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The Holidays: A Race I Didn’t Enter

The family. A picture which may or may not make it into a few mailboxes around the country this holiday season.
The family. A picture which may or may not make it into a few mailboxes around the country this holiday season.


I'm not really a Scrooge—I love the lights and finding the perfect present and all the fa la la that goes with it—but December always takes me by surprise. Like I somehow landed at the starting line of a half-marathon that I have no memory of entering, let alone training for.

But the gun goes off on December 1, and I start loping along with everybody else who seems to have prepared way better than I have. I always feel resentful the first few miles. Why do our neighbors put their lights up so dang early? Why do my (already very fortunate) kids fixate on presents—gifts that will likely be gathering dust by mid-January, if not sooner? Why hasn't a cute sparkly skirt, perfect for holiday parties, magically appeared in my closet? Why do I keep clicking on emails for deals on stuff that I'll never buy?

And don't even get me started on holiday cards.

Then I make a batch of Peanut Butter Kiss cookies on a snowy day, and settle in. Still not willingly, mind you, but I resign myself to the fact that if I've got to run, I may as well try to find a rhythm. My husband strings up our lights, a display that feels weak, at best, compared to the penguins and snowmen and blinking bling hanging out on other roofs. But hey: the lights are up, and they make our house look festive, especially after a light snowfall. My daughter and I sing "Do They Know It's Christmas?" at the top of our lungs as I drive her to swim practice. I drop money in the Salvation Army kettle every time I hear the bell. I pretend to listen to every story the kids want to tell me about each tree ornament. ("I made this Frosty in Pre-K with Ms. Sadie...")

I still don't have a cute sparkly skirt though, and I don't have teacher gifts. I have to get some teacher gifts stat. Oh, and I can't forget the postman and milk guy and garbagemen and...I shovel about five Kiss cookies down the hatch as I melt thinking about all the things left to do.

By the time we host our annual cookie decorating party for kids—the only tradition I have continued from my childhood—I can, way off in the distance, kinda see the finish line. It's a comforting mirage, but I know I'm kidding myself if I think I'm going to get there anytime soon. Run the mile you're in.

I put aside the thought of the great germ transfer that's about to happen (I've seen kids lick the frosting knives and done or said nothing) and do my best to smile through the sugar-fueled energy that overtakes our house. When the final kid has been picked up, I crack a Milk Stout—hey, I gotta fuel, right?—and page through Sunset magazine to relax, shake out my arms, find my breath again.

Who am I kidding? There's no relaxing in this race. I promise myself I'm going to try one of Sunset's DIY wreaths, even if it's just the paper one.

I wear last year's skirt to the parties, and tell myself nobody will notice. Enough egg nog at the aid stations, and I won't notice either.

Passing the halfway mark, I have a serious case of performance anxiety. I fret that I haven't balanced out the presents between the two kids. That I've spent too much money. That I haven't spent enough. That my husband doesn't need another sweater, but what else do you get him? That the holiday experience our family has created doesn't measure up to the one I had as a kid.

I calm down by reminding myself I don't remember, save a few random sweaters and a Pappgallo purse I simply couldn't live without, any gifts from my youth. That the best part of Christmas is the excitement, the build-up, the time spent together getting ready for one big day. I drink another Milk Stout, and look for the elusive Zone in which I can simply just exist and run. I download the "Take a Break" meditation app, and give it a whirl, then make a note to myself: meditate before opening a beer.

The days and miles march on. I get sick of hearing Madonna sing Santa Baby, but I can't bring myself to change the channel. I've got a canker sore in my mouth, but there's just two decorated cookies left in this bin, so I may as well just eat them. I stop into a few cute shops on Pearl Street, just in case there's something else somebody just has to have.

I'm running without thinking: my preferred way.

I actually look forward to having the kids home for break. For about two hours. Then the bickering starts. I start assigning random chores just to separate them and vow we are going to have daily quiet time (one hour, minimum). Two weeks and two days of vacation? WTH? 

Somehow, I make it to mile 12, and the end truly is in sight. After fighting with Ben about how he needs to wear pants, not the same shorts he's slept in for three days, to church on Christmas Eve, I put on last year's sparkly skirt again.

As the organ booms and congregation sings Joy to the World, I inevitably tear up. I look down at my family. I can't believe they all belong to me. I'm so grateful for this moment, so grateful to be alive. It's momentary, but it's enough. My legs don't remember the previous miles, the late-night wrapping and the sprinkle sweeping and the second guessing.

Joy to the Finish Line. Joy to the World.

The final .1 mile—Christmas morning—is a sprint. Despite my pleading to slow down, the kids go as fast as they can, emptying their tanks as they rip through presents. It's over. I wrap a blanket around myself, grab some snacks and beverages, breathe a sign of relief and look forward to my favorite part of any race: getting the stories from friends and family.

How do you approach the holidays? A race you happily enter? Reluctantly enter? You don't even remember you entered?

36 responses to “The Holidays: A Race I Didn’t Enter

  1. Every year I have fresh, “I can DO this” energy, and somewhere around now, I’m begging for a reprieve. A holiday activity streak just reminds me that I can’t do it all at once – I can either do a holiday thing OR get a decent sweat on. Working in a school (under deadlines that get wonky with 2 weeks off) takes its toll and I don’t feel like I’m doing anything well. The added pressure of finishing work so I can get out for a jog before the sun sets…. nope, missed it again. But by mid afternoon on the 24th, it’s all good. I know I’ve done what I can, and I can take a breath and just enjoy my family.

  2. I love this post. I’m feeling so grinchy this year and I don’t really know why. But I feel like all of the activity and things we “have” to do seem so pointless. I hate feeling negative, but it really doesn’t bring me much joy. I’m glad that I’m not the only one who feels like they’re blindly following the pack in a race that I didn’t sign up for. 😉

  3. Awesome post!! I love the analogy with racing. I am trying harder to slow down and enjoy the moments of the holidays and remembering to create traditions for my kids that I hope they will carry on. Happy Holidays!

  4. Love this! Why is it we judge ourselves so harshly? Christmas is magic, even when we run the race our own way or not at all!

  5. This. Completely This. I had similar thoughts this morning as I was rushing to print our Christmas Cards. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Love Halloween, hate the Christmas holidays. Too much rush, too much stuff we don’t need, too much food, and too little family time.

  7. Exactly! My son, Daniel, is the one I have to argue with to wear pants to church. We already had a preview at Hanging of the Greens – complete with the four-year old doing a rendition of a snow angel on the carpet in the narthex throughout the service. Thank goodness for the aid stations!

  8. Every word is so true. And when you’re kids are grown up and have left home, you will miss every minute of the craziness. I wish my 35-year-old self had been as wise as my 57-year-old self thinks she is. No matter what, enjoy your Holidays!

  9. Exactly.Every.Word. Thanks for sharing, Dimity. A dear BRF has an expression for the unplanned race: the “half-a*#ed Half”. And just like the H-AH, I get through Christmas by embracing the must-dos ( Rudolph viewing with the kids, baking cookies, trees up) from the ones I can let go ( Christmas train set, Christmas village set, throwing that pre-Christmas party I dream of). Instead of a beer @ the finish of the half, I hoist a mimosa on Christmas morning;)

  10. I love reading your column each day, but every once in a while a piece of writing comes along that really hits the mark. Thanks so much for this one.

  11. Thank you for writing this Dimity! It’s so hard to get out of the mindset of “having to do” Christmas and get into the mindset of enjoying the holiday in whatever form it comes. Hugs and happy holidays!

  12. Beautifully honest and sorely needed by this Mama. I think your words resonated with many mother runners. Thanks for sharing.

  13. I’m definitely a humbug these last several years. Especially when it comes to the tree and decorations. I’m always dragging my feet when the kids enthusiastically beg to get out the tree and all the decorations—“ugh! Do we have to this year?” Yes, I have to. I have to put up with the extra clutter and mess and then clean up the aftermath (usually sometime in February when I finally start digging myself out of S.A.D) For the kids. I have to remind myself it’s for the kids.

  14. The holidays used to be much more hectic when all six kids were in school. Now, with only one living at home and all being adults, the holidays are what I want. I am decorating as the days go by but am heading out Saturday for a week of dog sitting at my sister’s while she goes to DisneyWorld. I am also, very slowly, decluttering as I go through things.

  15. What a great post! I love the analogy. I’ve enjoyed the heck out of Christmas for the past 3 years since my daughter has been here, because it finally gives me the motivation to decorate and celebrate for the first time as an adult. HOWEVER, with #2 on the way, I fear that next Christmas is going to begin the season of overwhelm. Oh well. I’ll just run the mile I’m in 🙂

  16. Dimity, your post was beautifully written and I enjoyed your analogy. I love Christmas Eve and Christmas. It’s the month of Dec. that makes me feel inadequate. I usually start super early and then sit back and pat myself on the back until the procrastination process rocks me back to reality. What the heck are you waiting for? Do you honestly think anyone else is going to wrap these gifts? It doesn’t help that my mom was a fabulous baker and neither of my sisters bothered to learn any of her recipes? I usually feel inadequate until I walk down memory lane with every ornament that I place on the tree. Should I be wrapping now?

  17. Spot on! I am right there with ya sister. I opt out of more than I opt in at Christmas time. I read something one time that said that if you are stressed out, than you are doing too much and you need to scale back. No elf on the shelf at my house, we only do cookies if there is free time and this year our weekends are booked. I will do cards though. I love cards! No need for a sparkly skirt here, we don’t do the party circuit, but I’m sure yours looks fabulous and you should wear it again! I am 100% positive your kids will have an amazing Christmas. Happy Holidays sweet Dimity XOXO.

  18. Pappagallo purse, lol! I had one back in the day!!

    I approach Christmas like every other holiday. I try to find the true meaning and disregard everyone else’s. No keeping up with the Jones’s for me. As a child, presents were kept to a minimum since we didn’t have the money. It was more about family (and food, of course!). To start the month, I clear my calendar so I have time to sit back and enjoy. If a friend says, can we meet for coffee? I’m in. We set aside a weekend to decorate, typically a couple of weeks before Christmas. Eggnog and music. We’ve collected ornaments from various trips so each one brings back a memory. I stopped sending cards last year. I figured people can see me, my family, etc. in person or through FB. Last night, after picking up my daughter from play rehearsal, we drove home a different way to see all the lights other people put up. I have no desire to do it but enjoy seeing others.

    So, I guess the bottom line is, I do what I want not what I think other want me to do. Enter the race. Don’t enter the race. It’s totally your choice.

  19. Wow, I feel like I could have written this! I too battle the mixed emotions of “Bah, Humbug! Everyone has the things they need, this is ridiculous, I’m giving the money I’d spend on gifts to refugees that really need it.” and also then forging my way through it, trying to give the family a happy and memorable Christmas. I guess I pride myself on giving thoughtful gifts and I”m an overthinker by nature, so it usually turns into a mind spin the weekend of black friday and then I spend the next few weeks rethinking the gifts as I can’t seem to shut my eyes to the barage of sales e-mails coming through my in-box. I learned a few years ago that I’m not bothering with outdoor decorations. It feels great putting them up on the unseasonably warm November day that I choose for the activity but nobody wants to be out there come Chicago January taking them down. I put up a tree and a few decorations and call it a day.

    This year I’m hosting Christmas Eve (for my husband’s family) Christmas Day (for my family) AND my son wants to have his birthday party at our house (it’s on 12/21). Right now we have contractors in our attic finishing the space into a bedroom and family room. Hoping that is done so we can use it for all of these hosting soirees. In the meantime, we barely have access to our house! Probably for the best because I’ll obsess less if I can’t be in here.

  20. Dimity, I loved your post about Christmas and the craziness of it all. How can we enjoy the wonderful spirit of Christmas with so so much to do? My plan this year is to just take one day at a time and each day smile if I see a sunrise over Mt. Hood or even the rain falling on my car. I want to breathe in and out and keep this mantra going in my head: “It is about the family/friends you are with this season not about how many cookies, how many presents you buy.” Happy December to you and Merry Christmas!

  21. Dim, love this post. You are the real deal. Yesterday I spent an hour wandering around an awesome garden shop (that decorates beautifully for Christmas) looking for the perfect new angel for my “angel tree”….a tradition my mom started and I now do in remembrance of her. Christmas can begin.

  22. My homemade cards and gifts are almost done- I start prepping early for this. The cards, which almost always feature a bright red cardinal, was started by my Grandmother when I was small- my mother has carried on the tradition-(she is 89) and I hope to pass it on to my daughter. Boxes to be mailed get packed this weekend as well as lights and decorations up! I LOVE this time of year!

  23. I reluctantly entered this, because I have no choice.
    I resent the non-stop commercialism, and fight it tooth and nail, but at some point have to give in a bit.
    I have learned to say no a lot: no to the cookie swap, no to the secret Santa, etc. etc.
    it all gets done somehow, but makes me wonder what I was actually DOING when I wasn’t working full time?
    (My favorite part of Chrismas morning is sitting in the aftermath, just breathing.)

  24. It’s a mixed bag. The first week (now) is crazy. I accompany the school choirs and somehow found myself directing the K-2 choir for a couple of songs, which means an extra rehearsal (yesterday), a dress rehearsal (today), and one more rehearsal and the concert on Thursday. And I’m accompanying the advanced orchestra too, though there are (blessedly) less rehearsals. I volunteered in the kindergarten classroom today. Tomorrow I need to deal with the details for Saturday’s Holiday Shop. On Friday I need to make some soup for the Empty Bowls fundraiser for the local food bank, start setting up Holiday Shop after school gets out, but then run home to grab music and appropriate clothing for Empty Bowls where the orchestra will be playing. We’ll also need to grab batons and lots of winter clothing because the minute the orchestra finishing playing, we’ll pack up and stop at Panera (thank you rapid order!) to grab dinner and change into parade stuff because both girls are twirling with their baton group in a local parade of lights about a half-hour away (but with horrible traffic backups and parking, which means we’ll mostly eat in the car to get there on time. On Saturday: Holiday Shop, baton class, and a second baton performance at the local tree lighting ceremony. Sunday: a reception for the students whose artwork made it to the district level. Also church Christmas pageant rehearsal, which I somehow got pulled into helping with. Things settle down a bit after that, but I’ll spend the next week planning my soon-to-be 11-year-old daughter’s birthday for one kid party and one family party that weekend (plus the Christmas pageant). And I’ll spend the third week of December making sure we have everything ready to go for our road trip from Denver to Chicago to Rochester, NY to Plattsburgh, NY, and back, with kids and our puppy. The plan is to visit lots of relatives along the way, but I haven’t actually made motel reservations yet, so I need to get on that, pronto. (Thankfully, most places aren’t exactly booked in the winter, so that will work to our advantage, I hope.)

    Naturally, that means that I’m sitting here on the computer, despite the 6:30 am wakeup call that’s coming. I don’t mind the December madness too much. My family has a ton of December birthdays (13th, 16th, 17th, and 18th) when I was growing up, so I’m used to the business of birthdays and holidays–and wasn’t surprised when my oldest inserted herself into that sequence (on the 15th, though she was due on the 19th…guess she didn’t want the last birthday in the sequence!). But it’s also a lot, and I haven’t figured out where Christmas cards, Christmas cookies, and the rest of the odds and ends will fit, not to mention time to sit and look at the tree and reflect. (And we still need to put up the tree.) Ah, modern motherhood.

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