There’s only one item on my wish list for Santa this year. Actually, it’s more of a request: I want him to find that elf—you know the one, with the mischievous smile and the countless Pinterest and Tumblr accounts—and pummel him with his own shelf.
I’ve got nothing against the guy, personally. But every year, just as I swear to avoid the crazy-making pressure of creating the perfect holiday for my kid, he shows up on my social feeds, soaking in a marshmallow-filled bathtub or making snow angels in flour he charmingly spilled while baking a batch of gilded sesame cookies. I can avert my eyes when he gets tangled in garlands of homemade caramel corn, but when he spells out “And to all a good night!” on the floor in alternating red and green M&Ms, all I can see is the fine print, which reads: “You’re not making Christmas special enough.”
That’s how it feels, anyway. As we enter the holiday season, with friends and neighbours and acquaintances Instagramming all the way, it becomes increasingly hard to avoid pursuing “the perfect holiday”—possibly, experts say, to the detriment of our kids.
Scroll through your Facebook feed from last year. Are there photos of kids melting down because Santa delivered a green sled instead of a red one? Pics of an irritated spouse throwing shade across the dinner table?
More likely, your feed was flooded with heartwarming scenes that appear as pure as the driven snow. Sure, these pictures are just snapshots of split seconds in time, but when viewed together, they become the modern Christmas mosaic—one that feeds oversized expectations of festive perfection. And the recent trend toward “authenticity” (organic, artisanal, mindfully DIY or preferably all three) has only upped the ante.
The season has become “just one more manifestation” of the great competitive sport called parenting, says Susan Newman, a social psychologist specializing in family issues. But December doesn’t play out in some isolated bubble—it’s not as if we’re free from regular work and family obligations, and equipped to withstand added pressure. A 2008 poll by the American Psychological Association showed that eight out of 10 people anticipate stress during the holiday season, and households with children were more likely to experience that stress than those without.
The irony, of course, is that the kids—the people for whom, you tell yourself, you’re jumping through all those handmade wreaths—would be better off if you dropped the Gwyneth Paltrow act. Call it conscious un-Christmasing.
And when things don’t go according to plan, the anxiety you feel can be disproportionately high, matching the level of your own expectations. “People become really distressed,” says Catherine M. Lee, a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa. “They get angry, and they can feel guilty, so the emotional toll is huge. Kids are incredibly sensitive to it.”
So why is it so hard to resist pursuing this candy-coated ideal? Part of the reason, Lee says, is tied to the massive time crunch and over-programming that is modern parenting. “Parents have lost their confidence in the importance of the relationship they have with their kids,” she says. “They feel kind of undermined about the importance they have in their kids’ lives, so in the effort to be good parents, they keep trying to do more exciting, more engaging things.”
As Canada research chair in personality and health at York University, Gordon Flett studies perfectionism, and his findings back this notion. “People who want to be perfect have this unsatisfied need to feel like they matter,” he says. “If you want to do the best thing for your family, for your kids and for you, ultimately, focus on sending that message to kids—that they matter.”
Listening to Flett talk, I try desperately to forget the time I stood on my porch for 20 minutes in the dead of night, hoping the frigid air would quickly cool down a vanilla cake—one I insisted on baking from scratch despite not having the time—so I had a hope of icing it before sunrise. This kind of effort may be misguided, but it comes from a good place. Is there no silver lining to collapsing at 4 a.m. in the name of creating something extra special?
The danger of supersizing every experience, Lee says, is that kids don’t learn how to deal with moments of imperfection. They also take comfort in the normal routines of day-to-day life. “They need some unstructured time,” she says. “And they need time with a parent who is feeling calm. The happiest Christmas I remember was when we all stayed in PJs, and we cooked pizza instead of turkey.”
Thinking about what I cherish from my own childhood, it’s the tradition of placing the tree topper that stands out. It’s a ratty old one-eyed Santa Claus puppet that my sister made in school almost 40 years ago. Every year, my parents place it on the tree with pride. And every year it sparks stories about which kid made what godawful-looking ornament, dozens of which are hung around the house. I remember those conversations in detail—but I can’t recall one table setting or one gilded sesame cookie.
I need to remember that one-eyed Santa, and what he represents, this year. And maybe introduce him to the elf.
A version of this article appeared in our December 2015 issue with the headline, “Have a happy holiday - for real,” p. 68-70.