Winter is coming, and with it, ominously, ‘The Holidays.’ Most women I know think of the looming obligations of the Thanksgiving-Hanukkah-Christmas seasonal-industrial complex with dread. And I get it: after all, this time of year overflows with celebrations and meals to plan, cook, and clean up after; gifts to buy and wrap; cards to send; cookies to bake; and much more. But, this year? I feel calmer, thanks to my new guideline: Do the holidays like a man.
I’ve noticed that —unlike most women— the only holiday rituals men invest time or energy in are the specific bits they actually enjoy. So now I do as many men have been socialized to do: I only perform holiday tasks if a) I personally find them meaningful and enjoyable or b) someone I love directly asks me to.
Last year, circumstances demanded my drastic shift to this do-less approach. My husband, the buyer of Lego, has been undergoing cancer treatment for more than two years. Last year, he was at a clinical trial 3000 miles from our home for all of December—an extraordinary emotional and logistical challenge. Solo parenting, worrying about cancer, and preserving my dwindling emotional reserves left me with zero inclination to buy presents, attend parties, or distribute homemade treats, much less send out holiday cards showcasing 2016, our family’s annus horribilis.
So I didn’t. And nobody cared, or at least they were not unwise enough to say anything to me. I apologized a few times for not sending out cards, and was universally met with a shrug or reassurance.
I did buy presents for two people: my children. I also made an Advent calendar of tiny gifts, tied to rings on a cross-stitched Swedish calendar my grandmother gave my mom many years ago. My mom always assembled that Advent calendar for me and my brother, even shipping tiny numbered gifts after I went away to college. Wrapping 24 tiny gifts is a pain, but my kids’ joy and my warm memories of my late mom make it meaningful. Every November 30, after the girls are in bed, I pour an extra-tall glass of spiked eggnog (haters to the left) and cozily assemble their Advent calendar by the fire.
Whereas I’ve had to train myself to stand down from pointless holiday chores, dudes obviously haven’t made some mission statement of “doing less at the holidays.” However, the men I know just fail to take on or even acknowledge holiday duties that they find uninteresting. If someone (such as a mother or wife) should call an obligation to their attention, they do precisely what their loved one requires, but no more. At Christmas, for instance, my husband has always bought Lego sets, which he loves building with our daughters. He also addressed stacks of cards at my request, back when I thought we absolutely had to send holiday cards. But did he ever on his own think, “Gosh, I really ought to make cookies for the kids’ classroom holiday parties”?
Reader, he did not.
My father’s holiday tradition is to buy snowballs (vanilla ice cream rolled in coconut, with holly-shaped icing) from an ice cream shop in my hometown. He has done this every Christmas Eve I can remember, as someone once did for him. It’s a sweet tradition, sweeter for the fact that he loves it and clearly never resents performing it. Holiday traditions without resentment would be revelatory for many women, myself included.
Am I suggesting that men who carry on holiday rituals deserve praise and a cookie? Far from it. My approach is more if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Most men (I know: #notallmen) have absorbed, since birth, the message that holidays exist for their delight, and that someone else will make the magic. Kids raised in heteronormative families quickly absorb the message that it’s mostly Mom’s handwriting on gift tags, Mom who makes Halloween costumes, and Mom who bakes birthday cakes. As family structures diversify, I hope holiday norms will change too — but such changes are slow and incremental.
Now, when holiday traditions approach, I check myself with a simple question: Would doing this occur to an average man, unprompted? If not, I ask myself if I really want to do it. A second no means I do nothing, unless someone I love really wants it. That’s how my kids wound up not distributing Valentines at school this year; I didn’t care, and neither did they.
My new stance on holidays not only saves me trouble; I hope it might help keep my daughters from falling into sexist holiday patterns. By focusing on what I love and noping out on everything else, I’m modeling a more equal division of family labor and creating more authentic holiday joy — minus a frazzled, crabby parent.
I harbor secret hopes that this approach, if widely adopted by women in straight relationships, might encourage dudes to take more initiative on meaningful holiday traditions. Maybe someday we can approach holidays not like a man, and not like a woman, but like humans celebrating together.
Kate Washington is a freelance writer and the dining critic for The Sacramento Bee. Her work has appeared in such venues as Avidly, The Toast, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Sunset Magazine, Yoga Journal, and more. She is currently at work on her first book, a feminist critique of caregiving. Her favorite holiday is Thanksgiving, because of the gravy.