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Challenge: Reducing Holiday Stress

'O (leaning) Christmas tree': What happened when I let go of the holiday expectations I had for myself

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I suppose we could maybe, possibly fix that our Christmas tree is leaning to the right, but it took us ten days after we got it to even start decorating it. Oh, and I keep thinking I should probably go out and buy advent calendars, at one point. Now, you might think we have no holiday spirit… but you’d be wrong. Allow me to explain.

After throwing my back out three (yes, THREE) Decembers in a row, I got the message: there’s something about the end of the year that throws me off. So as I was hunched over — hanging outdoor lights (that’s mandatory, right?) and attending every event and party (Must. Keep. Up.), I wondered what kept causing my annual back pain. A few wise people mentioned to me that stress is a trigger, and I blew them off. But after that third holiday season of not being upright, I decided to investigate that whole stress thing.


But what’s the problem with the most wonderful time of the year? What kind of person would I be if I didn’t do my part to be as festive as other people?

You know where this is going. Self-judgment and perfectionism were the first things that had to go. It was post-Christmas, 2016, and I was in so much pain that I could barely walk. A few internet search results had confirmed that stress and back pain were as tight as Santa and Rudolph. I made it my mission to break the back-pain streak, so I did a little soul searching. What were my unique holiday stressors?

Answer #1: everyone appears to be doing it better than me. I was buying what Instagram was selling. Scrolling through photos of holiday festivities and décor had me thinking the only thing I was good at was sucking at all things Christmas. I decided to ask my oldest daughter (who has enough holiday spirit for ten people) what she thought.

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“Eve, I feel like other families have all these fun holiday traditions and decorate so well and I’m wondering if you’re missing out on that because I’m not a great planner and I seem to do everything half way?”

She paused, as I wondered whether this would be the moment that I learned that yes, Virginia, there is a crappy Christmas mom, and her name is Heather McBride.

“Not really. I mean, no offense, but I don’t expect every good holiday moment to come from you. Christmas is everywhere, not just in this house. And besides, some other families seem to have a lot of forced Christmasy stuff that the kids don’t really enjoy…”

Okay, so not an A+, but certainly not an F. More importantly, I realized that my teenager had a better understanding of the holidays than I did. She seemed to just appreciate the season, and not see it as a competition. As for traditions, not everyone in our home is neurotypical, so a family trip to see the Rockefeller Christmas tree would be less Norman Rockwell and more — Jerry Springer, anyway.

On top of that, I was calling myself unfestive when in reality, I was accommodating one of our sons, who gets easily overwhelmed this time of year. So instead of patting myself on the back for striking a balance that’s right for my family, I was calling myself a Grinch.

So I decided to let go of my own expectations of myself and see what happened. That meant if being a good mom to the child who needed me the most meant skipping the outdoor lighting scheme, then so be it. The result? 2017 ended up being one of the happiest holiday seasons I can remember. Instead of feeling like there was a right or wrong way to be festive, I truly began to appreciate that we all feel it and show it differently and that, most importantly, with life’s twists and turns, any year that we’re able to celebrate and be together is, by definition, a good year — lights or no lights!

The best part about all of this is that, with practice, I’m letting go of even more. I am focusing my energy on one little guy in my house who can only handle so much of a break in the routine. I no longer feel like being festive is a competition, and when I drive by a house that is blinding and flashy and rivals the Griswold’s in “Christmas Vacation,” I’m no longer jealous that someone “did” the holidays better than I have, I’m just grateful that their cheer rubbed off on us a little bit.

Heather McBride is a partner in The Pickup Line newsletter, a daily newsletter for moms delivered while they have a few free moments on line at school and sports pickup. Check it out at

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