Janet Sheridan: Stresses of the season

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Janet Sheridan

Joel and I disagree about holiday movies.

He refuses to watch A Christmas Story every year, and I’m not interested in reruns of Miracle on 34th Street.

Compared to other anxiety-ridden situations that surface during the holidays, disagreeing about whether to watch the shenanigans of a department-store Santa or Ralphie’s pleas for a BB gun seem insignificant.

Years ago, my friend Judy invited me to drop by for a visit after Christmas. When I arrived, I found her draping wet laundry around her kitchen and wiping away tears.

She wasn’t crying about her dead dryer, but about the Christmas she’d spent with her recently married son. As she and her husband helped the newlyweds prepare dinner, her son said, “Why don’t you let Mom fix the gravy, Honey. She knows how I like it.”

In response, his bride turned to Judy and snarled, “I’m sick of hearing how perfect you are: your perfect family, your perfect cooking, your perfect dinners. Why don’t you go home? Here, take my car. I’m sure you’ll drive it perfectly.”

She then grabbed her keys, threw them at Judy and ran from the house, leaving an open-mouthed family, a half-cooked turkey, and a doomed merry little Christmas behind.

“I was horrified,” Judy said, “I couldn’t imagine what I’d done to become part of a country-western song.“

More recently, I’ve talked with friends about the anxieties of gift giving: “I need some guidelines,” said one, “What do you buy for grandchildren you love dearly, when you believe they already get too much at Christmas? What do you give babies who have no concept of Santa and would rather chew on a cardboard box? Or teenagers who have demanding taste in clothing or want specific, expensive technology?”

Another friend said, “My husband and I buy things for our children and grandchildren throughout the year, when they truly need something; we also help finance school trips and events, and we’re happy to do so. We spent a lot last year, so we gave only token gifts for Christmas. Then I felt guilty the entire season.”

Fortunately, we have media experts eager to tell us how to glide gracefully through the holiday season without exploding into hysteria, eating a pound of peanut brittle, or crawling under a bed.

Their advice flows freely: Get enough sleep. Make a list of tasks to be accomplished and stick to it. Stay within your budget. Relax in a bubble bath before your guests arrive.

Right.

They warn that when we deny ourselves the special foods of the season, we’ll binge later on stale marshmallows. Instead, we should indulge in all the goodies that come our way, but only sample them: take half of a brownie and a taste or two of ice cream.

Seriously? Might as well ask a flea not to bite.

Despite expert advice, most of us experience stress during the holidays. We over-schedule our lives and become cranky as we rush about.

We grow too weary, or drink more than a sip or two of eggnog, and then say things we regret. We question gifts we receive—elf house slippers or salt and pepper shakers from Branson—and worry when others don’t seem to like the gift we gave them.

And through it all, we wonder why we don’t feel the joy of Christmas like we did when young: everybody happy, everything beautiful, each moment perfect. Advice columnists answer this one correctly: the wonder of childhood Christmases cannot be duplicated — nor were they perfect.

A photograph taken when I was eight—the year I asked Santa for a red-headed princess doll—shows me using a blonde baby doll to bludgeon Bob as we battled fiercely in front of a tree that tilted awkwardly to one side as though trying to escape.

But in my memory, 1950 was a joyful Christmas. I wish the same for you in 2012.

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