Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #106 Creating the Perfect Holiday Season—Seriously!
About this episode

As we head towards another holiday season, this week Martha wants us to know that the most important part of our holiday planning is the “refusal to suffer for imaginary reasons.” To learn to go about this, tune in to The Gathering Room! (Originally aired: December 11, 2022)


Martha Beck: It’s almost the time of the holidays. It’s the winter holidays here in the Northern Hemisphere and I am so happy you’re all here as part of your holiday season. The holiday season is supposed to be so sublime and so joyous that it’s often incredibly miserable for many of us. I know you know what I’m talking about. Or you wouldn’t be here in the Gathering Room because the people who show up in the Gathering Room are the kind of people who try super hard and take things hard when they don’t go right, especially at the holidays. So we’re always trying to make the holidays perfect and then if it’s not perfect, we tend to get somewhat downhearted or even very downhearted. This is a common thing. When I used to be writing for Oprah magazine or a lot of magazines, actually, the holiday season was always a time when the editors would say, “We need to talk to people about their misery.” Because it’s accentuated at the holiday time because we’re supposed to be happy.

In fact, we’re supposed to do so many things at holiday time that the supposed tos can start to really ruin our lives. So right now I want to talk about having a really, truly, wonderfully, perfect holiday season. And it’s absolutely possible. I’ve been doing it for years. I had horrible holidays for a brief period of my life. Loved it as a child, not so great as a young adult. Then I figured that out a little bit and I’ve been having great holidays ever since and I wanted to share with you the way to do it. So here’s what I realized, because I’ve got a two year old around this Christmas and we celebrate Christmas, whatever your holidays are, we all have them at the same basic time because everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere there’s a holiday of lights that comes when the days are short. And all of those sort of migrated down to the Southern Hemisphere where everyone celebrates heavy coats and sleighs.

Its scalding hot, which is its own kind of weird. But having a child around, I realized why the holidays are magical for children and it is because they don’t know the supposed tos yet. They have no idea. They’re just completely blindsided. So we got a Christmas tree put up during Lila’s nap yesterday. We put the lights on everything and then we were all excited to videotape her when she came into the room. We record everything on cameras. She’s going to walk in after her nap and see the tree. So she walked in after her nap and she sees a lighted tree in the house and she kind of went, “Huh.” She doesn’t know. She’s very into Christmas. But she didn’t know there was supposed to be a tree and there was supposed to be lights. So it wasn’t like, oh my fondest dream has come true.

She was just like, all right, you guys do weird things all the time. I don’t know, they tell me trees are supposed to be outside now there’s a tree that’s supposed to be in the house. Okay, it’s supposed to have lights on it. All right. We put all these fun little ornaments on it. Okay. You’re supposed to put the or ornaments on and they all look like toys, but you’re not supposed to play with them. What? You’re not supposed to play with them. They’re all these fun toys hanging on a tree. Yes, that’s supposed to happen, but you’re not supposed to play with them. No, you’re not supposed to. She was like, okay, she’s not supposed to eat a lot of sweets. She’s not supposed to eat a lot of chocolate, but guess what? Here’s a whole bunch of sweets and chocolate. Every day she gets to open the advent calendar and have a piece of chocolate that come with a little tiny plastic toy.

And she hadn’t really eaten chocolate before. So her first advent calendar day, we gave her a piece of chocolate, unheard of because she’s not supposed to have it. And she ate it. And then she was talking to her nana in Australia and she said, “They gave me a beautiful dinner.” That’s how chocolate was for her. But she didn’t know. It just sort of happened. All right, you’re supposed to do all kinds of weird things at Christmas and they get to the point kids do, and my older kids did this too, where they just start running around manically going, “Ah, everything’s amazing.” It’s supposed to be this way. But by the time you grow up that you’re the one who is supposed to make all those things happen. So there are so many supposed tos that things are bound to go wonky. For example, it’s supposed to snow in the Southern Hemisphere, you got to have a white Christmas.

But no travel plans are supposed to fail. Everybody’s supposed to be able to get there, Uh-huh. Everybody’s supposed to do all these fun holiday tasks, infinite holiday tasks, baking and sewing and making and putting lights up and putting trees or manures or kwanza candles or whatever it is. But you’re supposed to do your regular job too. And it’s supposed to be a secret. So you’re supposed to not show anyone that you’re doing it and you’re supposed to be in a really good mood, even though you’re supposed to do all these extra things and you’re not allowed to even get grumpy because that ruins the holiday spirit. You’re not supposed to get depressed or angry. But people who have felt very controlled over the holidays because of what they were supposed to do can get extremely angry or depressed. You’re not supposed to have lingering holiday trauma, but a lot of people do because anything that goes wrong at the holidays tends to get a big negative reaction.

And whoever’s watching that, whatever little kid is watching that, or young adult, is traumatized for life because it happened at the holidays. Oh, when I was writing for magazines, I always used to say as the holiday episode came up, “Do you know that there are more cardiac deaths on Christmas Day than any other day of the year? I think we should write about that.” And they would always say, “No. We are not supposed to let that be known because it’s not supposed to happen.” People are not supposed to die on Christmas Day, and yet they do. They die. More people die on Christmas day than any other day. Now I’ve bummed you out for the whole year, right? It’s horrible. I’ve ruined your Christmas.

Don’t worry. We have a way around this because this is the season of compassion, right? It’s all about love. That’s what it’s all supposed to center on. I love the definition of compassion that I got from Nisargadatta Maharaj, one of my favorite non Christmas celebrators, he said that, “Compassion is another word for the refusal to suffer for imaginary reasons.” In other words, we suffer when we think things are supposed to be one way and they are another way. But the supposed to is something we’ve made up. It’s not necessarily true. And it’s when you drop the supposed tos and you walk into the holidays like a child without any of the supposed tos, just like, okay, whatever’s going to happen is great. Then you don’t suffer for the imaginary reasons. And then you start to be more compassionate to yourself and to everyone else during the holiday.

And the compassion is what makes the holiday really great. So what I wanted to challenge us all to do right now is to turn around our suppositions about the supposed to. So we’re not going to suppose the same things. Let’s start with not everything’s supposed to be this way. So if it is that way, then life is good. But let’s just imagine something that causes us not to suffer. Like life is good, life is benevolent. So whatever happens is supposed to happen that way. For example, if you are a Christian and you celebrate Christmas, or even if you’re not a Christian, but you know the Christmas story, there is a day that didn’t go the way it was supposed to, right? Pregnant woman on a donkey, her water breaks, they’re on a donkey, there’s no place to stay. They end up with cows and donkeys and whatnot.

She gives birth in the straw and puts the baby in a manger. And it was perfect. It was supposed to be that way. We all look back at it. Now that happened to me when I was having my first child. I would not think while I was giving birth among the donkeys. This is great. But when we look back, I mean we would build little statues of it. The holiday oil in the Hanukkah candle, they only had one day of oil in it burned for eight days. And then when you look back and you see that’s why they only had one day of oil. So they could have a miracle for eight days. But if you get to the holidays and you’ve only got enough heating oil to heat your family home for a day, you don’t feel like it’s going to be a great holiday.

It’s not supposed to go wrong. But the holidays are all about things that went wrong. And then we retroactively said that’s the way they were supposed to be. So we can become storytellers of our own holiday season about what’s supposed to happen. For example, we can go into the holiday saying, we’re going to try to make everything the way it’s supposed to be, but it won’t fail. And we are going to tell a story about this holiday, how we tried to make it one way and it happened another way. And that’s exactly what it was supposed to do because here are the lessons we took from it. So people aren’t supposed to get sick or die at the holidays, but that happens sometimes. And you can look back on it and say, that was supposed to happen because it took me deeper into the meaning of life than anything ever had.

And it was especially poignant. And I can bring that into a holiday, refuse to suffer for imaginary reasons. Instead, imagine that the reasons that caused this were benevolent and that there’s something to be taken from this that is a light in the darkness. And I think I’ve said before, in the Northern Hemisphere when the days are really short and it’s usually cold, that’s when you have a celebration of lights. That’s why the real Christmas traditions came from Northern European peoples who were trying to get the sun to come back after the winter equinox. And the reason it’s freezing cold is so that we can all follow the reindeer around while they’re eating the magic red and white mushrooms and then drink reindeer urine and feel like we’re flying through the sky, like Santa Claus. That whole Santa Claus myth comes from the hardship of Christmas and the… Sorry, the hardship of winter.

And the fact that people found a way to make light in the darkness. They would bring in a whole tree and set fire to it, a [inaudible 00:13:51] log, and then they would drink magic mushroom urine so that they could light up their insides even when the days were short and there wasn’t much to do and it was really cold. They found a way to make light in the darkness. And this is not a function of what happens around us, it’s what a function of what happens inside us. So whatever’s happening to you right now, this holiday season or whatever season you happen to be watching this, you can find a way to look inside and find the light inside the dark. And if you need examples of how that’s done, read any holiday story that’s famous, like read Dickens’ Christmas Carol or read the Bible or read whatever you want to read or read a memoir that really works.

Anything that really works to bring our hearts out of darkness, goes into that darkness and then turns around the idea of what’s supposed to happen and makes whatever happened the perfect thing. And you will find that it always can be. It can always be the absolute perfect holiday depending on the stories you tell about it afterward. So we can all meet after the holiday and tell each other the stories of what went wrong and why it is hilarious or heartwarming or bewildering and then illuminating or whatever it is. We can always refuse to suffer for imaginary reasons and imagine other reasons that cause us not suffering but joy. It’s true. We really can do that. So let’s go to our comments sections and our questions. Jessica says, “I grew up…” Let me move this over here, “Supposed to respect elders no matter. Where do you draw the line with the elderly who continue to make holidays hard, that balance between compassion and self-preservation?”

Well, I don’t really see why it matters how old a person is. Do you have to knuckle under and believe what they say if they’re bitter and miserable? I don’t think so. I have… Not sure. I have a five word phrase that I’m sure I’ve told you before. And I would really use it if an elderly person tried to sort of lay a heavy trip on me, to use the hippie language, at the holiday season. They would say something like, “You’re supposed to be in the kitchen barefoot when pregnant.” And I would say, “I respectfully do not care what you think.” I respectfully do not care, five words and use them whenever anyone tells you how a holiday is supposed to be and do it with real goodwill. I love you. I refuse to suffer for imaginary reasons, like the idea that I am supposed to do things the way you’re saying. When it doesn’t feel right to me, it doesn’t feel like integrity.

I respectfully do not care that you agree with me. Can I get you some eggnog? Donna says, “Any suggestions on how to handle adult disappointment when Christmas is not what you hope?” Stop hoping. Stop hoping for such specific things to happen around Christmas. This is what I’m saying, like my two-year-old, she just wakes up in the morning and is like, what’s happening today? I don’t know, but it’s going to be wonderful. I have told this story a lot and I’m going to tell it again. One Christmas when my older kids were little, there was a spider that made a web, one spider stream that hung from the ceiling near our Christmas tree and one of the Christmas tree needles got stuck to it and it hung in the air and I was about to clean it up.

And then I thought, no, it’s a holiday miracle. So I brought the kids over and I was like, “Look at this. This is the magic pine needle and it hovers in the air by the Christmas tree.” And my kids were like, “Wow.” The next year put up the Christmas tree, had all the things and my oldest says, “Where’s the pine needle?” And I was like, “Well, there’s a ton of pine needles on the tree.” And they were like, “No, no, the magic pine needle.” And I was like, “Oh no, I can’t make the magic pine needle happen.” And it was my expectation that I had to replicate it, that I accidentally fed that into my children and created a little holiday trauma when it didn’t happen the next year. So going into it without any expectation, that has to be the same as any other time.

Like what are we going to do this year? We’re not going to suffer for imaginary reasons. That’s the one thing we’re not going to do. We’re going to find all kinds of reasons to celebrate because we imagine them to be benevolent and good, like a spider web. Oh, that’s supposed to be there. Let’s make up a story about how it’s supposed to be there. Okay, we’re supposed to have a tree. We don’t have one this year. Let’s make up a story about how we’re not supposed to have one this year. You can just use that supposed to, to be something that sets you free instead of beating you up. So Steph says, “How do we not buy into the shoulds and supposed tos of Christmas when everyone around us is? How do we protect ourselves to stay in our compassion?” That’s a good one.

That’s what my entire self-help theory is that we’re born with a true nature and then culture comes in and tries to push us in a direction that may not be right for our nature. So when the whole culture says this is the way it’s supposed to be, and those of you who grew up non-Christian in a Christian dominated area know how hard it is when everybody has Christmas but you and all the other families. And a lot of my friends who grew up that way found ways of dealing with Christmas that were different from the culture around them. So they would have little traditions in their own family, they would have storytelling, they would go out for pizza or Chinese food, they would visit with each other. They’re all kinds of things that you can do that actually aren’t like the supposed tos and shoulds of the typical Christmas culture.

So just focus on what you love, do what you love. We just made a new tradition. One of the things we do in the evenings, we gather, we have little family time. Starts when the sun goes down. And Adam always insists on this, my son Adam and he’s great for ritual because he’s very particular and he knows what he wants. But we decided that at family time, instead of just sitting and looking at each other… We’re not going to watch TV, but we put on an animal documentary because the whole family loves animals, right? And then we turn the sound off. So anytime we look up we’re like, “Oh my goodness, it’s the caribou migration.” And then we just talk to each other and then we look, “Oh, now there are wolves following the…” We love it. Is that a tradition everybody else has to have?

No, it is not. But you should try it if you love animals because it really adds to things. Okay. So protect yourself by creating, creating, creating what you are supposed to do based on what you love. Instead of saying, I have to do what the culture around me says I’m supposed to. And then force myself to love it, that’s backwards. Another certain thing that Nisargadatta says is, “It’s not I do good, I do things well and then I feel good. It is ceasing to hurt that comes first.” You let yourself off the hook first and then you’re like, I’m not supposed to do all those things? Oh. Then what do I want to do? For example, do I want to sleep until 11:00 AM or noon or three in the afternoon on Christmas? Whatever. Whatever works for you. And then you can work with the people around you to make what they want happen.

And you can come to some concord about it. And if there is not complete concord, if there is some discord, you say that’s the way that holidays are supposed to be. They’re all full of expectations. That’s okay. That’s part of it. We can make this funny in retrospect or deep or whatever. It’s all about the story you put on it and refusing to suffer for imaginary reasons. So Anne says, “Most of the motivation to make the holidays special is for children.” For some people. “How can we put a positive spin on challenging events without promoting toxic positivity?” Oh, that’s so good. I love the phrase toxic positivity. It’s like turn that frown upside down. I know you’re depressed but you shouldn’t be. No, that’s toxic positivity. And one of the things we can do is remember that this is the season of celebrating when everything went wrong.

When the sun disappeared below the Southern Hemisphere, we had no light and the game was scarce. Or when the sacred family ended up in a manger, well, they didn’t all end up in the manger, but in the stable, when the oil ran out, when our entire population was plunged in darkness or whatever, you can look at it as the light inside the dark instead of fun, fun, fun, fun, fun. And you can sit down and tell stories that have sort of meat and soul to them. They don’t have to be religious stories or even holiday stories, but they should be hero sagas. They should be the stories of people going into the darkness to find a gift. And then coming back. If you’ve heard of Joseph Campbell, you know that he studied these stories from thousands of cultures and wrote a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Because every culture has the same heroic figure. Someone who goes into the magical realm, into the darkness, not into the light, finds there a gift to bring back for the people and then brings it back and presents it. And he doesn’t want to go into the darkness or she, or they don’t want to go into the darkness at first, but when they go in there, they find the gift and then they don’t want to leave the magical world. They don’t want to come back to the ordinary world, but their job is to take the gift to the people. So they take the sacred gift and they bring it back. And that is the basic story that keeps people going in all cultures, all around the world at all the times. And it’s not a positive toxic story, it’s a story of gritty perseverance through the darkness to bring back the gift of the magic.

And it always works. And it’s not toxic. City Lotus says, “I’m the family scapegoat.” Oh yeah, been there. “And I have decided to not go, no contact with people who have honestly betrayed me. I’ve tried to find the light in this story and welcome it as an experience. Other ways to find the light?” Yeah, there’s no better way to find the light than to disassociate oneself from an environment that causes darkness to overcome you. So for those of you who are, I am not a Christian, but I love the sacred works of all religions and I love it when Jesus said in the New Testament that you should leave your father and mother. He said, “Those who do not leave their father and mother to follow me….” And he was talking about the I am not himself as a man I believe.

“Those who do not leave father and mother to follow, say the truth or the light or the joy are not worthy of it.” He was saying, be willing to break even the closest ties. And I grew up in a religious environment, but they never quoted Jesus as saying that, even though he did, because he said, nothing is worth leaving your light behind. Nothing is worth crushing the light of your own soul, even separating from the most supposed to relationships and roles of your life. If you have to break the deepest supposed tos of your culture to be happy, to find your integrity, do it and then come back around and see if you can bring the gift back to the people, to the very people who hurt you. If and when it feels like the right thing to do, maybe it never will be. I’ve done that.

It’s okay. You get a found family that is so much… It’s just wonderful. Can’t even begin to tell you how wonderful it is. Valerie says, “How can I satisfy the children full of hope and expectation? Because they’re so sweetly pressuring, I care what they think should I not?” Of course. Of course, we care what children think and we care what they feel. And let me tell you the gift that is most important to them, that you sit with them with what they think and feel and share their emotion. Listen to what they’re asking for, love them completely without the pressure of guilt of saying, I have to do everything they want because that is suffering for an imaginary reason. Kids love adults to listen to them, to be present, for them, to be present with them, to share their emotional experience, whether it’s good or whether it’s bad.

An adult who’s so busy getting all of us supposed toss aligned isn’t there for the kid. I’ll never forget going to a birthday party for a child when my older children were young. And the mother of the birthday kid had this massive party with all these moving parts and magic tricks and different types of adventure events and candies and cakes and everything. And they all had to happen on schedule. And she was marching the kids through this schedule and it was horrific. And at one point I knew her well. So I’d been into her attic before. She had a nice attic where you could go and stay. So I climbed up to the attic just to get some space and guess who was up there? Her kid, the one who was having the birthday. And I was like, “What are you doing up here?”

And they said, “Same thing you are, I’m getting the hell out of that nightmare.” And we sat there and we had a great time because we were being honest and sharing our feelings. And I bet if that mother had stopped listening to the tormenting supposed tos in her mind, she would’ve been up there with us and we would’ve had a great time. If kids are heard, listened to, loved, shared with, that’s the kind of compassion that we’ll see them through. Okay, Eva says, “I’m having difficulty now that my brother has said he does not want me to give his family x-mas presents. I try to explain that it’s about giving, but he hates the piles of gifts. It repulses him. I feel he’s rejecting my love and not letting me love his kids. I am single without children and feel so hurt and rejected. How can I not feel sad?”

That’s a hard one, Eva. That’s really hard. I feel that in my heart for you. And at the same time, you can question the idea that accepting a gift and accepting love are the same thing, because that one doesn’t quite hold true. And there’s another thing of I have to give to my own family’s children to see the joy of giving to children. So clearly you love giving things to children. I know what that’s… Most of us love that, right? There are so many kids who would love to have things given to them and not all of them are related to us. So you can go find a way to give to children and see their beautiful little faces light up. And you can question the thought that says, if I’m not allowed to give gifts, I’m not allowed to love. Because love and gifts aren’t the same thing.

And if you watch any Hallmark holiday movie and you’ll see that that’s true, but at the same time, be kind to your heart. Respect and be tender to the loving part of you that wants to give to them. And make sure that you sit with those kids and listen to them and talk to them straight across. And then watch their little faces light up and sometimes relax, coming down from the supposed tos and finding a grownup who’s right there with, read them a story, a favorite story. Be present. That is the present. Oh, so finally, Aji says, “Does this apply for life in general as well?” Yes. “Maybe the best parts of life are when things go unexpectedly. But I wonder why we humans still clings so tightly to our precious plans.” Wow. I’m writing a whole book about this and I’ll tell you why we cling so tightly to our precious plans.

I can tell you in one word, fear. When we see something unfamiliar, our brains become fearful and they try to control it by making things be the way they’re supposed to. But a fear response never leads to joy. Only a compassion response leads to joy. And that means that when we feel ourselves tighten up and think it’s supposed to go this way, it’s supposed to go that way. That should be a signal when we hear that little word supposed to, that, oh, I’m suffering from an imaginary reason. Because the fact that it’s going the way it’s going, sort of means that’s the way it was supposed to go in some universal way. So if I can let go of trying to control the universe and allow myself to look at everything that happens and say, I wonder why that was supposed to happen.

I wonder why that was supposed to happen. If we can do that and I’ve done it a lot and I remember the first Christmas after I stopped communicating with my own family of origin, that was a really rough holiday, yeah. But boy did I break a lot of mental bonds during that time. Boy, did I dig for the light inside the darkness and I found it there. And then I found that I could love my family along with the rest of the world so much better when I let go of all the supposed tos. And I just went in to find the compassionate center in my heart that was saying, I was born not knowing what was supposed to happen. And I’m still a child walking into every room, not knowing what’s going to be there. A Christmas tree with lights, sure, whatever. Who knows what’s going to be there. And instead of thinking, I know exactly what’s going to happen and I’m going to make it that way, I just walk into every room going, wow, it’s different this time. I wonder why that was supposed to happen.

And always inside I can find the part of me that is compassionate, that is loving, that wants the world to be joyful for children, for adults, for elders, for everyone. And that means the world must want itself to be good for me too. So I hope you all exercise tons of self-compassion, but you’re not supposed to, you’re supposed to do whatever you do this holiday season. And we’ll find out later how to tell the story that makes it right, makes us understand why it was always supposed to be that way. However it goes down for you, whether it’s an easy holiday or hard one or somewhere in between, I know we’re going to get to the next year together, ready to tell more exciting stories, ready to go into more dark places and find light inside them and brighten up the whole world the way you all brighten up my world just by coming here to the Gathering Room. I love you. I will see you later. Bye.

Read more