Bartleby, The Scrooge

Image by czar

I really don’t like Christmas.  In response to my stance, my husband mutters, “Scrooge.”   But that moniker implies that I’m a misanthrope who doesn’t believe in mercy, charity or socializing with others.  Labeling me “Scrooge” fails to communicate the reasons for my understated approach to the Christmas season. 

What I’m resisting is the omnipresent invitations to elevate every aspect of my life into an art form worthy of the cover of Martha Stewart’s Living.  In response, I take my cue from Bartleby, Melville’s anti-hero.  He sidesteps the expectations of others with the simple-yet-insistent statement, “I prefer not to.”

For a time, I tried to adopt a more traditional approach to the season—decorating the house, sending 100 plus hand-written Christmas cards, baking and delivering a dozen kinds of cookies, putting a wreath on the front of my car, and so forth. However, while doing all those things, I had a hard time demonstrating Peace on my little plot of Earth.   

I’ve cried in frustration while caroling. I’ve punted loaves of fruitcake while growling, “Merry Freakin’ Christmas.”  As my Christmas “To Do” list grew larger and larger, my heart shrunk down to grinchier and grinchier proportions.

So I decided to detach from many Christmas-themed activities.  I remain somewhat aloof in part because I usually keep an academic schedule. This means that in December, there are a lot of deadlines for me as either teacher or student until around the third week of the month.  Even if I manage to wrap up the fall semester by December 15th, I am behind on regular chores by then.  The bedroom floor is an obstacle course of book bags. The kitchen table is filled with unopened mail.  The kitchen sink is full of dishes.   The recycle bins are brimming with carry out containers. The laundry is spilling out of hampers.  It’s hard to set up a Christmas tree when you have no available floor space.  

When my husband complains that I’m spoiling the season, I also point out that many holiday traditions are planned, prepared and primarily performed by the adult women in the household.  True, some people—male and female, young and old–very much enjoy celebrating the season by elevating many daily activities to an art form or by adding special, seasonal events. I applaud these Christmas elves, these holiday angels.  I appreciate their generosity, their craftsmanship, their talents.   I feel joyful while watching them celebrate the season.  However, if I try to follow suit, I feel as though expectations are foisted on me from the outside and that my performance and projects are being scrutinized for their quality. Then these seasonal activities feel like drudgery.  The result?  What I offer to others—a gingerbread house, a handmade Christmas card holder, a decorated front porch–looks bad, smells bad, and tastes bad.  Then I feel like a failure.

In addition to my busy school schedule, my wonky fine motor skills and my poor visual aesthetics  is my minor case of Seasonal Affect Disorder.   It took me into my late 20s to realize this until my friend Kelly made this observation, “Karen, you usually quit something every winter—and in a dramatic fashion. “  I then observed a seasonal pattern to my dating habits.  (I dated from age 16 until I married at age 34, so I had ample “data” to examine.)  I always had a date for the 4th of July, but I never had a date for New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day.  I was so much less social during the winter months.  Once I noted that my productivity and sociability were hampered by the winter weather, I learned to move more commitments to April through November.  I retreat a bit from the world from December through March—hibernating like my totem, a bear.   Staying aloof during the Christmas season is essential to my sanity.

So don’t look for me to deck the halls–or the roof or the porch. I abstain from these and many other Christmas activities so that I diminish my chances of carelessly decking anything or anyone out of frustration.   And if you ask me to participate in a ward Christmas party, a multi-family service project, a workplace gift exchange, don’t be surprised if you hear me declare, “I prefer not to.”   Not overextending myself is the gift I offer.   But call me Scrooge if you must. This presence of the absence of my hysteria may be very hard for others to perceive.

Is there a tradition or a cultural norm that you resist?  What method do you use to decline?  Do others pressure you to participate? How do you respond to their pressure?

About Karen

After living in UT, HI, CA, DC, VA, WI, & WV, Karen now lives in KS with her family. During the week, she blogs about aging, teaches as an adjunct for WSU's Aging Studies program, and volunteers with older adults. On Sundays she tries to use hypertext literacy to teach teens about ancient scriptures.

25 thoughts on “Bartleby, The Scrooge

  1. Oh Karen… Yay for you. Because yes, this exactly. Please don’t make me do a white elephant gift exchange, because it’s a tradition. Please don’t expect me to deck the halls until tinsel is coming out of my nose. I let the CHILDREN Deck to their heart’s content, and if they are pleased, that’s my goal. I love gingerbread and all that, but we get to sick in the winter to overload. We’ve had to be very specific about our traditions: they all have to do with CHRIST, and FAMILY, not with frivolity. If we’re doing it because it’s expected, not because it’s enjoyable and an uplifting choice, we ditch it. EVEN the ward Christmas party. Even ANYTHING. Says the woman now in charge of the full Christmas Sacrament meeting as the ward music person. Bah Humbug.

  2. I want a calm, quiet Christmas. I don’t mind a few gatherings, but lately it’s becoming way too much. My family gathers on Christmas Day. My dh’s family wants to gather on the 26th. And now my youngest child’s birth family wants a gathering (not just a short visit, but a gathering with meal, gifts, etc.) for Christmas. By the time Christmas Day is over, I don’t want to see ANYBODY! I’m DONE! But now it’s like three days of Christmas, and it’s way too much. I also don’t see why we need to have so many concerts and parties during December. I can handle about 2, maybe 3 outside events, but that is all. I don’t see why every single club, school, organization, etc. feels they need to have a party. Enough is enough! I want to sit home on the sofa with my children, wrapped in blankets, reading Christmas stories by the tree with candles burning. I don’t want to go out anywhere or have any stress or bustle.

  3. I get this, it was me 3 days ago. Angry that putting up the tree falls to me and children cry when it isn’t up the day after Thanksgiving. Mad that not only do I have to do all of the impossible things normally required of me, but now I have holiday dreams to fulfill. It makes me regret ever starting traditions or providing good in the past for the expectations it set up. And reality is never as good as memory so I’m forever falling short.

    Three days later the Christmas tree is finally up, the boxes are in the basement, the floor is vacuumed and I realize that I’m the one home most so I enjoy the festive environment more than anyone else.

    I’m not sure what Christmas does for my depression, the worst days have always been in those deepest days of winter, January-March. The question is – Does Christmas postpone the darkness or hasten it? I’m trying to find a way to use Christmas to postpone it, without going too far and overwhelming myself. I know that somewhere in there the key is Christ, but how to communicate that to a class of 5th graders who expect an awesome Christmas party, or a 5 year old who believes in the magic of Santa, or a husband who wants Christmas for his kids like his mom provided?

    What I do will create expectations for my daughters, so how do I break the extremist expectations without breaking hearts?

  4. Normally, I feel like this and dread all the commitments and chaos of the holiday season. But right now, I’m living in a country where Christmas isn’t celebrated. And I crave those traditions that revolve around the holiday. We don’t have a tree and I’m not sure how/if we’ll get one. I’m organizing a Christmas holiday because I crave gathering with friends, singing Christmas songs and celebrating this holiday.

  5. Just posted something similar on my blog! So I added a linkback to this post, if that’s OK.

    Stay as quiet as you like–some of us are waiting with you . . .

    tls

  6. I just read a book called Unplugging the Christmas Machine, which was full of really good ideas.

    I’m always the one in charge of planning, buying, making and sending gifts. That alone is stressful, aside from all the other expectations. Bah humbug!

    I am aiming for a more Christ-centred Christmas which will make me much happier. We’ll see.

  7. Amen, sister. I’ve been Bartleby for several years now, unapologetically, though I LOVE many of the activities and traditions of Christmas. I have worked extremely hard on planning some of them (because they bring joy to my children) but also teaching them how to do the ones they want to ensure happen so that I don’t have to if it can’t work for me. They’re largely really happy this year, though I’ve been the source of their profound disappointment in years past. They’ve all been warned that therapy in their adult years comes out of their pockets so they’re best off getting their minds wrapped around sucking it up now.

    The part that has been especially hard for me this Christmas is gift-giving. I am not a Grinch because I don’t want to give; I am a Grinch about having my giving tied up with a secular holiday, which is what all our expectations about Christmas have become. We not only celebrate a nativity that doesn’t even resemble the first Christmas, we give out of obligation and to avert sadness rather than out of joy at the gift of our Savior. Last Christmas we made all of our gifts to each other, and we got a little closer to that, but it was exhausting because instead of making 8 gifts, I had to help people make 64. O.o

    I can’t for the life of me figure out how to unentangle Christmas from Christ. I’ve been trying for years but the world keeps shouting “electronics!” and “clothing!” and “gifts = love!” I’d love to read our scriptures all day. I would then officially become Grinch mom.

  8. I really liked this. To me it sounds like you are taking the counsel and advise of Elder Ballard, President Packer and President Uchtdorf to simplify and magnify. I have come to similar conclusions about things like helping out at the elementary school and doing SOME church work. It is a matter of priority. I applaud you for figuring out what is important to you and what isn’t and putting your time, effort and energy to the most important ones.

  9. I love this. I’m hoping to find that balance between creating some Christmas traditions and not losing my sanity along the way. I liked Jessie’s post a little while ago about choices, so I asked my kids what they wanted to do most, and I’m hoping to focus on those things and let just about everything else go.

  10. I am with you. I do a few things (small scale) and my decorations are pretty much limited to lights on the house (because I make my husband do it) and a Christmas tree. We don’t give our children every (ridiculous) toy every other kid is getting or make things stressful or difficult for ourselves. When Christmas stops being fun and starts being stressful, it’s time to SIMPLIFY.

  11. Elf on the Shelf is one crazy secular tradition that I refuse to engage in, even as it seems every neighbor and instagram friend is spending a great deal of time promoting the creepy doll. I find it parentally counter productive and absolutely un-Christmaslike. “I prefer not to!”

    Our oldest has been grousing about how scrooge-like I am, in part because she wanted lights on the outside of the house. We surprised the kids and had a lighting company install some simple outdoor lights to the house. She is happy and her siblings are enchanted, so it was money well spent to remove one major nag from the list, even if it diminished the Christmas budget.

    But, DH is the bishop, so we have the major Christmas schedule drain of tithing settlement–which means Christmas activities fall largely to me. I have the decorations up, the earliest in years, and I find that every activity, every concert and party is something I only want to check off the list–hoping against hope that a minimal number will be double booked (only 2 so far, husband’s Santa at work party for the kids with #1 son’s band concert and daughter’s choir concert with RS Christmas party)–so I can get to the part where I make fudge, listen to Karen Carpenter and drink egg nog.

    DH says I’m scroogy because my introvert self has little interest in organize and planning caroling parties and mammoth neighbor gifts and the kids wish we would get involved in 12 days of Ring and Run (another thing I loathe on any holiday).

    I take delight in Christmas treats, in reading from our big box of Christmas picture books, in doing quiet things with my immediate family. And I can embrace a little Scrooge, just like I embrace the “meanest mom in the world”.

  12. Great post. I just realized that while I often resist jumping on bandwagons, that’s not the case with some of the holidays I love. Does my house look remotely Martha Stewart? Not even close. But I do enjoy decorating (almost as much as I do for Halloween). I did, however, decide some time ago that I will only do the things I want to do. No Christmas cards for me, either, although I love and appreciated those I continue to receive despite my failure to reciprocate. Maybe I’m old. Maybe I’m ornery. But I am fairly secure in doing what I want to do and declining those things I don’t. I don’t believe declining makes one a Scrooge. So, carry on. And good luck with the end of semester.

  13. I second Sarah’s recommendation of the book “Unplug the Christmas Machine”. It’s excellent.

    It won’t solve Seasonal Affective Disorder challenges, but it will give you the tools to let go of your frustration with the season and the expectations you feel thrust upon you and instead be pleasantly proactive about what you decide to do or not do.

  14. I love the music and lights of Christmas. I do not love the shopping, the big meals or the over stimulated, sugar feed children. I love the ward choirs presentation. I do not love the I’m more popular than you as you can see by my busy Dec. calendar attitudes. I do love the visits with family and the yearly update from friend’s cards but I do not love the hugh ward gatherings. I now need the strength to stand my ground anc participate in the things I find uplifting and not give into outside pressures.

  15. I love our Christmases to be memorable, beautiful, and full of the joy of Christ’s birth. I love our family traditions. I love the season of giving. And yet, I agree with everyone that it can be so hard to manage expectations (my own, my familys’, our society’s.) I don’t have a good answer for how to make Christmas perfect…but then, I don’t have a good answer for how to make life perfect either. Because of that, I’m doing what I tend to do to survive my life all year long: take one step at a time, do my best to keep things Christ centered when I can, and expect things to fall apart sometimes.

    I respect each of you who have found a way to make Christmas work for you. I think it’s different for each family, and there are no right or wrong answers as to how we “should” celebrate Christmas. Choosing not to participate in things that are crazy-making for ourselves personally is very wise.

    I love Christmas! (I say that on the first day of December. Ask me again in 3 weeks.)

  16. I don’t do neighbor gifts. I help my dad out with his, but my neighbors don’t get any. I hate the Christmas star, and it’s friend the Halloween ghost. Partly because our house gets skipped a lot so we are one of the few houses without a Christmas star on the window-I get it, we’re losers okay, thanks for alerting the ward to the fact that we have no friends, and part of it because then you have to duplicate the stupid star and send out goodies.

    I enjoy decorating the tree, telling my daughter the stories of the ornaments we have and why they are special to me. I hate the smells of Christmas- cinnamon, makes me want to hurl.

    This year I am recovering from surgery so we are scaling even further back, but I still want my family to have a merry Christmas. A couple of years ago I took one for the team and told the MIL I didnt want to come over Christmas morning anymore, let’s move it late or another day, you’d have thought I said lets go shoot grandma. You would think someone who had moaned about how her mil had a stranglehold on Christmas Eve for 30 years would be a little more understanding, but I suppose someone who had never had to drag their young children away from their toys each Christmas morning wouldn’t realize how much kids hate that. But I won, we stay home Christmas Day now, and she’s adjusted. Hopefully.

  17. I don’t have Christmas traditions, I have Christmas options. Every year when December rolls around, I decide what I want to include, and plan accordingly. Two years ago it was about finally getting my own tree (can’t have a “real” one due to allergies–and was holding out on getting a fake one until I could afford a nice fake one), last year it was all about music. In past years, I’ve had to try really hard to not feel guilty when I say no to stuff that didn’t make the cut. This year I find myself trying hard to not be snarky. When the primary president told me (I’m the primary music leader) that the bishopric wanted the kids to be prepared to do a musical play for the Christmas program, I said something along the lines of, “Great. I sure hope they can find someone to help them with that!”

    I realize that being single and childless makes this easier, but I’m convinced the basic approach could be replicated.

  18. Beautifully written and the best Christmas post I have seen bar none.Wish this were this month’s visiting teaching message. Instead of which we will have women running themselves ragged to serve those who would really appreciate a little consistency throughout the year and mothers gettin upset with husbands, children and other family members who do not meet their high expectations.
    As a therapist I always pick up a few referrals after Christmas-take the advice of this post and put me out of business!

  19. Thank you for this post. It helped me on Saturday declare, “I’d prefer not to go to the ward Christmas party. I’d prefer to just sit in the (relative) quiet of my home, sip hot chocolate, and watch a Christmas movie.”

  20. We quit what we don’t absolutely have to do. Several years ago i was in a position more than once where i did not celebrate any holidays with any outward actions for 2 years. It was so freeing. It let me see what is important and what isn’t.
    We don’t have a tree. This year for many reasons we cannot put up the nativity. I have a wreath on our house, because i figure it helps with the neighbors. (I never heard of Neighbor gifts, that sounds disturbing.)
    With the family obligations there probably will be no church service.
    And it totally amazes me about the above with Christmas invitations and parties. I have never been invited or heard of a Christmas party being held before. Our church does not have one, nor anyone that I know. (Maybe we don’t do that in Ohio – ;) )
    So, as a Christian what do I do? I read my Advent Meditations every nite with my regular devotions. I read the Christmas story in Luke on Christmas Eve. I attend the family events that are needed and show up with what I am required to show up with, hopefully with a charming personality. If we can go to church, I do.
    It is enough. It is good.

  21. One thing I admired about my parents is their ability to let the whole family “make celebration”–everyone had some contribution to our family festivities. We’re carrying that on with our family, and it works really well for us so far (16 years in).

    We don’t have room in our home for a tree (not if we want the couch, and since it’s the only seating in the living area, it’s kind of vital), but anyone who wants to can decorate a wreath to hang somewhere in or on the house (I think one is out in the henhouse, actually, put there by two loving little girls!), and my 16yo took charge of “installing Christmas” this year (with lovely results!)

    Our focus is on the mantel, where the nativity and angels are set up, and I really like that.

    Everyone in the family has something that “makes” Christmas for them, and we try to put them in charge of it, so really, not much falls on me, or even on me and my husband. My son has taken over finding sweet treats for Christmas morning breakfast, my little girls handle the paper snowflake production, we hit a few community concerts (DH loves dressing up and going out with the family), we play a lot of music… it’s just pretty low-key all around.

    Budget constraints my entire life mean we’ve never worried much about shopping or “boughten” gifts, so there’s no commercial pressure, even with four kids from age 5 to 16. Our place is kind of buzzing with projects big and small right now. (Well, not RIGHT now… the two big kids are napping before heading back to the church to set tables for the supper, and the little girls are drawing in the kitchen, and I’m trying to get motivated to raid the fabric stash for “robes” for the nativity play tonight. But that’s another “not stressing over perfection” thing: the “costumes” are lengths of fabric worn shawl-wise, with other lengths of fabric as middle-eastern headwraps, and some garland “halo” headbands for kids who want to be angels. VERY low-key. I’m counting on the Primary Program Cute Factor to fill all gaps. :) )

  22. Everyone, thank you for sharing how you cope with the pressures of the Christmas season. Sorry to be late in replying, but I was hyper focused on my coursework for research methods. I just have a final to take for my psychology of aging class, then I’ll clear some floor space so that we can put up the tree! Wishing you all peace, love and harmony — in whatever form these take during this season.

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