Can’t Force the Feeling: How Letting Go of Expectations Helped Me Enjoy Christmas

Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash

It hits me at odd times throughout the year, in small, fleeting sparks: that feeling of perfect warmth and wonder that embodies Christmastime. Perhaps it’s a childhood memory triggered by a passing conversation or a Christmas carol crossing my mind in August. Whatever the source, I do all I can to savor the feeling, capture it, and save it up for later. Because I know, when Christmastime comes, I may or may not feel how I’m “supposed” to. 

It’s all around us, the pressure to feel a certain way during the holidays. The one-word designs found on mugs, sweaters, and Christmas cards can seem more like commands than celebrations: “Wonder.” “Celebrate.” “Rejoice.” At church, when we hear the Gospel account of the Incarnation—God’s incredible, universe-changing gift of His Son to mankind—there’s a prescriptive element: be moved to awe and reverence. But what if it’s the 67th time we’ve heard the Christmas story, so it just doesn’t feel very fresh anymore, or grief over a lost loved one is weighing heavy on us these days, or we just want this season of excesses to be over? For any number of reasons, sometimes the “right” feelings don’t come at the right time.  

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For a long time, I tried to force myself into the “correct” emotions of Christmas, and found I couldn’t. Overcommitment, strained family relationships, and other circumstances beyond my control meant my Christmas did not look like I thought it should. Therefore, the feelings of joy and wonder I expected wouldn’t come. It didn’t help, either, that I stubbornly clung to the belief that I should feel the same about Christmas in adulthood as I did during childhood. When I was a kid, all it took to send me into yuletide ecstasy was the opening guitar strums of Amy Grant’s “Tennessee Christmas” and the taking down of the first box of ornaments. Why wasn’t that true anymore?

It wasn’t until I learned to let go of expectations and embrace whatever was good about my Christmas season that I began to enjoy the holiday more.

I remember exactly where I was when the first inklings of this concept hit me. It was Christmas Eve. The kids had been tucked in awaiting the present frenzy of the next day, and my husband had just left the house to play music at midnight Mass. I sat alone in a comfortable leather chair in front a cozy fire. As is common for me when left alone with my own thoughts, I began musing self-pityingly on the broken relationships that prevent me from seeing extended family on Christmas Eve like I used to. Then, I turned to my other sad tactic of berating myself for not feeling awe, wonder, and perfect peace on this holiest of nights.

But as I looked into the crackling fire that night, it dawned on me: I may not feel awe, wonder, and perfect peace right this second, but I do feel … good. Really good. No, I’m not with aunts, uncles, and cousins, but I am here in my home, wrapped in a warm fleece blanket. I just ate a delicious slice of cranberry-apple pie. I have a husband and three wonderful children to watch “The Muppet Christmas Carol” with. What’s not to love about all of that? Besides, how could I expect to experience wonder in the same way now that I did as a child? True wonder involves elements of surprise and curiosity that adults simply don’t possess in the same quantities as kids.

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This line of thinking set me on a new path in my emotional approach to Christmas. There’s really no law stating my (or your) Christmas has to be any particular way or involve any particular feelings. The Bethlehem story doesn’t come with an asterisk at the bottom saying, “Please note: If you’re not currently inspired with ultimate joy, you’re doing it wrong.” But in two separate places in the New Testament epistles, Paul instructs believers to “cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9 and 1 Thessalonians 5:21). This has become my new Christmas goal.

All of us can mindfully acknowledge pleasures and blessings large and small this time of year. Perhaps Christmas doesn’t look quite like the famed “picture print of Currier and Ives.” But a steamy mug of hot chocolate on a cold night, watching “It’s A Wonderful Life,” or not having to work for a few days? Those are good things I can cling to. Even if all I feel is thankful for those little things, thankful is good. Thankful can be enough.

I’ve given up trying to force any prescribed feelings at Christmas. I’ve even tried to let go of requiring certain traditions to happen. Instead, I commit to looking for whatever is good in the season, acknowledging it, and giving thanks for it. And wouldn’t you know it? Christmas is much more enjoyable when I do.

Originally published December 19, 2018.