Recently on the podcast we had the privilege of sharing essays written and read aloud by eight members of our team, each focused on a different emotion: anticipation, overwhelm, nostalgia, grief, anxiety, wonder, resentment and hope.
While the initial idea for this project was to spotlight distinct and varied feelings moms experience during the holidays, highlighting the warm and fuzzy emotions equally alongside the difficult ones, we realized right away that it’s not quite that simple. Holiday emotions don’t exist in separate silohs; they’re tangled up like a jumble of twinkle lights. Writing, speaking, sharing, and listening through it helps connect us to one another, and acknowledge that all of this – motherhood, parenting, holidays, FEELINGS – is complicated stuff.
Please enjoy the essays below, as read aloud in the December 11 episode A Charcuterie Of Holiday Emotions. Below each writer’s piece you can enjoy the audio version by clicking play on the media player. Happy Holidays!
Right now…there are five framed photos on my dresser. From a distance, the images all look the same…There’s a red door with a wreath, two reindeer, and a giant rocking chair.
But if you look closely, you can see a smiling Santa and a blonde-headed boy and girl. In each photo…their legs are a little longer and their smiles are a bit more toothy.
There’s something about our santa photos that captures the passage of time so perfectly.
Each year…the setting is exactly the same…but the two kids featured at the center of the photo are profoundly different.
This year…Harper learned to cook an egg.
Heath rode his bike…without training wheels..for six miles.
This year…they walked proudly into pre-k. My twins…who have always been within an arm’s reach… gave each other a quick hug and stepped into separate classrooms.
If I could step back in time and see the mom on the other side of the camera in each photo…I would see five different moms – each version hoping and waiting for something different.
I’d see a mom who was counting the days until her babies would sleep through the night.
A mom who wondered if her toddlers would ever figure out how to get on their socks.
A mom who eagerly awaited their first leap off the diving board and their first time to try roller skates.
It’s not that I wished the milestones away…in fact…it’s quite the opposite. I looked forward to all of them.
So…As we line up to meet Santa and take the year’s photo…I find that we are all filled with anticipation. Heath and Harper are eager to meet Santa…
But I’m eager to meet the family that will only exist for this one Christmas.
Who will this year’s photo capture? And who will we all become before we come and take the next one?
By Stacy Bronec
My son runs through the kitchen, tossing crumpled papers onto the counter. I shuffle through the math worksheets and drawings and find a letter from his music teacher about the upcoming Christmas program. In the letter, she outlines the outfits each grade level needs to wear for the performance. My kindergartener is supposed to wear dress clothes. But my second grader is expected to wear an all-green or all-red outfit—neither of which he has.
Grabbing my phone, I add this to my growing list of holiday to-dos. In addition to our family to shop for, there are friends, two teachers, and the school bus driver. And I haven’t ordered our Christmas cards yet. The realization that December is right around the corner sends me spiraling with all I still have to do. Despite the never-ending list of tasks, I feel a nagging to do more—to make sure I’m creating enough memories and traditions for my kids.
I glance at the calendar, knowing I won’t see a planned night to look at Christmas lights with hot chocolate as a family. We don’t do Elf on the Shelf. And we don’t have a special movie we watch while putting up the tree. We start a new Advent devotional each year but rarely finish it by Christmas. And every year, we leave a different kind of cookie out on Christmas Eve. Our kids are 8, 6, and 2; shouldn’t we have more traditions by now?
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, my husband drags the fake tree up from the basement. The kids pull out the handmade and store-bought ornaments while I sit back, letting them fill the bottom half of the tree. They dig through the box, asking questions about each one. Once they hang the last ornament, I gently pull out the stockings my mom made. Holding mine up, I say, “This one is almost 38 years old! Can you believe that?” Their eyes widen, and we talk about how old their stockings are.
That evening, after everyone is asleep, I tiptoe into the quiet living room. One of the things I love about the tree is the quiet mornings and evenings when I can catch my breath from the holiday chaos in the warm glow of its lights.
Out of a habit since childhood, I take off my glasses, watching the lights change in front of me. With my vision no longer corrected, the tiny lights become round balls. Their edges overlap, the glow taking over the whole tree.
In the coming weeks, we might see Santa, and we might make an impromptu drive to look at Christmas lights. There will likely be new holiday activities we try this year—things we may carry over to next Christmas. Or maybe we won’t.
Even though each year looks a little different, I know our family is making traditions—without me planning them or checking them off a list.
Years from now, I imagine all the holiday memories strung together like the lights on a tree—glowing from the warmth of hundreds of lights melded together, not from one single bulb.
By Emily Roark
“I don’t have grandparents anymore.”
I sobbed on my husband’s shoulder as we stood in the kitchen after a long day of Thanksgiving festivities. My last living grandparent, my maternal grandma, died last spring and apparently the holidays have a way of bringing up every emotion at any time of day, even if you think you’ve already properly grieved.
“I wish I could go back and be a kid again,” I told him, “Just for a day.”
And I meant it. Even though I was standing in my own, cozy kitchen surrounded by my familiar things with my kids’ sweet voices in the background, I suddenly felt homesick. Is being homesick for childhood a thing?
I yearned to be in Michigan, where I spent the majority of the holidays as a kid. I wanted to feel exhausted from playing with my cousins, and I wanted my parents to tuck me in next to my sister in the four-poster bed in the guest room of my grandparents’ house. I wanted to wake up the next day and drive to my other grandparents’ house, where I would sit on the floor and catch up with my cousin while browsing the Toys R’ Us catalog and making my Christmas list.
Life felt simpler, and perhaps a little safer, when I was on the receiving end of the magic making.
Growing up, we spent Christmas Eve with my mom’s side of the family, and Christmas Day with my dad’s side of the family. We haven’t done either of those things in years because everyone is older and has their own lives now, but the death of my grandma has made me yearn for what used to be. I know that we will never celebrate like that again. I wonder if it’s the finality that makes me especially nostalgic.
I miss opening presents under my mom’s parents’ big tree, music playing in the background, cousins running around. As we got older, we would inevitably create some kind of music video that we would record and make our parents watch. On my dad’s side of the family, I have memories of playing UNO at the dining room table, sitting at the kids’ table while we ate dinner, and as we got older, choreographing dances that we would perform and make our parents watch (Do you see a theme here? I’m so glad that YouTube was not around yet).
I miss all of it, and yet I know that I can’t go back.
I know that my grandparents would tell me that it’s my turn to be the adult. I’m the magic maker, the one who will help create the childhood memories. No pressure or anything, but the torch has been passed.
I can only hope that someday my kids yearn for these safe, happy, fleeting years of childhood the same way that I yearn for mine.
By Kia Hammond
Every December you can find me in the Christmas decor aisle looking to take home something that reminds me of my dad, my own real angel. He loved ceramic angels and had his own collection of them, I think because they reminded him of his own angel, his “Pop Pop”. I usually come home with a new ornament angel to go with the storytelling of my kid’s “pop pop”, that is like a hug to the grief I feel of missing him, especially this time of year. Instead of an angel this year in the At Home aisle- it was my husband (who’s never had the pleasure of meeting my dad) who found the winner that would come home with us; Chef Santa.
When your father is a chef, the kitchen is the heart of the home. Where love comes in the form of food and core memories are made while preparing it together. Chef Santa now lives in our kitchen next to the oven where we bake “pop pop’s favorite cookies” and make “pop pop bacon” (his sweet and savory recipe). My oldest daughter is the only child of mine to know my dad and so I grieve the love my three younger children miss out on because to them “pop pop” is a story, an angel, a picture. I grieve the beautiful relationship I know my husband and him would have had- I can so vividly see how proud he is of the man I got to marry. The mixture of magic and grief in our home is not one I am wishing away but learning to lean into. The older I get the more comfortable I am with my own emotions, the more I can make grief-the-foe a friend and the less I feel the need to hide the hurt that comes with loss-even if it feels conflicting with the joy that comes with the season.
While I don’t come from a family that talks about their emotions, leaning into this grief has taught me to teach my children that it is okay to sit with your hard emotions. Leaning into this grief does not mean my children get a sad mom during the holidays but a reflective mom, a story telling mom and even a “laugh until she cries” mom.
So this year with Chef Santa in the kitchen, the angel ornaments hung and the special cookies we bake with love I am enjoying being a part of the Christmas magic even if it means accepting that for me, grief may always be at the forefront. I will always love searching for more angels in the aisles, and getting out the ones from previous years but I don’t think I’ll top the Chef Santa find for years to come.
Last month, my family and I went on a trip to Florida. It was our first time riding a plane since the summer of 2019, the last totally-pandemic-free summer. We had an amazing family trip planned. The hotel had a pool and a hot tub. We had tickets to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and old friends were going to meet us there. Exciting, right?
In the weeks and days leading up to our big trip, I felt a noticeable lack of excitement. The kids weren’t excited either…because…they didn’t really know we were going. I was hardly talking about it. My anxiety was taking up a lot of my energy.
First, it attacked me with What If’s.
What if one of us gets Covid and we can’t go.
What if there aren’t enough pilots, flight attendants, or air traffic controllers and our flight gets cancelled.
What if it rains the whole time?
What if we don’t get home in time for Oscar’s birthday?
Then, Anxiety activated parts of me.
I got consumed with logistics.
We bought travel insurance – just in case.
I packed rain jackets, covid tests, masks, medicine and a thermometer.
I packed one birthday present for Oscar, a gift bag, and some colorful tissue paper—just in case.
Anxiety numbed other parts of me.
To protect me from potential disappointment, I felt…nothing. No anticipation. No enthusiasm. No excitement. No dread either…I just felt…muted.
Among many, many life lessons, living in Covid times has taught our family how to pivot, how to be flexible, creative, and resourceful when things don’t go as planned.
But I wonder if I’m getting too good at rationing my emotions and conserving my energy during big and joyful events.
Ironically – or not—during our trip to Florida, a hurricane moves through Orlando and our flight home gets pushed back a couple days. I wasn’t prepared for a hurricane, but I do end up thanking my past self for packing one birthday present for Oscar to open when we’re at a hotel instead of at home like we planned. Even with that unexpected stress, our trip is fantastic—and memorable.
Going into the holiday season, I wonder if I can recalibrate some of my energy.
Can I decrease the amount of energy I pour into stressing over Logistics and trying to mitigate the What Ifs? Can I reallocate it towards Hope and Excitement instead? Can I increase the amount of Confidence and Capability I have for myself and my family, and trust that we can pivot if necessary? Can I enjoy the whole holiday season?
My hope is that instead of spending another Christmas obsessing over all the What ifs including Covid, RSV, and the flu, I can focus on contagious emotions instead. Okay, yes, this is a horrible metaphor…But for anyone out there with anxiety, I hope I infect you with holiday cheer and lighthearted enthusiasm, and a sense of confidence that you can handle whatever happens. And I hope that your Anxiety—and mine—can take a much-deserved holiday break.
“Really? Another Christmas garland?” my husband asked me. “How’s that budget going we set for the month?”
I am going overboard with Christmas decorations this year–my kids have even said our house looks like a Hallmark movie, but the truth is, it feels like the first year I have actually enjoyed Christmas in our house.
Let me explain. We have lived in this house for what will soon be five years, but this is the first Christmas I feel like I can truly celebrate. The first year we lived here—and trigger warning for loss coming–I lost my second pregnancy in a row. I found out right before Christmas that my baby would not make it. It’s hard to celebrate the holidays when you are waiting for your baby to die inside of you. It’s definitely not a fun feeling.
After two losses, we were blessed with a successful pregnancy, but her birth was a bit traumatic for me. I had a partial placental abruption at 35 weeks and she had to spend a week in the NICU. Although she is perfectly healthy, as a preemie she never learned to nurse and that holiday season was spent in a fog of not sleeping and around-the-clock pumping to feed her.
The year after that was 2020 and over Christmas, I spent 28 straight days sick with an unknown virus that doctors couldn’t identify but assumed was, of course, COVID, even though I tested negative. I barely made it through the holidays and spent Christmas Eve alone on my couch while my husband took the kids to family alone.
Last year, unfortunately, was no better. I got sick again right after Thanksgiving with yet another mysterious illness—and despite testing negative for COVID again, I had lingering symptoms for almost a full year.
Fast forward to this year and I am so happy to say that I am feeling so much better. I’m still working on my health, but overall, I’m in a much better place than I was last year and for the first time, I’m approaching the holidays with something I haven’t experienced in a long, long time:
For the first time since we moved into this house and for the first time since my life has felt like it’s been falling apart, I feel a peace about this Christmas season.
I’m here, I’m somewhat healthy, my kids are at those magical ages of still wanting to spend time with me, and I’ve been through enough in the past years to know that all that stuff that people say about how you’re allowed to say no and you none of the stuff we stress ourselves out about really matters is actually true.
I know that I can say no if I have a night I really can’t deal with an event, because I know what happens when I don’t take care of myself now. I know that I can do absolutely nothing with my kids this month but watch Christmas movies and they will be perfectly content.
I know that whatever lies ahead, I will actually be ok—just like my therapist assured me I would—not because life will always be easy, but because I can trust that I will have the strength to face it and help when hard things do happen.
I’m filled with wonder that I’ve made it, that I’ve learned the hard lessons, and that I’m here at all.
I’m filled with wonder at second chances, at toddler hugs that might be the most healing thing on this planet, at Christmas lights that sparkle in the dark, and at the people who refuse to give up.
Because honestly, a lot of days, it can feel like the best thing to do is to give up. It can feel so hopeless in the world, with suffering and pain and so much darkness and despair.
But today, right now, in this season, I am once again remembering what it feels like to feel wonder. And that’s a beautiful thing.
I don’t know what the future will hold for me or my family. But I do know that today, I can fill my house with all the Christmas decorations I can and celebrate the wonder of the season. And for today, that will be enough.
The most wonderful time of the year, you say? I suppose for some it is and always has been. I love the idea of holidays. The celebrations, the tradition, the food, the concept. But my nostalgia of holidays gone by are distant memories filled with a lot of stress and worry. Days involving family conflict and wondering if all would really be holly and jolly or if it would be another dramatic affair that would leave a little girl rattled and wrung out from yet another unanticipated emotional roller coaster.
A traumatic childhood where holidays were more of a point of contention – a day filled with argument and tension to get through and get past – would turn anyone into a Scrooge of sorts by the time they hit adulthood. But I never realized just how much resentment and I held toward the holidays and my past until I had children of my own.
As a young mom, my tears would spill over at the hint of any issue arising around a holiday. I would NOT have my children growing up and experiencing the holidays as I did. THEIRS would be magical, THEIRS would be stress free, THEIRS would be happy memories.
I’ve come to realize that in this plan I have actually created more stress for myself while avoiding the root of the real issue. My resentment towards my past was creating a monster of a holiday mom. Instead of facing my past, forgiving and moving on with my own life. I’ve really been stuck, perpetually fighting with memories and parenting that aren’t my reality now. Piling on activities and trying to outdo my childhood for my own kids when really I think I’m just trying to heal that little girl inside and give her the holiday she always wanted.
Through this reflection I’ve realized how much control I’ve given the ghost of childhood past. It’s time to strip away and heal where I am now. Surrounded by a family that loves me for me and the holidays for what they are too with our without all of the extravagant magic.
The magic of experiencing the holidays with a mother attempting to pile on more and outdo that past and instead a mother who is working in healing her heart to make the holidays a true reflection of love, peace, and joy. Giving that little girl I used to be and the mom I am now the holiday we both deserve.
By Sandy Hsu
Somewhere between the magical Christmases of childhood and the messy realities of adulthood, hope became a complicated thing. Once, the holidays, full of promise, beckoned me to dream big and make a list a mile long.
When did hope begin to hold hands with disappointment? We started off the new year with fresh hope— hope for a new beginning, hope for change, hope that whispers, “this year will be better.”
But then those heartbreaking headlines,
that medical diagnosis,
plans fell through,
the answer was “we’re going in a different direction”,
friendships, parenting, and marriage are still hard,
I lost my temper and yelled at my children, again.
Thanksgiving reminds us of those not at the table— those who left too soon, those who never arrived.
By December, it’s been a year and our hearts are tired.
But there’s a magic in those twinkle lights, the smell of fresh pine in the living room, opening up cold rubbermaid bins that have sat in the garage for a year to be greeted by glitter dust and the scent of a craft store.
The warm glow of a flickering candle as daylight fades reminds me that there is hope. The baby in the manger andthe baby I rock in my arms reminds me that there is hope.
A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. I feel that thrill when we set the shining star on top of the tree and my children gasp with delight.
And I dare to hope again.
Here’s to hoping for peace on Earth and around our dinner tables.
Here’s to hoping we’ll get at least one decent family picture in those coordinating holiday pajamas I purchased back in October.
Here’s to hoping for silent nights where all is calm and all is bright.
Here’s to hoping the kids will remember snuggling together on the couch for Advent reading.
Here’s to hoping that as the childhood magic of Christmas fades, it will be replaced with an enduring awe and wonder at the love that came for us.
Here’s to hoping for more joy, less stress,
more gratitude, less gimmes,
more rest, less overwhelm.
Hope remembers all that went awry in Christmases past but urges, Don’t give up on what matters. Because here’s the thing: I can’t create the perfect Christmas any more than I can conjure a life completely free of disappointment— we do what we can and then we hope.
So, I string the lights onto the tree and hang up the stockings. I arrange the nativity figurines on the shelf. I add matching family pajamas to the cart and also grab a pair of cozy slippers and a monogram holiday mug from Anthropologie, just for me. I turn up the music in the car and sing “Joy to the World“ with my kids on the way to school. I goggle EASY holiday cookie recipes. I stay up late wrapping gifts.
I light the candle again and I hope.