5 ways to avoid stress this holiday season: It’s all about boundaries

I have been known to be a very giving person. My cousin Lo cried hysterically because someone had stolen his Nintendo Game Boy, I gave him mine. Friends from the building I grew up in would often have holely shoes in late August, with no hopes of getting new sneakers before school started in September, and when I was aware, I gave them mine. As a matter of fact, this morning there was only enough oat milk left for one bowl of Cheerios that my daughter and I both desperately wanted – and as you can probably guess, I gave it to her, no thoughts, no complaints, no questions asked. 

I like to give. Not because I want credit, attention, or dream of collecting favors that I can cash in during a difficult time­­ – it just feels right. At one point I thought I was the most giving person in the whole city of Baltimore, and then I met my wife. My wife Caron would happily drive you to the airport during rush hour, let a stranger use her phone as a hotspot for Wi-Fi and spend her only free weekend during the month solving all of your problems, even the ones you didn’t know you had. She is that nice. 

Put us together and you have a holiday nightmare­­ – two people who will proudly sacrifice their joy, fun and all of the holiday cheer, just to make our families happy. 

I didn’t realize this until Thanksgiving not long ago. We were just coming out of the super scary pandemic status and returning to some sense of normalcy. My dad was also freshly out the hospital, and this would be my daughter’s first Thanksgiving with my parents, my sister, her husband, my little brother Trey and our cousin Buck. Do I need to say that this was a disaster? 

I am Black, everyone in my family is Black – that means sweet potatoes and macaroni and cheese are more important than the meaning of Christmas, and the reasons we celebrate Thanksgiving. 

For starters, I told my mother that my wife loves this holiday more than anything, and dreams of having a beautiful time. I explained that I dream of being a good husband, so we are going to stay home so that I can curate her perfect day, but my mother is welcome to stop by and get a plate. Instead, my lovely mother insisted that we come over, and by insisted I mean, she laid down the law and wasn’t taking no for an answer. 

“OK, Ma,” I said, “How about I cater everything except the dishes you want to prepare?” 

“I’ll make sweet potatoes,” she answered. My sister’s husband chimed in, saying that he would make the macaroni and cheese. For the readers who don’t know me, I am Black, and everyone in my family is Black – that means sweet potatoes and macaroni and cheese are more important than the meaning of Christmas, and the reasons we celebrate Thanksgiving. These dishes are oxygen and water–– essential to our very existence, meaning, that the penalty for messing these up, could potentially be a serious beat down, life in prison or death. 

I called the catering company, a delicious restaurant called Black Sauce, and ordered collard greens, smoked cabbage, smoked jerk brisket, curry snapper, dressing or as we call it stuffing, and apple butter biscuits. My wife had her father fry a huge turkey, and she whipped up a batch of her favorite potato salad. As you can imagine we were so excited on the car ride to my mother’s house. 

Who in the hell freezes or eats frozen macaroni and cheese?

3 p.m. 

Upon arrival we were greeted by my smiling mother and father­­ – who was still kind of sick, but well enough to crack a grin at my daughter. She was so happy to see him. 

“Would you guys like to have a plate, I made greens, a turkey, stuffing and was thinking of making cabbage too,” my mother chuckled, “I actually made everything except sweet potatoes!” 

“What?” I responded,”Come on, Ma, you had one job.”

After explaining how weird it would be to have two identical dinners, one made by gourmet chefs who studied the culinary arts and one prepared by mother last minute, (I’m sure you know who won that battle) on top of the fact that there were no sweet potatoes – my sister and her husband walks in with a tray of frozen macaroni and cheese. I mean, hard as a brick. Who in the hell freezes or eats frozen macaroni and cheese?

3:45 p.m.

After talking to the gods of every religion, we all calmed down and figured out a way to salvage the day. I made everyone vow to never mention the fact that we as Black people, sat down to have a holiday dinner without sweet potatoes, while waiting for the macaroni and cheese to thaw out. 

The food from Black Sauce was beyond delicious, and honestly made up for the items we lacked.

My wife had brought over some games: Uno, Taboo and Monopoly. We had a decent amount of liquor, and the party was about to get started. This day will be great, I thought.  

4:20 p.m.

“I think I’m tired, and maybe your father’s tired,” my mother said as I cracked the box of Uno cards open. “Maybe we should clean up and shut the party down.” 

I watched my wife’s head do a complete 360 like that lady from “The Exorcist.” She didn’t blurt out anything crazy or storm out of the room; however, she was devastated. After all, she loves family gatherings on holidays. Not the kind of gatherings that take two or three hours, but the long “eight to 10 hour, belly so full that you have to unbutton so the gut can hang, all the liquor bottles are dry, and we won’t be able to do anything when we get home but sleep until 10 or 11 a.m. the next day because we were all so full, and so tired and so satisfied” kind of family gathering. We had attempted to do this for her side of the family a few years earlier and failed. This debacle made us 0 and 2. 

We went home, watched movies and ended up having a great night, ultimately realizing that we were enough. When we awoke the next day, the two of us had a long conversation about taking control of our holidays and not giving people the power to dictate our fun or experiences. 

Here’s five rules I took away from the experience that will assure your holiday season will be a time worth remembering:

I know you love your family just as much as I love my family. And the holidays are a time we build on that love, share stories and truly get a chance to connect; however, this does not mean you have to tolerate them. Some of us rarely get any time off during the year, so spending that free time with that uncle who has been an a**hole for 20 years should be a hard no. Sharing the same blood as a person should not require you to sacrifice joy. Sometimes, the company of good friends can be better than hanging with toxic family.

Food is meant to be enjoyed, and you should not be forced to eat something disgusting just because grandma made it with love. Let me tell you something – grandma did not make it with love, because if she did make it with love, then she would have asked you how that dish made you feel. She would care if you thought it was disgusting or not and make the appropriate changes to make sure you are having a good time too. Eat your favorite foods, spend time at your favorite restaurants, and take every available opportunity to celebrate yourself­­. Life is hard and you should not be punished during the most magical time of the year. 

Don’t go broke entertaining family and friends, don’t go broke on buying elaborate gifts, don’t go broke trying to create the best Christmas ever. Nine times out of 10, people won’t remember the fancy gifts you bought, but they will remember how you made them feel, so make sure they are having fun, and you are having fun. Everyone deserves fun. 

The holidays should not be about stress­­. Your number one goal should be joy. How many ways can Thanksgiving and Christmas and Kwanzaa and Hanukkah or whatever you celebrate be the most exciting days of your year? Think about that before you make plans. 

These times of year we choose to gather should always be about giving, laughing and connecting. Our need to impress, and society’s growing obsession with the glorification of luxury is making us forget what the holidays are about. I recommend you establish your own set of traditions and values for holiday season, and work really hard to sticking to them. 

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My wife and I are still giving people, and I am happy to say that our holidays got better when we finally learned to give to ourselves as well. Because if you lose your sanity chasing the perfect Christmas or whatever, then what’s the point?

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