By Marlene Depler
It was barely fall, and I already dreaded the upcoming holidays. It was difficult for me to admit my true feelings of frustration and resentment. I wondered, Am I the only one who feels this way. Isn't Christmas supposed to be the season of great joy and festivity? Then why don't I welcome the season?
For nearly two decades, I assumed that it was my responsibility to give everyone around me a delightful and memorable Christmas. I worked for weeks cleaning, shopping, wrapping, decorating, mailing cards and letters, planning menus, and baking. I baked for school parties, for church activities, and for home. I decorated dozens and dozens of sugar cookies, as well as baking several other kinds of cookies, candies, breads, and muffins to freeze. Our family regularly entertained extended family from out-of town. My multitude of shoulds made for very lengthy to-do lists. I went into my Superwoman mode until everything was done, and I was exhausted, irritable, and even resentful.
One year in the midst of my all-out efforts, my youngest daughter Lisa said to me, "Mom, why don't you just get in the Christmas spirit?"
I wanted to give an angry retort, but I held back harsh words and cried instead. Why did Christmas have to be this stressful and hectic?
With that memory still piercing my heart, this year I longed to break free from all the cumbersome expectations and excessive responsibilities that had for years left me disappointed and depressed when Christmas was over. I wanted to give my children a happy mom! What could I do differently to set myself free from my holiday bondage?
Then I had an idea! We could leave town—go away for Christmas! If I was not home, I reasoned, then I would not have to entertain anyone, nor would I be expected to do many of the holiday tasks. Initially, I felt both excited and relieved at this possibility. Yet I also had twinges of guilt and fear. I knew this wouldn't be an easy task for a world-class people-pleaser like me. What would my husband and children think? Would my extended family be upset?
I shared my frustrations with my husband and hesitantly suggested that we spend Christmas in Estes Park, Colorado, with just our children. Much to my surprise, he heartily approved of the idea.
"I think that's a great idea. Let's drive up to Estes sometime in the next few weeks and see what accommodations might be available," he suggested.
Later that fall, we drove up to Estes Park and found a vacation home that was available over Christmas. It was high on the side of a mountain with a spectacular view. After the arrangements were made, we proceeded to tell our three teenagers about our plan. At first, they were surprised, and perhaps, even somewhat bewildered.
After a few minutes of adapting to the idea, our son Drew, the oldest, said, "Sure! Let's do it! It should be fun!" Our two daughters, Paula and Lisa, appeared to like the idea as well. Now all I had to do was tell everyone else that we would not be home for Christmas.
I began to actually anticipate the coming of the holidays. It was like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I still baked our favorite cranberry-cream cheese bread and a small batch of frosted sugar cookies. We decorated our Christmas tree even though we knew we wouldn't be home. I purchased gifts for my family and wrapped them with care. We listened to Christmas carols throughout the season. I made my choices and commitments with care.But I didn't do the endless list of things that I had done in years past.
On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, we packed our bags, gifts, games, movies, music, and food for simple meals into our Explorer, along with our five bodies, and headed for the mountains. When we got to the rental, we were surprised. Someone had put up a Christmas tree! What an unexpected bonus! It was simply decorated with red bulbs and white lights, and it sat in front of the large picture window that framed majestic, snow-covered mountain peaks.
We unpacked our bags and put our gifts under the tree. That evening, Ray built a fire in the stone fireplace. We gathered around its light and warmth to sing carols about the birth of our Savior and open our gifts. We stayed up late to watch Fiddler on the Roof. That night when I put my head on the pillow, I felt content and peaceful. This was exactly what I needed.
On Christmas day, we had pancakes for breakfast. Then we played games, snacked on Christmas goodies, and listened to music. We took turns exclaiming over the view from the window—blue sky and snow swirling in the wind between the peaks. I stayed in my robe until almost noon.
After our mid-day meal, we drove up into Rocky Mountain National Park. The park had long since been vacated by the hordes of summer tourists. A quiet solitude enveloped the mountains and valleys now covered with pristine glistening snow. What a glorious sight it was.
The next day as we drove home from our getaway, I felt refreshed and content. The whole family had enjoyed themselves. I was grateful that I had had the courage to try something new—even though it was difficult for me to break free from my self-imposed rut. Somehow I sensed that this was only the beginning. Holidays would never be the same again.
Looking back, I see that this Christmas was a significant turning point for me. After our Christmas away, I began to examine my perfectionism and my unrealistic expectations.
I learned that I didn’t have to meet every expectation that others might have for me. Yes, I could survive without having the approval of everyone. I even learned that little two-letter word that is so difficult to say—no. I also learned to delegate more and to ask for help. I began to embrace the things that were truly important to me, letting go of things that were unimportant. Most of all I learned that my happiness did not hinge on having the "perfect" holiday. After all, Christmas is only one day out of 365.
In the years that followed, I have had many opportunities to help other women who struggled with the same issues. Jan no longer buys Christmas gifts on credit. Kathy no longer sends Christmas cards. Instead, she telephones those who are near and dear to her. Sharon told me recently that her past Christmas was the best, most relaxed she has ever had. She no longer rigidly schedules the family "fun." And my eyes still fill with tears when I think of helping a friend, who was dying from cancer, find the strength to observe her last Christmas in a way that was meaningful to her.
Running away for Christmas seemed to be a radical decision at them time, but it has paid big dividends since. Now that my children are all grown, they look back on the Christmas at Estes Park as one of their favorites. Paula said not long ago, "Mom, let's all go to Estes Park for Christmas again! It was such fun!" Perhaps we will.
Christmas will soon be here again. I must once again resolve to observe the holidays in a way that is meaningful to me. No more vain attempts to have a Norman Rockwell or Martha Stewart Christmas. I will continue to release my unreasonable expectations. My desire is to focus on a humble birth and enjoy my family. I know full well that my greatest gifts will never be found under the Christmas tree.
NOTE: The names of women were changed.
(c) Marlene Depler Permission must be granted to reprint in any form.