For many people the holidays—that time from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day—are times of great stress. I understand that. We have meals to plan and make, gifts to get, cards to send. It is a lot of extra things that disrupt our normal routines.
My middle daughter is a person of routine and order. She does not like any kind of change whatsoever. My wife, during her time in college, worked part time with autistic adults. Her clients generally did not do well with any disruption to their daily and hourly activities: they expected to have the same food for breakfast every day, and they expected to see the same staff members every day; they lived extremely regimented existences. While my middle daughter is not quite that extreme in her hatred of change, she still does not do well with any disruption. Nearly every summer my wife and I enjoy hosting a foreign exchange student. We began doing this before we had any children and we are still in contact with our first high school student who visited us from Japan. Frighteningly, she is now forty years old. We’re not quite sure how that happened.
My youngest and oldest daughters always enjoy the exchange students, with the exposure to new customs and languages, the pleasure of showing the student the sights of southern California and being reminded again of the wonder of where we live by getting to see it through the eyes of a stranger.
But my middle daughter can’t stand it. She doesn’t like the alteration in her routine; she doesn’t like the extra person in her house.
It doesn’t keep us from inviting a student to stay with us a few weeks each summer, anyhow. It’s kind of like piano lessons. The child may not like it now, but someday she’ll be glad for the exposure. At least we hope so.
In any case, the holidays have that same effect on most people: everything is upended. The holidays mess with our schedules: we have days off work, we don’t always sleep the same hours. The holidays disturb our budgets: extra food to buy, and then there are all the presents. That’s why such things as Christmas clubs or savings accounts and layaway were invented, to make it a bit easier to fit the economic disruption into our already tight budgets. For others, it’s time to pull out the plastic, which creates the stress of what will come in the mail after the New Year begins and the knowledge that months may go by in overtime and scrimping to pay for the excesses of the holiday. In January, many people will vow to not do this to themselves again next year, but every year, the same pattern will repeat. Most of us are no good about keeping any of our New Year’s resolutions.
I suspect, however, that the source of the greatest stress for most people is the appearance of family members that we’ve spent most of the year not having anything to do with because we really don’t have that much in common with them except that we happened to marry their son or daughter. Or else it’s the former teenager, now grown and off on his or her own, that decides to return with a spouse and grandchildren that we haven’t seen since the same time last year.
And while we feel love and affection—perhaps—for these family members, we do not live with them or near them because we really don’t want to live with them or near them. We’re glad they are not our neighbors or roommates anymore. But the holidays force us to come together. And even if we lack the drama and dysfunctions that afflict so many families, there is still a certain amount of stress among even the happiest of extended clans.
And frankly, the level of dysfunction in families never ceases to amaze me. As a deacon in a church for over a quarter century now, I’ve seen any number of messed up households. Some arguments are of the minor sort, where an offended family member holds a grudge for decades over a minor perceived slight, such as a lack of enthusiasm for a handmade gift, or a disagreement over politics or an unkind word. In contrast, other families suffer from the sort of problems one might see on the Jerry Springer show or Doctor Phil. I suspect many people watch such shows just to be reminded to be thankful: we may have problems, we may not always get along, we may have stress—but thank goodness we aren’t like those crazy idiots on TV.
For all the added stress, for all the occasional drama, for all the physical, emotional and financial turmoil, for all the Uncles and Aunts that act goofy or whom we find slightly disturbing, I think most of us actually like the holidays and enjoy them.
Otherwise, why would we keep doing this to ourselves year after year?