From Sun Magazine: Trying to control the holidays is just crazy

Sun magazine editor Catherine Mallette
Sun magazine editor Catherine Mallette (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun photo)

I always go a little crazy this time of year.

Yes, I am one of those annoying people who listen nonstop to Christmas music on Sirius each season. I start shopping for gifts before Halloween, and one of the highlights of October is choosing a color scheme for the year's wrapping paper. I know it's compulsive, but I like assigning each family member a different print because I am also a wrap-as-you-buy person, and it helps me make sure the kids have about the same number of gifts. (Not that, at 22 and 19, they are even really kids any more, or care how many presents they get. But still.)

The day after Thanksgiving, I deck the halls and commence the annual Christmas classic movie fest, watching at least two every weekend, despite the fact that I can already recite all of Holiday Inn ("You're a fake and I'm a phony!").

I am sure living with me throughout Q4 must be difficult. All this forced merriment must feel like a Bataan Death March of Jolliness. Many years ago, I remember telling Jack and Hadley (who really were kids at that point) that we had to watch a holiday movie. Had to.

They finally submitted but insisted that it be Jack Frost, that 1998 flick about the dad who dies in a car wreck and comes back as a snowman. Of course, I protested. I mean, it didn't have to be Bing Crosby, but you could scarcely call the Michael Keaton movie a holiday classic, what with its emphasis on parental death and a cold, fat-bellied afterlife. But watch it we did, and it was a good time.

While it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, it actually turns out that when I back off on the forced fun agenda, two things tend to happen: a) We have more fun; b) Another family member steps in with good ideas.

When she was in middle school, Hadley went through a stage where she liked organizing family activities.

That Christmas, Hadley came up with a weeklong plan. On the first day, we read a book about Hanukkah and lit a menorah. One night was devoted to Kwanzaa, another to family games. (I should note that all the activities took place at night because we spent much of the day shopping for them.)

Everyone's favorite activity was a drawing contest. Hadley created a haunting scene of a woman in a winter storm. Jack did a fine portrait of our cat, TK. I traced a screen saver of Pikachu. My husband David's art was the most, oh, let's just say memorable. I think he started out trying to draw TK on a motorcycle, but the cat ended up sitting in a chair and dressed as Santa. It's a family favorite still.

Sometimes I ponder my tightly wound holiday behavior, asking myself the deep philosophical question: What the hell is wrong with me? And I think the answer is best summed up with one of my very favorite holiday stories.

I used to work with a woman named Cynthia, and every December I would beg her to retell the tale of an epic family Christmas in Colorado. To be honest, I don't remember any details except this: After a drive together, it ends with a big brouhaha between Cynthia and her mom. She and her boys get out of the car as her mother peels off and one or the other screams "Merry &*#@! Christmas!"

I love this story because it reminds me of the many Christmases where the self-induced stress of the holidays has brought me to tears. It's a thin line, it turns out, between the crazy striving for shared joy and the realization that our own lives are rarely as perfect as a Hollywood film.

This story releases me from feeling as though I have to be manic me.

It reminds me that we're all in this holiday thing together, surviving the season in our own dysfunctional ways. And it reminds me that I need to turn off the Sirius sometimes and let my loved ones vent about their co-workers, their teachers and, yes, their mothers.

This is the true spirit of the season, after all.

Yes, and I will get to it, I promise. Right after I finish my color-coordinated wrapping.

Catherine Mallette is a senior content editor in The Sun's features department and the editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. Contact her at cmallette@baltsun.com.

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