When the Marx brothers cracked in "A Night at the Opera" that there ain't no sanity clause, it was a droll bit of St. Nick-themed wordplay. Who'd have guessed that nearly 80 years later, it'd be an entirely apt description of the holiday season itself, a time of year increasingly bereft of sanity?
You may not the kind of person who misses Thanksgiving to set up camp in front of a Best Buy (and if you are, no judgment, but you're insane). Conversely, you may not be the kind of person who goes in for the whole festivity thing at all. But nearly all of us get swept up to some extent in the frenzy that starts somewhere right after Halloween, goes full-tilt bonkers after Thanksgiving, and ends sometime on the afternoon of Jan. 1 in the kind of tears and exhaustion one usually experiences only after giving birth or running a marathon.
It's unavoidable — it's there when you step into a store or walk down your wildly festooned street or gaze at the Evite to your neighbor's Jingle Bell Rock! open house. It's the reason so many of your friends now find themselves bragging about doing cleanses in January. All I'm saying is, if you feel what you're doing in December requires a purification ritual, you might want to tweak your December. That's why I'm giving you this early holiday present: permission. Permission to not go crazy. Permission to say no. Permission to redefine this season exactly as you want it to be, free of pressure from retailers and your pushy pals alike.
I understand that you're a grownup with free will and that I am not Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, but hear me out anyway. Believe me when I say that there is almost nothing this season that you absolutely have to do. You do not have to be like the hardworking mum who deftly — and seemingly singlehandedly — multitasks her way through an entire season of shopping, wrapping and entertaining in the British chain Asda's holiday ad campaign. Consider this your "Get Out of All That Crapola Free" card.
I have learned this lesson many times in my life, and every few years, when life needs to remind me, it reminds me again. I learned it the first time the year my grandfather died. I was 3. The family went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner, and I recall that Chinese dinner more vividly and fondly than almost any toy I ever tore open in all the years that followed. I learned it again when I was 20 and spent Christmas morning in a hostel in Vienna with two friends. The day before we'd gone to a fair and picked small, pre-wrapped surprises from a grab bag for each other. I got a keychain shaped like a mouse, and hot coffee in the common room. I learned it when I was in my early 30s, and my husband and I were moving to a new city on Jan. 1. We had no tree, gave each other one little gift each, and spent the day on a long last walk through the city we were soon leaving. I learned it again last year, when I'd recently started a clinical trial that sapped my energy. I did almost no shopping, and we ordered most of the dinner from Fresh Direct. Those were some of the best holidays of my whole life. They were simple and unhurried, and you know what? Nobody else cared. Nobody expressed disappointment or resentment that they weren't a bigger show.
You will get a dozen invitations to parties. Your presence is not mandatory at any of them. If you want to sit at home in your pajamas watching reruns of "The Big Bang Theory," I salute you. You may throw a party every year. If it's a pain in the butt, you don't have to do it this time. You likewise don't have to turn on the gift hose and spray it in the general direction of your loved ones. You know that table full of "stocking stuffers" — golf tees and grooming kits — that they put near the front of the store to make you feel like you have to give something to your co-worker or your uncle? You don't. Nobody wants that crappy travel alarm. You don't have to spend money you don't have on things your family and friends don't want. And you know the Christmas-card letter you hate writing? We've all been reading your Facebook status updates all year; you don't have to do it.
Life is full of unavoidable obligations and crowded parking lots and Mariah Carey Christmas songs in the supermarket and crazy relatives who don't understand why your hometown wasn't good enough for you, fancypants. But it is also not meant to be endured through gritted teeth. And you don't need to have your grandfather die or go out of the country or be moving to another city or have cancer to get off the hook for the stuff that makes you crazy. You just need to choose.
I am happy when I am in the kitchen baking gingerbread and am delighted when I find something weird on eBay that my daughters will get a kick out of and wouldn't miss riding on the vintage subway cars for the world. I love those parts of this time of year, so they're the ones I hang on to. They're the ones I want my children to treasure. Almost everything else is optional. You have your list, too. It's not about rejecting the holidays, Scrooge-like. It's about keeping things right-sized in an out-of-proportion time. It's about letting go of the fear that you'll be judged as a not good enough provider or parent or lover or friend, or the one who missed that epic party. So here's what I propose — just be thoughtful to the people you love and remember you can dress up and drink the other 11 months of the year if you feel like it. It's going to be OK. We'll get through this. We'll put the happy in holidays. No travel alarm clocks required.