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Gift in red and white sweater Hands with wooden background

Why I Made the Decision to Change Our Christmas Traditions

May 30, 2024

Gift in red and white sweater Hands with wooden background

Recently, I was telling a friend that I think I have finally reached the age where I modify certain Christmas traditions. For one, I suggested for the first time that my family draws names for our gift exchange rather than purchase a present for each person. I also took a pass on setting up our large Christmas tree (which is a production that requires moving furniture and many hours of work) in favor of a tabletop version. While these types of adjustments can seem inconsequential to an outside observer, they often loom large in the mind of the individual contemplating them. I mean, messing with tradition can really bring out the Grinch in people, right? 

In my case, it was a combination of fatigue (probably a leftover from my recent breast cancer treatment), stretched finances (also a medical leftover), and an existential itch to change course in favor of a simpler holiday. 

Truth is, if the fatigue truly prevented me from decorating the way I want, I’m sure my family would have pitched in had I asked for help. And finances are a function of priorities. So, in the end, my decisions were really driven by a nagging feeling that I wanted to change things up. Still, I was reluctant. What would my family think? Would they be disappointed? Would I? Would anyone regret my choices after the fact? 

I suppose the verdict is still technically out, but I’m willing to call it now. And I’m calling it a win. We’re all saving money and I saved a full day of precious, weekend time, which in December is no small thing. More importantly, I gained a sense that family holiday tradition is something less fixed and more organic and improvisational than the monolithic status we tend to give it.

I no longer have young ones at home like some of you – but I remember both the wild anticipation AND sheer dread of the Christmas season. (I still thank my lucky stars that Elf on a Shelf wasn’t a thing when my kids were little. Oh, the humanity!) Some years it was magical. But some years it was a forced march. 

If I learned anything from my brush with serious illness this year, it’s that every choice I make adds to my peace or detracts from it. I can choose to spend more or less money. I can choose to spend more or less time on activities that bring peace and joy. I can choose to operate from a place of love or a place of obligation. I can . . . choose. 

There’s an amazing freedom (and renewed sense of purpose) that comes with releasing the burden of obligation and choosing – intentionally and lovingly – the options that serve our peace and joy. A side benefit of drawing names for a gift exchange (besides saving money) is that I only have one gift to wrap. What will I do with the hours that are usually spent cross-legged on the floor in a chore I can only describe as thankless? I don’t yet know, but I pledge to make an intentional choice focused on reflection and gratitude.

To that end, writing a Christmas letter is a choice I made this year with considerable thought and care. Every year, I’m a little paralyzed with the thought that I don’t have anything worthwhile to say. But, ultimately, that’s for my readers to decide, not me. What I know is that I have a deep desire to share my appreciation for  friends and family with them. 

One of the first people I called after my cancer diagnosis was a lifelong friend. Making “that” call to my loved ones is one of the hardest things I faced as a newly diagnosed cancer patient. In this instance, I remember very little about our conversation except this line, spoken to me through tears: “You are a good person, Joan. I’m so sorry this has happened.”

I will never forget the impact on my heart and my psyche of that expression of a friend’s love. It was the sentence that broke my composure, and I started crying, too, despite having completed two previous calls that day with nary a tear or even a crack in my voice.

It made me think about why we often tell each other “You are strong,” “You are smart,” “You are generous,” “You are talented “. . . but we rarely say “You are good.”

The message hidden within “You are good” is “You are enough.” You don’t have to DO anything to prove it. 

As we move through this Christmas season, I wish you the space and inclination to focus more on your being and less on your doing. And, in that margin, may you find all the tidings of comfort and joy promised by the Christmas miracle. 

Headshot of Joan Nesbitt 2018 Missouri Mother of the Year2018 Missouri Mother of the Year, Joan Nesbitt is a hopeless existentialist, relentless gratitude seeker, little-known writer, and recent empty nester. She spends her days working in philanthropy and her evenings pursuing crack-pot domestic obsessions such as rendering lard for the perfect pie crust. Joan spent four years of her youth performing in a local Clown Troupe and believes learning at an early age to juggle and entertain finicky audiences was the best possible training for a working mother. She has been married for 26 years and lives in rural Missouri. A first-generation college graduate, Joan holds a BA in Communication from The University of Tulsa and an MS in Organizational Dynamics from The University of Oklahoma. She currently serves as the Vice Chancellor for University Advancement at Missouri University of Science & Technology, a position she has held for eight years.