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Lessons For Calmer, Happier Holidays

by Joan C. Williams
Nov 30, 2010

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Researchers find that stress and conflict rise sharply during the holiday season. I'm sure this doesn't apply to you, but here are some thoughts for that cousin of yours who always seems to be strung out and fighting with her partner over the menorah, kente cloth or Christmas tree.

Lesson No. 1: Reverse the Great American Speed-Up

Mothers today hold themselves to unforgiving standards. Sociologist Sharon Hays calls ours the age of intensive mothering and points out that, in the past, children were not seen as hothouse flowers, whose every talent had to be carefully nurtured through endless enrichment activities.

The pursuit of perfection can easily get out of hand, sending the message that the key family value is frantic anxiety to achieve perfection. I recall reading a story, some years ago, about a mother who stayed up until 2 a.m. making and decorating Christmas cookies. What's the message here? This is not about you outshining Martha Stewart.

First holiday goal: Slow down and focus on creating a warm emotional tone. Turn the holidays into a reflective ramble rather than a frantic sprint. Remember, the goal is to create an experience everyone will enjoy. It should be an experience the kids will remember with affection rather than dread.

Lesson No. 2: Negotiate

Traditionally, women have been in charge of creating celebrations, and mostly they still are. In her article titled "The Female World of Cards and Holidays," anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo writes, "Kin work is like housework and child care: Men in the aggregate do not do it."

So you need to make some choices.

Do it your way, and your partner probably won't participate much (remember, he's under no internal pressure to out-Martha Ms. Stewart). An alternative is to sit down and agree on holiday preparations. Once you've decided, you can divide responsibilities so everyone contributes. Isn't that better role modeling than running yourself ragged?

Also, involving your partner in both planning and execution can help him take more responsibility for maintaining social ties. That way, your kids won't see this as women's work.

Lesson No. 3: The Real Meaning of Christmas

The frenzy of gift-giving is a recent practice. According to Steven Nissenbaum in The Battle for Christmas, Americans' current focus on giving presents to family members was created by elite 19th-century New Yorkers who turned away from the traditional view of Christmas as a time for the rich to give to the poor.

Going as a family to make sandwiches for a homeless shelter, or giving a family abroad a goat or a heifer, are two ways to use the holidays to start family conversations about social responsibility in our age of spiraling social inequality.

Three simple lessons toward a simpler holiday celebration: With luck, they'll help your cousin reverse the frantic pressure to achieve, nudge the family toward greater gender equality, and teach the kids about social responsibility. Let me know if she goes for it.

Joan C. Williams is a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings, and author of Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.

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