came expecting them. We can use expectations to our advantage, coming into the moment expecting that our humanity and imperfect world came with. If we want to be free this holiday season and beyond—we’ve got to learn to manage our expectations. We get to intentionally decide which ones are worth keeping and which ones we need to say “thanks, but no thanks”.
Just for the record, I do actually enjoy the holidays. No Scrooge here! Just a woman with some boundaries. When I hear people complaining about how much they have to do for the holidays, buying gifts or throwing a party sound like just one more miserable item on a long list of obligations. It reminds me why it's so important to only say yes to the things we actually have bandwidth for. Not because the world revolves around us, but because we are the ones in charge of our own boundaries and creating a healthy home and environment for our family. That's not anyone else's responsibility. If we say "yes" to too many things, then even our kids will end up stressed and over-stimulated. When we function out of obligation, our exhaustion and frustration quickly leaves the season tarnished.
When we find ourselves saying “yes” to every extra party, baked goods exchange, and request, we are saying “no” to health, rest, and peace. We lose our margin and then we lose our perspective when we people please. When we try to be super woman instead of humbly recognizing our human limitations and depending on the Holy Spirit to guide us, we are on dangerous ground. We get lost rather quickly. Like Martha in Scripture—we find ourselves distracted by many things instead of the one thing (knowing Jesus).
We feel the pressure from others, but honestly, we often feel it from ourselves the most. We feel maxed out but know we or our homes still aren’t measuring up to the images we’ve seen plastered across Instagram and checkout aisle magazines. There are plenty of expectations for what holidays should look like, the way that they should make us feel, the type of gifts we should give, and so on. Our dissatisfaction with our own ability to meet these expectations easily leads us feeling a kind of desperate that we don’t always have words for. Leading to a kind of grumpy that’s hard to shake. We feel discontent and unhappy and unsure of where w lost the plot. If we don’t take this to the cross, we miss the peace that God is always inviting us into. We carry a burden we weren’t meant to carry. We miss out on the satisfaction that only Christ can offer.
Often unintentionally, we exhaust ourselves trying to create a perfect environment for the holidays. We block out the reality of day to day life, imagining that our lives should play out like Hallmark. Maybe we hope that though our family who doesn’t get along great on the average day will miraculously be the tight knit fam we always dreamed of. But instead we find drama and broken relationships and it hurts more than usual. We don’t want colds during the holidays— that can’t happen. But our stress almost guarantees it. And when it happens, we are seriously bummed out.
I don't want to oversimplify this. Life is nuanced. Some things, like family obligations, are complex and have the potential to deeply disappoint. Grandparents want to see their grandkids. Parents want to see their kids. Families want to be together! Trying to visit everyone we'd like to, while prioritizing health and rest can be incredibly challenging. Navigating all of this can be tiring. Our family does not always get this right. But we are trying. And as the years pass, I'm realizing that a huge part of the pressure I feel around the holidays is connected to expectations- my own and those I feel from others. I’m learning that we get to decide which expectations we will live under. We cannot be a passive participant in this, directed by the whims and desires of everyone around us.
So this year—which expectations will we decide are worth our time and energy? Are we trying to have a perfectly decorated home inside and out? Exhausting. Are we trying to bake some perfect looking baked goods with our kids? Exhausting. Are we trying to fit in every light show, party, and experience we can? Exhausting. Are we trying to make everyone happy? Exhausting. Are we trying to buy our kids happiness? Exhausting(and unhealthy!) Are we trying to make every family member happy with our visit decisions? Exhausting. Are we trying to buy everyone the perfect gift that will communicate our love? Exhausting. Are we trying to enjoy some time with our family and eat some treats and make some memories? Doable.
What happens to our stress levels if moving forward we can accept the imperfect holidays for what they are— imperfect days— instead of what we wish they could be? (this is coming from a die hard romantic—the struggle is real!!.) What if we can accept that someone is likely to get sick, that someone will probably not love the gift that we got them, and that someone else will feel let down no matter how much we try to get it right? What if we can count on our Pinterest bake being a laughable fail and that our kids will probably fight while we’re trying to teach them about the true Christmas story? And then... what if from THAT place we make a plan. Not a pessimistic plan, but just one that allows for humanity, full of grace, ready to roll with the punches.
If you’re wondering what this means for you, I’m not sure. Your family is not mine. But, in case it’s helpful, here's a peak at our family’s loose (and rather vague) holiday plans. During November we focus on things we're grateful for (we have a grateful jar we do at dinner). We share Thanksgiving with family. We support a couple of charities- with the kids this year we are currently packing a shoebox for Samaritan’s Purse so our kids can experience the beauty of sharing with other kids. In December, we practice Advent. We do a Christmas countdown chain with the kids. We go to a Christmas tree farm to pick our favorite tree and stop for crepes on the way home to decorate the tree (this is our favorite tradition). We keep decorations throughout the house pretty simple. We attend a few Christmas parties but not all. We aim to bake cookies once or twice. We make a "gingerbread" house with our kids with graham crackers or a kit instead of homemade gingerbread. We bring out the kid's nativity set to play with. We watch and rewatch a few of our favorite cheesy Christmas movies. We will probably watch the Grinch five times per my son's request. We listen to the few Christmas records we own. We’ll make some crafts if I have bandwidth for it. We have friends over. We figure out some extra ways to practice generosity. We choose a few special gifts for our kids that they can use or that we think they'll get a kick out of for a few years to come. We buy what we hope are thoughtful gifts or make treats for a few friends and family without agonizing over if it will be their favorite thing in the whole world. Christmas day we either stay home or head out to spend the day with family. (This is usually the toughest decision). On top of regular life— that’s plenty for us.
All that said, your life varies from mine. We all have our own beautiful and difficult nuances. But, we get to manage our expectations for this imperfect holiday season. We can’t control what expectations others lay upon us, but we can choose whether or not we will live under the weight of those. I hope that any heaviness that’s been weighing on you that isn’t yours to carry falls off. Jesus is not the giver of pressure and expectations that lay heavy upon you. You don’t need to measure up to any standard other than that laid out throughout Scripture. He promises us that his burden is light. On days that I get a bit lost in life...my burdens starts to be ill fitting and stressful. I think quite often, we get side tracked and start feeling weighed down by many, many things. But just as Jesus gently spoke to Martha, I can hear him inviting us into a similar freedom—to lay down the many, many things we are worried about and instead concern ourselves with the one thing that is worth being concerned about—the unwavering hope of the Gospel.