It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. That’s what the song says. With kids jingle-belling and parties, music, presents, expectations, obligations, spending and cooking and on and on.

Christmas in my childhood home meant mom and dad bickering about money constantly, which made me feel bad for wanting and needing things they struggled to provide. It meant mother lost sleep trying to do all the things she thought she had to do to make it special for us, which made it miserable for her and everyone around her because she was so exhausted and irritable. It meant driving around looking at Christmas lights in what my mother called the R.B. side of town, which of course stood for Rich Bastards. There was no other time of year when I was more acutely aware that we were poor than holiday time.

One of my favorite Christmas traditions was born from needing an exit strategy from dysfunctional family gatherings. I started going to a movie every year on Christmas Day, which gave me a definitive time when I needed to be somewhere. I even pre-ordered tickets so the time was firm. Sometimes friends or a few family members came, too. We took our kids — they always got movie theater candy in their stockings. This will be the first year I won’t make it to the movies since my grown daughter was a little baby.

Having my own traditions has helped me enjoy the holidays more. When my kids were little and everything was magical, I loved their enthusiasm and excitement. Making it special for them helped make it special for me. As they grew up, the magic kind of died. I lost my cousin, aunt and grandmother within a few years of each other. I became estranged from my parents almost completely for a while. I got divorced and lost the people who had been my family for most of my adult life. The holidays were full of grief and sadness. The music was depressing. The obligatory gatherings felt stressful and I all but stopped celebrating for a few years.

Then, I met my husband, Mr. Christmas. I will never forget the first Christmas when we were dating and he saw my little table top tree in my apartment. He said it “broke his heart”. He loves traditions and family and giving thoughtful gifts — he’s all about all of it. He loves the music and movies he’s spent time with every year since his childhood and the idea of a white Christmas, even though we live in Tennessee where it rarely snows in December.

Explaining to this precious, sweet man that I didn’t love Christmas was like telling someone the sky isn’t blue. He couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t love the holidays as much as he does. This is because he has two parents who loved him and gave him a stable childhood with lots of wonderful memories. I would be lying if I said I didn’t envy him sometimes, as he has no idea how rare and special it is to feel so supported and loved by your people. 

My husband proposed to me in front of the Christmas tree on December 2, 2017. He wanted me to have a happy thing to remember when the air turns crisp and depression looms each year. I have decided each year since not to shit on his holiday traditions, because I don’t want to be the miserable person who brings the whole house down like my poor mother did.

Sometimes the holidays feel overwhelming and stressful, or lonely and sad. Sometimes the happy nostalgia that seems to show up so readily for others is not within our reach. Sometimes Santa shows up with a big ol’ bag of seasonal depression and a side of sparkling Christmas anxiety. Sometimes the ghosts of Christmas past show up to replay our worst memories and remind us how far our lives are from the cheesy rom-com movies our friends are begging us to watch.

The holiday table can be a place of joyful feasting with our loved ones. Or, it can be a painful reminder that there is an empty chair this year, where someone we miss desperately should be. It can be the place where someone gets drunk, makes and ass of themselves and starts drama that will last from Thanksgiving dinner until the midnight toast on New Year’s Eve. If it’s a dramatic display, we’ll still be talking about it next Christmas.

To be happy in this life it is necessary for us to embrace and adapt to change. Change begins in the mind. This means changing the way we think about something can change our experience. Choosing to open my heart back up to holiday fun has made each year a little better than the year before.

To make Christmas enjoyable for everyone at our house, I’ve had to change the way I think about it. I could choose to be a Grinch for the rest of my life because I didn’t have all the happy childhood experiences others have. I could stay sad that my kids grew up and the magic went away; or I could choose to make magic in new ways that feel fun, authentic and meaningful today.

Choosing to find some holiday cheer starts in the kitchen for me. I remember baking cookies with my grandmother, mom, aunt, sister and all my cousins when we were kids. I channel grandmother and use her tried and true family recipes to make something we call Christmas Diabetes. Baking, making old fashioned candies and preparing the big holiday meals fills my home with wonderful smells, and lots of happy bellies. This brings me joy.

My therapist says the best thing about allowing ourselves to just be where we are: “Stop shoulding yourself”. 

It means stop making myself feel bad for not doing something I don’t really want to do. Honor my boundaries even when people don’t love them. Be ok with natural human limitations and imperfections. It’s a great reminder to just be who I am and do what I can. This means feeling how I feel even if it’s not pretty.

If you need permission to feel what you feel this holiday season; this is your permission slip. Don’t should yourself. Just do the best you can. That’s all anyone can do. If you’re not feeling the holiday frenzy this year, give yourself permission to do what feels right to you. Choose meaningful ways to connect with your people. Gift yourself something decadent. Take time to rest and relax. 

There is no right way to holiday — do your thing and let others adjust their expectations.