Mistakes I Made this Christmas

“I feel like it’s taken me my entire adult life to fully appreciate why my father dreaded Christmas.” I said this to my friend Dee who had dropped by bearing gifts late Christmas morning. She had noted the glazed look in my eye and asked me how I was. Moments earlier, Stump had pushed a box of blocks across the kitchen table, causing a bowl of oatmeal to tumble to the floor. We now had oatmeal splattered on the wall. Kellie and I had different views about to what extent the spill was intentional. She was pretty sure he meant it. I was pretty sure he just didn’t care one way or another. But it didn’t matter who was right: the situation was the same. There was oatmeal everywhere and still no one had eaten breakfast.

When I was a child, the adults in my life spoke openly about their mixed feelings about Christmas—the stress of crowds and holiday shopping, the endless lists and expectations. I didn’t get it then, nor did I want to. But I get it now. I keep thinking that with each passing year, I’ll master the art of Christmas. I’ll get all of my shopping done early. I will perfectly match each person in my life with the gifts they deserve. I’ll find a way of doing this without activating my scarcity meter—I’ll just spend what I need to spend without batting an eye. But somehow, it seems, each year I bungle it. Sometimes I feel like Christmas is a test of my ability to be an adult in the real world. Every year I think that I will finally pass and yet, every year I fail. Here is the rundown of this year’s mistakes:

  1. I started my Christmas shopping too late. This is a perennial problem. Every year I remind myself how easy Christmas would be if I started my shopping in August. I’d have time to carefully consider each person in my life. I wouldn’t have to spend a bunch of money all at once. In spite of these intentions, each year around Thanksgiving I realize that it’s already the Christmas season and I think, Oh well. I still have plenty of time. But I don’t start actively thinking of Christmas until December 15 when I submit my final grades. By that time there’s no avoiding the crowds. I wait in long lines of traffic to get to the mall and then feel like a chump as I vie for a parking spot. I don’t finish my shopping so much as I give up on the process.
  1. I bought too much. Because all of my shopping was done in a frenzy, I made bad decisions. I bought gummy bears and candy canes for my kids’ stockings when I knew that extra sugar on Christmas was a bad idea. I bought board games at TJ Maxx, not because my kids had asked for them, but simply because they were there, and I wanted more boxes to wrap and put under the tree. Though I begin each Christmas season by declaring I’m only doing stockings for my kids, I always chicken out.
  1. I bought too little. When I shop for extended family members, I have a different problem: I don’t want to buy trash. I mean, I don’t want to buy something that will likely be tucked away in a drawer and ignored until it is eventually thrown out or donated to Goodwill. I worry that even a gift card is likely to be stashed and never redeemed. I suspect that I may be missing the point entirely, that if I were a sincere and generous gift-giver I’d let go of this fear and just happily shop for others. But because I’m not that evolved, I play it safe and buy everyone socks. This does not make for a very exciting gift exchange session.
  1. I thought we could skip breakfast. This was really the defining mistake of this year. I went to bed with dreams of baking blueberry muffins. I imagined my kids would wake up and we’d watch them unpack their stockings and then everyone would happily take a break from gift giving. But then the day arrived and my children were so giddy. They danced over the $2 bowls I had bought them at Target. They ate pieces of their candy canes, and slurped down the applesauce packets that Santa had tucked in their stockings. And then they wanted to keep opening boxes, so I let them. I figured: They had applesauce. What’s the worst that can happen? And then I found out.

There’s a Christmas magic that happens with stockings, which tend to be full of small everyday pleasures. But I think that something frightening sets in when the ceremony moves to the packages beneath the tree and the living room fills with all kinds of gift detritus—paper and cardboard and plastic—and we know that at some point the gifts will end. The gifts will end and we will still be ourselves in the real world, untransported, and in this case hungry. Stump in particular was so hungry that he would not agree to eat anything except gummy bears and candy canes (see mistake #2) and he spent the next two hours resisting food, pushing over bowls of oatmeal, throwing Legos across the room, demanding I assemble a puzzle, and then angrily disassembling the puzzle as I built it.

Next year I will do better. I will start my Christmas shopping in August. I will buy the perfect gift for every human in my life. I will not waste money, but I also won’t be stingy. I will lovingly assemble a healthful breakfast first thing on Christmas morning. My children will gather around the table and clean their plates. They will be wearing festive sweaters and their hair will be combed. Next year, I swear, I will win at Christmas.


  1. Hi, my name is Charles and this is only a comment, I read your.post and can definitely understand your pain, but to actually have peace in the mind, spirit, heart, and soul, you must understand the meaning of Christmas in the first place. And once you understand the true meaning, you will find peace, joy, and happiness… God bless.

    • Hi Charles,
      What specifically did you take away from this essay? I didn’t feel the author was in pain so much as grappling with the realities of Christmas with two young children, work, and an embedded sense of moderation and balance. What do you think the meaning of Christmas is? Your comment mentioned it but, unlike this blog, gave no details. I believe spiritually is impossible without clear eyed, forthright, and brave honesty.
      Best wishes for the new year. ~Kathy

  2. You have eloquently told the story of every mother with small children at Christmas. Speaking from experience, it all comes together at retirement age. Enjoy the journey.

  3. This makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. Your father solved his own “Christmas problem” years ago by just tucking checks into Christmas cards, and then zoning out during the festivities. I appreciate all you’ve done for the celebration, including the wonderful cookies that just arrived on our doorstep!

  4. I did everything right, but it didn’t stop the universe from interfering and making it a crappy day, anyway. There’s no Perfect Christmas, so just try to enjoy what you get.

  5. Oh yes, even with things planned and prepared for children are children and that’s why we love them. Haha. Next year will be different in that the boys will be older. Even if you do the same thing… It’s endearing!

    This journey of motherhood is a wild ride.

    Love you!

  6. Of all our children, only three were home with us. I personally am fed up with consumerism and the annoying songs and the argument about whether it’s a pagan or Christian holiday. Despite this, it was awesome. The Ladies put up the tree the day after since the Girls still have yet to come home to visit, and I hand knit presents after NaNoWriMo and managed to finish them all somehow. Also, since I’m not on talking terms with my biological family, I feel liberated and had fewer presents to sweat about!

  7. What a beautiful post. Christmas is always a challenging Holiday. I hope you found joy in your successes and laughter in your failures. Just think how grateful your kids will be for the wonderful memories your hardwork created for them when they are grown.

  8. My husband told me that my son said, unprompted, “I got everything I wanted and then even more!” during a Christmas Day bike ride. And I was feeling so proud of myself for my stealth Santa moves that as I cuddled with him before bed I asked how his day had been. He started to cry. He said it was so much pressure to pretend to be so happy. That Christmas made him sad and tired.
    And I totally got it. “Weddings, birthdays, graduations and proms do the same thing,” I said, “the trick is to aim no higher than a regular day. Just enjoy the day and the people for whatever they bring, no expectations.”
    Here’s to decent regular days.
    (P.S. I get so happy when there’s a new post from you. So lovely.
    P.P.S. May I recommend family photo mugs from Snapfish. Cheap, adorable, personally made. Stuff the socks in the mugs. Voila! Worked for me.)

  9. Love this post!
    Kids are definitely not the only who meltdown around Christmas. I had the worst heartburn bc I had to go to the office on the 24th, had not finished shopping, and we needed groceries. I NEVER have heartburn. I made it into a good thing, singing on my traffic free commute, wearing a fun sweater, doing the coop run on my lunch only to snap the second I walked in the door. I have a hard time reconciling appropriate gift giving with the implied consumerism. And we did not talk about Baby Jesus, who definitely needs a shout out this time of year.
    That said, the post Christmas playdate at one of our amazing beaches always does me right. That time is all about nature and family, which are the best parts of Christmas. Thank you for sharing such an honest yet light narrative.

  10. I also totally understand – family expectations, our expectations, reining it in and making it doable does take work and lots of planning. This year my goal was to go with the flow and I mostly succeeded. Counting on others to cooperate is counterproductive – so when I let that go, I had more fun.

    May I recommend putting together a breakfast that can sit in the fridge overnight…when everyone gets up for stockings pop the breakfast in the oven – set the timer and eat when it is ready…everyone will stop because it will smell so good. My favorite is the egg/ham/cheese/bread bake…easy to layer and gets better overnight – smells and tastes terrific! serve with an easy fruit salad or just set out some banana’s and tangerines or open a can of tropical fruit and sprinkle with coconut…Kids love it!

    Another suggestion: check out Flylady.com and read through her Christmas planning suggestions …some really good ideas there.

  11. It’s interesting how the holidays can bring up the expectations and pressures that are unlikely to be fulfilled except to fulfill us with angst. I still buy into New Year’s having to be a big deal so that when this one didn’t go perfectly I felt like I’d missed out on having an awesome new year when really, if it had been any other night, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash twice about it. As for Christmas, a clerk at a store I went to told me she pretty much has told everyone in her life that she doesn’t give/get gifts and she gets to stay above the stress fray. I admire her for that but I couldn’t do it.

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