It's Okay to Have a Crappy Holiday

This has been an awful year. You're not a failure if your holiday is awful too.

Posted Dec 21, 2020

It’s December, and my former colleague Courtney has adopted Elf on the Shelf as a pandemic holiday project. Based on the 2005 book of the same name, Elf on the Shelf is a newish “tradition” in which parents position a plastic elf in new locations around the home every day in the countdown to Christmas. Each morning, children are tasked with locating the Elf, whom they’re told is watching over them and reporting on their activities to Santa. In some families, the Elf leaves behind presents for the kids, or hand-written notes, or candy. Of course, all of this is frequently documented on social media.

Every day this month, Courtney has posted a charming photo of her plastic Elf caught up in some new antic. Here he is folding laundry! There he goes, leading a parade of toys in a loop around the living room! Each tableau she’s created is detailed, each photograph of the Elf meticulously framed. The Elf even leaves behind Christmas ornaments and poems.

Image by Eric Mclean on Unsplash
A Christmas tree with a frowning face.
Source: Image by Eric Mclean on Unsplash

Witnessing this is giving me major anxiety. How does Courtney find the brain space and energy to do this all month long? Courtney is an upbeat, generous person, so she probably doesn’t bat an eyelash at it. Still, just imagining doing that much extra work makes my stomach tie up in stress knots.

Courtney and I both grew up in the 1990s when Elf on the Shelf did not exist. Neither did gender reveal parties. Or photo shoots depicting brides-to-be “popping the question” to their maids of honor. Or any number of now-obligatory traditions created by lifestyle influencers over the past few years. If you want to show the world that you’re a devoted parent, friend, or spouse, there’s a lot you might think you have to do.

This holiday season, there is even more pressure than usual to do “special,” documentable things to prove your love. Parents are trapped inside with antsy, under-stimulated kids. Old traditions have been abandoned and new digital ones must be erected in their place. I have friends who have planned virtual holiday parties filled with activities — household scavenger hunts, Instagram costume contests, Twitch karaoke, and Zoom Hanukkah candle lightings.

All I’ve done to prepare for Christmas is hang a single plastic ornament off the door of my chinchilla’s cage. The ornament came free with a six-pack of beer.

In theory, I had all the time in the world to Christmas shop and decorate and plan Zoom extravaganzas. Sometimes I worry that I’ve squandered this time of year, failing to put on a brave face and make it somehow magical. Would I feel more comfortable being trapped at home if I found the motivation to decorate? Are all these virtual activities memory-making and sanity-saving, or are they just more things to feel shitty about not doing?

I’m sure the answer varies from person to person. “People need projects,” my partner likes to say, and I know it can be rewarding to plan hangouts, make gifts, and keep people’s spirits alight. Personally, though, I’m out of energy. I can’t pretend this holiday season will be anything but a weak imitation of the ones that came before. I’m going to let this Christmas suck.

If you’re like me, you need some reassurance right now that it’s okay if your holiday is terrible. Put down the Chex Mix recipe and go disappoint someone. If you have children, forget about making magic this year. If your work has a Slack channel for planning the holiday party, mute it. It’s okay if you eat Taco Bell every night this month and never put the tree up.

There is a freedom in abandoning obligations, in relinquishing oneself to mediocrity. You’re living in a global pandemic; just by staying home, you are actively saving lives. Doing this heroic work for months on end while your government repeatedly fails you is downright traumatic. Plus, if you’re like most people, you’ve lost work or lost loved ones during this horrific time on top of all the thankless, joyless sacrifices you’ve had to make. Who cares if the presents you ordered arrive three weeks late? Who cares if you don’t buy any presents at all? Sometimes having a sense of perspective means letting yourself really feel disappointment and sorrow. 

I’m so sick of polluting my mind with meaningless standards I’ll never live up to. I can’t pretend that this holiday season will be a beautiful, special time. So I’m barely acting like it’s a holiday at all. I’m distracting myself by doing a lot of reading and playing a lot of Genshin Impact. I’m not cooking anything. I’m not mailing any cards. I’ll show up to Zoom parties when I feel like it, and nope out of them whenever the mood strikes by hitting the “leave” button. This year has been terrible. It’s fine and fitting if you let your Christmas be terrible, too.