Deck the halls with boughs of holly

Fa la la la la la la la la

‘Tis the season to be…judgey?!?

Wait a minute.

I don’t remember that line!

When did the holiday season become about forcing others to celebrate in precisely the way we feel is acceptable? Who defines acceptable? Should Christmas be more about religion, family, charity, food, friends, or presents, and how do we know what combination is correct?

Christmas is a unique holiday in its ability to transcend culture, religion, and generations. While the festival currently takes its name from the Christian form of the winter celebration, it has taken on meaning of its own for many non-Christian families as well. Festivus, Christmakah and Black Friday have sprung forth from the traditional holiday and taken on a life of their own: separate entities drawing their life-blood from the same source of jolly, jingly magic.

Who doesn’t love a fat man in a red suit?

In many ways, Christmas has become analogous for the type of integrated society we are striving to build.

Enter the Christmas police.

Along with the incessant diamond commercials, Rat Pack renditions of Let It Snow, and daily reminders of precisely how many shopping hours remain before “the big day” come the debates: what is the “true” meaning of Christmas? Should it be about Santa, presents, and sweets, or should we give Jolly Old Saint Nick the boot in favor of mangers, mass, and the Baby Jesus?

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard one side criticizing the other for destroying the spirit of Christmas with their commercialism, religious fanaticism, excessive drinking, over-eating, wasteful lighting of candles, and pretty much any other holiday tradition you can imagine.

The only thing people seem to agree on is the fact that they wait all year for this beloved celebration, presumably because they have fond memories from their childhood of whatever ceremonies they chose to perform. Deep down, we all want the same thing: to recapture some of the magic we felt when we were young during a special time spent with loved ones in the long, dark hours of the winter.

Is it really possible to get that wrong?

I grew up in a household without a lot of tradition: cultural, religious, family or otherwise. We were a dysfunctional island unto ourselves, and thus we celebrated this most treasured of holidays in the most meaningful way we knew how: we threw money at it.

My father loved to buy presents, which is odd because I’m fairly certain Christmas shopping was the only kind of shopping he ever performed in the 20 years he was married to my mother. Eleven months out of the year, the man in our household was withdrawn, verbally combative, selfish, and childish, but during the month before Christmas he changed.

I think the only time I ever saw my parents leave the house together without us was during the weeks leading up to Christmas each year. They would come home from the shops whispering conspiratorially and smuggling bags of goodies through the hallway to their bedroom away from prying eyes. The scene would hardly have raised an eyebrow in most families, but my parents didn’t talk, let alone conspire together. Except at Christmas.

In retrospect, after an advanced degree in psychology, more than two decades of distance, and having a family of my own, I can see that what appeared to be my father’s heart growing three sizes in a Grinch-like Christmas miracle each year, was actually another of his limitations. My father only knew how to show love through material gestures. He would ignore my very existence through every school project, new friendship, broken heart, and hormonal melt-down I suffered, but on that one fateful day in December he believed he could make up for it by buying the perfect present.

Would I have rather had a participating and loving parent in my life? Of course, but that is adult reasoning looking back on a clearly troubled youth and making judgments. At the time, I didn’t know any better. All I knew was that for a couple weeks every year my family looked like the ones I’d see on television and in the movies.

I’d wake up Christmas morning to find our house and my life transformed: my little brother would be asleep on the floor beside my bed, my parents were asleep in the same room instead of one of them on the sofa. Then there was the tree which had been bare and lonely the night before was suddenly covered in shiny tinsel and surrounded by mountains of packages. We would have breakfast together and then spend the entire day opening packages and watching the same Christmas movies on television every year.

I know now that all that glitter and tinsel was a poor substitute for the stable environment that every child should grow up with, but I still feel the thrill of the season each year when the Christmas tree goes up and the lights twinkle to life, like they are the answer to some unspoken question in my heart. I fiercely and steadfastly refuse to adapt what few traditions I remember from these times in my childhood. Laying any of them to rest would be like saying goodbye to a cherished friend and savior during a difficult time.

Christmas, for me, is about sharing what few happy memories I have from my childhood with my children, pretending for a few weeks that I had a happy, healthy, nuclear family growing up, and trying desperately to extend the resulting feeling of childish nostalgia as long as possible.  All I want for Christmas is denial.

So I admit I shop too much during the holidays. I buy too many gifts, put up too many lights, and watch A Christmas Story about a hundred times more often than any sane human being should. But it’s not because I have been hopelessly brainwashed by a materialistic and consumer-driven society and have lost the true meaning of Christmas. Far from it.

I spend the majority of my time as a parent trying to figure out how not to raise my children in the same environment in which I lived. Christmas is the one time of year I want to share with them my family traditions, however misguided they might have been.

So the next time you hear someone judging another family for their choices around the holidays, keep in mind that everyone wants the same thing out of the celebration: love, acceptance, security and just a few little treats. Christmas spirit doesn’t have to look the same in every family or in every house, but it always looks the same on the faces of the children on Christmas morning.

Isn’t that the point of Christmas, after all?


Mary Widdicks is a 31-year-old mom to two boys and is expecting the birth of her first daughter in February, 2015. Being outnumbered in the family means that sometimes her voice gets drowned out by fart jokes and belching contests. She started Outmanned so she’d have a place to escape the testosterone and share her hilarious life with the rest of the world. Mary’s writing has been featured on popular parenting sites such as Mamapedia, Mamalode, In the Powder Room, Pregnant Chicken and Scary Mommy. She has also been honored as a 2014 Voice of the Year by BlogHer, and Badass Blogger of the Year for 2014 by The Indie Chicks.


  1. Thank you for this. I have so many mixed memories and emotions about my father (and mother) regarding holidays. And it was a lot of dysfunction. Now, as a parents, my husband and I have the same goals you mention, to create a loving space for our kids to feel safe, to enjoy, to celebrate. It’s our choice how to make that work. It’s every family’s choice how to make that work. Whether it be one present per kid or ten. Or whatever it means. Seeing how special our kids always feel about Christmas and how loved they feel, we know we have succeeded. I feel like I’m doing it right. I might not have had it but they do, and I’m getting to feel it through and with them.

  2. Thank you Mary. The ways I remember the holidays, the ways YOU remember the holidays makes me so mindful of how I present them to my daughter. They are not throw away memories. They are embedded in our kids. Aka I *could* be bath-shit crazy stressed about not making it a Goop-style occasion OR I can pour my heart and efforts into things that make me happy and remind me of the best time of my childhood, in the hopes that these efforts imprint on her tiny heart too.

  3. Thanks so much for the share. Reading this brought me back to my childhood. I remember these things so well. A beacon of hope in the midst of dysfunction. How I wished for once the feeling could extend passed Christmas (possibly!) and our family could be one of “those” families all year. Sadly, it was not to be. Although it was nice for the season to pretend we were like every other family. Instead of hiding all the chaos.

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