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The Show Must Go On. But at What Cost?

Last year was the first time in a decade that I didn’t send Christmas cards. I probably received twenty emails from friends that started with “Are you OK?” or “Did I piss you off?” The truth? I was exhausted and it was a tough holiday. As much as I love sending and receiving cards, I just couldn’t pull it off. I was thinking about it this morning as I was working on my ten-page holiday to-do list and I remembered a post I wrote in 2009. I laughed as I read it . . . “Researcher, heal thyself.” I thought it might be fun to share it again this year. I clearly need the reminder.

Repost from November 2009

I have a terrible memory from last Christmas that I’m planning to use as a touchstone to help us create a merrier holiday this year.

I was sitting at my kitchen table addressing 225 Christmas cards, Charlie was crying in his room because I told him that I couldn’t read “the reindeer book” to him until I finished the cards, and Ellen was upset and sitting alone in the dark living room because it was once again too late to start a Polar Express family movie night. I don’t remember the detail of Steve’s whereabouts, but I think he was out doing last-minute teacher gift shopping.

At some point the sulking and crying was too much so I stood up and yelled, “I’m sorry. I HAVE to finish these cards! They’re not going to address themselves! Everyone wants to send them but I’m the one who has to make it happen!”

The house got very quiet.

I wish I could tell you that wisdom washed over me and I put the cards away. I’d love to end the story by writing, “I gathered my children in my arms, we drank hot cocoa, and I read from one of our lovely Christmas books.”

Nope. I was like, “Thank God. It’s quiet.”

I remember telling myself, “Oh, well. The show must go on.”

And it did. The cards went out. The presents were wrapped. The cookies baked. We were at everyone’s houses as scheduled.

It was exhausting and I was just waiting for it to be over.

Don’t get me wrong—I wasn’t the victim of this holiday circus, I was the ringmaster.

We live in a world where life can easily become pageantry, and the best performers make it look balletic and effortless. Of course, there’s no such thing as an effortless holiday show. If you sneak a peek behind most people’s red velvet curtains at holiday time, you’ll often see houses brimming with anxiety, maxed-out credit cards, crying children, and marriages that make the cold war look warm and fuzzy.

I’m convinced that the only way out of this is by canceling the show. Not canceling the holiday, but giving up the show.

For us, that means making some changes. We do love our holiday cards, but this year we’ll make a party out of addressing envelopes and I won’t insist on doing it myself so it’s “right.” P.S. If you’re on our list, your cards will arrive sometime between mid-December and Valentine’s Day.

After 20 years of drawing names at our big family holidays, we’ve decided to only buy for the kids and to keep the gifts small and meaningful. We’re also going strictly homemade (us or Etsy) for teacher and neighbor gifts. And, most importantly, we will make a list of all of the holiday family things that we want to do together and those will take priority.

Rather than always insisting that “The show must go on!” I’m going to ask these two questions: Is this a part of us or part of the show? and Does it really need to go on? I think our holiday will be better for it.

When our lives become pageants, we become actors. When we become actors, we sacrifice authenticity. Without authenticity, we can’t cultivate love and connection. Without love and connection, we have nothing.

The phrase “the show must go on” originated in the 19th century with circuses. If an animal got loose or a performer was injured, the ringmaster and the band tried to keep things going so that the crowd would not panic.

This year there will be no band. No ringmaster. We’re going to say “yes” to small and quiet and “no” to the three-ring circus. That’s not to say that there won’t be panic and loose animals. That’s a given around here.

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