Afternoon Chat: Stressful Holiday Obligations

By Kate Riley November 4, 2019

I woke up this morning, made some coffee, took my teens to school, came home and casually opened Instagram. Then it hit me as I scrolled through my feed. Here we go, it’s officially the holiday season and with it comes two months of unending to do lists and obligations thrust upon me. I could feel the tension creeping up in my neck and shoulders. It hit me so hard and made me feel so stressed I did something I rarely do, I crawled right back into bed.

I knew the only way to for me to get rid of this discomfort was not to hide from the stress, but instead to face it so I took a long walk to clear my head. I’ve become pretty good at maintaining balance in my life in the last few years, but I got knocked off balance today and it forced me to ask myself some important questions about why I felt this way. Why do I feel such overwhelming pressure to do so much during the holidays? Why am I not excited, why do I feel such dread? Is it self induced? Is it societal projection? Every year, on the first week of November, I get hit with overwhelming pressure to please way too many people, so much so I feel it physically in my body. Where does this come from?

People pleasing during the holidays was modeled by my mother and aunts. I watched them growing up so I absorbed it and believed it was my role that I needed to take on too. Decorate the house, bake the cookies, plan the menu, host the party, buy the gifts, wrap the gifts, and don’t forget to smile and look your absolute best while you do it.

People pleasing is thrust upon us by social media, it dominates our culture and pressures women to have beautifully decorated homes, gifts tied up in perfect bows, magazine worthy menus, and children dressed in matching pajamas.

I accept that some of my people pleasing tendencies are self induced. I love writing this blog but with the holidays comes additional pressure to provide unique content to inspire. Yet when I look at others in my niche it feels as if there’s some collective agreement to raise the bar every year. So to preserve my sanity, I push back. I say to myself “Girl, don’t kill yourself, there are no points being rewarded or prizes being handed out here. Relax, breathe, pace yourself, contribute what you can when it works for you.”

People pleasing is a choice I’ve consciously made, but it feels so much different when it’s one-on-one. When I spend time cooking or entertaining and I can see the joy on the faces of the people who are directly benefiting from it, that feels like giving and that’s a good thing. If I’m making real memories, I say yes to that, time and again. The part of Christmas I enjoy the most is the one-on-one connection, when I’m decorating the tree with my daughter or snuggling on the couch with my son watching movies. And twinkle lights, I can never get enough of twinkle lights. :)


Last year I kept a promise to myself, that I was no longer going to do things that I dreaded. No longer would I spend time on holiday activities that were a soul suck. This year I’ll do the same. Instead of throwing a big party for eighty people on a Saturday night, I choose to gather ten of my best girl friends on a Thursday night for a two hour ornament exchange. Instead of sending ninety gold foil Christmas cards, I’ll send personal texts or individual cards to people I love who make a difference in my life.

For anyone who needs to hear this, I offer these words of encouragement. Look at the obligations (or dare I say burdens) we take on during the holiday season, and ask yourself, 1) Does this activity bring me joy? Or 2) Do I dread this every year? If it’s in the #2 category, maybe it’s time to just say no. To begin the practice of saying yes to only the things that make the season bright, and no to all the things that drain you.

Maybe it’s time to introduce a new boundary this season that honors you, your time, and your energy. There’s so much power in giving yourself permission to say no.

What have you eliminated from your list of holiday obligations that brings you more peace?


  1. Amen! I’ve limited our holidays to one event per day. Hitting multiple houses in one day is so stressful and you aren’t able to spend quality time with each host. Wishing you the best as we enter the holiday season!

  2. I have such stress at Xmas time as well. Wait until your kids are married..then the fun begins in the stress department. Especially regarding your son. At Xmas, it seems “the day” revolves around his wife’s family. I never seem to get “the day” anymore. I find it very hurtful and never look forward to Christmas because of this. I guess I can’t blame her too much. I put the problem totally on my son.

    • I’m sorry to read that Colleen, you miss your son and it sounds like his wife dictates the schedule. Isn’t that so hard when they’re torn between people and places to be? It can change your perspective for sure.

    • I think this is often an issue. My MIL got sick of her children not coming…even the girls…and she moved her Christmas to Saturday. She actually enjoyed the quiet with her new husband and neighbors on Christmas Day. Some years we had split between both homes but it was tough. I had a certain time I was allowed to be there. She spent way more money on her other grandchildren so she did not want me there to see it. Ugh. And my parents were lonely for my sister and brother who NEVER came for Christmas. Eventually it became the six of us and we grew content with it. I am the oldest. And when Daddy died last he had changed his will and left them nothing because they never visited he and Mama or even just him when Mama went to Heaven.

  3. This is the thing! Years ago, I stopped sending holiday cards at Christmas and started sending cards around Valentines day to loved ones–family and friends. It made a thing that was obligatory much more joyful and removed a thing or two from my seasonal To Do List. The older I get, the easier I find it to say “no” to things that don’t appeal, truly bring joy, or benefit. It has made it much easier to say “yes” to things that I really want to.

    • I do believe people put that stress upon themselves Society can’t make you do anything unless you let it. There are plenty of people out there who have no one and would welcome having someone, anyone to fuss over or be invited to one party or event let alone several.

      • aw that’s a sweet way to look at it Wendy, thanks for bringing that up! the holidays can feel very alone for so many.

  4. One year my son was going through a treatment and needed a quiet Christmas so we let our relatives know we weren’t doing our party after many years. It was the best, most intimate and enjoyable Christmas for me That I had had in years. I decided why cancer was needed to do what you really want instead of pleasing others. I’m not waiting for cancer and we have a great immediate family Christmas with games, a meal and no gifts except white elephant.

    • I’m sorry to read about your son’s treatment, sometimes these events no matter how tragic do have that effect of reminding us what’s most important.

  5. I do New Year Cards instead of Christmas cards. Much easier – they go out when they go out. I have paired down my decorations, which had gotten crazy. The problem is, that is what I like to do – make things pretty. I love to wrap gifts, so I’m still over the top on that.
    I no longer do all the baking I once did.
    But I do force myself to have a large gathering to remember my son, on his anniversary. It helps distract from a season of grief for us. It has become a lot of work, but the quiet, alone times are actually very hard for us, this time of year.

    • I’m so sorry to read about your son Gray, how lovely that you remember him so sweetly by gathering friends and family.
      New Year’s cards seem like a better way to go, there’s more time to address them in that quiet week after Christmas!

  6. This is a great reminder. It is really easy to get sucked in by everyone and everything around us. Between retail stores, social media and pressure from society, it is no wonder this time is so stressful for all. I am with you. I want to pare down what I do and have been doing so for the last couple of years. I only want to do the things that bring me and my family joy. It is also a very expensive time of year and I want to be able to feel good about not over spending on everything. Family and friends are what really matter at this time of year (and always). Thanks for the great post and reminder.

    • and thank you Tracey for your comment! every year I need to remind myself of that!

  7. i’ll be 80 next year. everything you younger women write about sounds like me years ago. last year my gifts were in plain white boxes, without wrapping paper. i laughed that next christmas i might eliminate the boxes. age can bring a wonderful ‘letting go’.

    • so great Juju, I remember my grandmother when she was in her 80s would barely wrap the gift, it was always a hodge podge mess of dime store paper and half the time if you lifted it up you could see the bottom of the box, and what the gift was, she only bothered to wrap the top. we felt luck to get a cheap shiny bow stuck to the top too. :) loved that about her.

  8. I wonder when the always bigger, better, more dazzling Christmas trend will reverse and go back to more family, less fussing, time together. I realize even family time takes planning to make it special, but the times I remember around the holidays were more simple: sledding parties, snowball fights, new pajamas, and board games under the Christmas tree.
    I hope you can manage your stress through it all because it is too precious to loose site of the wonderful season it is.

    • thanks D’Ann I’m managing it fine, thank you, and I think that you can make Christmas just as simple as can be if you choose to!

  9. Such a great post, and definitely a conversation that should be had with yourself. I agree with asking yourself ‘Does this bring me joy’ – I am going to be doing that all holiday season. For example sending holiday cards makes me so happy!

  10. What have I eliminated? Basically, I’ve pared back on:well, just about everything to do with the holidays…cards, shopping, decorations, (donated some to Good Will, yesterday, yay!) etc. Now, I focus on doing the things that I enjoy (without guilt…yep, I can relate to the “people pleaser”, thing). What have I included? My exercise routine, over the years I would skip it.due to time, Not anymore! I remind myself to stick to the wellness plan. This keeps me happy and healthy going into the New Year…that’s a gift!!!

    • Good on you Renee, me too! I do something active every day for ME, it is a gift!

  11. I have had this epiphany several times, each time scaling back a bit more! The first was when my daughter was an infant and she and I were both in tears driving to our 3rd location on Christmas Day. Later when she was 3 and we were trying to go to every activity that sounded appealing during the holidays. I realized that there are just too many! We need to pick and choose. Honestly, we enjoy the activities so much more when we have plenty of downtime in between! And last year, my grandmother was in the hospital (she’s doing very well now), so our Christmas dinner ended up being Chinese food with my sisters families and our kids, all in our pajamas. It was one of the best we’ve had and the kids had a wonderful time. It was nice to enjoy it with them instead of cooking/cleaning/prepping for the next thing on the list. I got to be the one to play with my daughter for once, instead of grandparents while I cooked and got everyone coffee.

    • what a lovely new memory you created! great perspective, thank you for sharing!

  12. AMEN! I’ve been going back and forth about throwing a semi-annual Christmas party for 80…and it was so refreshing to read your post!

    • thanks Holly, do what’s right for you!
      I used to throw those massive parties years ago, and I was never really enjoying myself, now I much prefer a quieter gathering with my besties.

  13. My FAVORITE email of the day! Thank you for being REAL! At the end of the day, we have to love what we are doing because we show up in the world WHOLE, and complete. When we are doing things out of ‘want’, not ‘need’ things just flow in the right direction and we are energized, not depleted. The older we get, we become much more comfortable in saying NO. Give yourself permission to show up in the world with a full, happy you. The ones who love you will FEEL your happiness and appreciation. What I learned to care about, is where I am in comparison to where I want to be. It is something I have to consciously remind myself of on a daily basis.
    I wish you all the good this life has to offer. PEACE!

  14. Thanks for this! I’ve done lots of scaling back and want to do more. Please don’t feel the one-up pressure from other bloggers! I’d much rather see posts like this that are real life for many of us vs some DIY craft we will never do!

    I’d love to hear suggestions for parting down gifts for extended family… while most family has one Christmas— with inlaws, steps, half’s… we have many Christmas’ with gift expectations at all. It gets expensive and definitely doesn’t feel like gifts from the heart since they are people I don’t know as well. Makes me feel like Scrooge to do nothing.

  15. I adore this last quarter of the year: October, November and December. Other than Halloween, which I loathe, I love everything about it. From October 1 through the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend I have autumn decor up: pumpkins, both real and faux, wheat and other dried arrangements, a few decor items around. I think of autumn as lasting through that Friday (Leftovers Day!) so these don’t come down and get put away until that evening.

    Then on Saturday of that holiday weekend I bring out the red Christmas tree and the house decorations. I love seeing it all (even though it isn’t a huge amount). I also try to attend most of my town’s holiday events, ranging from the lighting of the tree on State Street to artists’ fairs to free concerts to driving and walking around to look at lights to singing to the professional offering of The Nutcracker. I absolutely come alive at this time and thrive on all the events and interactions. I might buy things, I might not. But I talk with people and have such fun!

    What I do not choose to do is bake, host any but small gatherings, spend time in stores, get frustrated at crowds and parking. I may participate in a lot but I am a conscious chooser of those things. Fortunately, I guess, I do not on a television and am not on social media. I don’t look at it, don’t get caught up in any of it, don’t see the overwhelming displays of so much stuff.

    Instead, I shape my holiday my way with my choices. If I do need to go to a store, or on rare occasions want to, I always get a bag of small candies and hand them out to the cashiers and other workers all over the store. It truly is an awful time for them and I like to see if I can make it any better. I think that is where a lot of my joy comes from. Well, that and the decorations!

  16. Your post was just what I needed to read. Every blog I open is full on decorating and gift lists. I’m just not ready this year!
    I always found Christmas stressful. All the decorating, shopping, baking, hosting… All that on top of kids and work made me stressed every year, as I wanted that postcard Christmas for my family. In order to relieve some of that stress, I stopped hosting a big Christmas party and an even bigger New Year party. I now have a Happy Hour with 8 – 10 close friends. The work load is much less and I can relax and enjoy my evening. I stopped sending out 40+ personally written Christmas cards and now only send to close family. I get all my gifts bought well before the crazy days at the mall. I can stay at home and happily wrap pretty parcels. I no longer bake and make everything from scratch. We have so many good options to choose from now.
    Let’s give ourselves a break this year and going forward. Christmas is meant to be enjoyed.

  17. I absolutely love this! I am so glad I’m not the only one that struggles with this around the holidays. I want to be able to enjoy them and I end up stressed out more than anything. The thought of doing certain things gives me the worst anxiety. I have been trying to cut down on the people pleasing, especially when it causes me so much distress. My Aunt said something to me once about how if we don’t want to do something or doing it makes you feel some type of way, don’t do it. The only real obligations we have in life are to ourselves. We have to take care of ourselves before we can worry about anyone else. That has really stuck with me, and its the what I got from this post also. Thank you so much for sharing with us! I haven’t decided yet on what I am cutting out of my holiday schedule, but something is definitely gonna go. Have a great holiday season!

  18. Geez…I guess I don’t feel like you all do. I love the holidays, everything about them. I work many of the holidays and wish I could have more off to spend with family or at a party. I love the music, gifts, wrapping, cold weather, wreaths, lights, concerts…you name it. When I see other people having a great party, house, decoration I don’t feel like I have to have the same thing, or top whatever it is they have, I just enjoy it. I like sending out Christmas cards and expressing cheer and best wishes to people I know and care about. Not really that hard. The cards aren’t blank and they usually have a nice message and I can sign my name. I believe that the holidays are special and bring out the best in a lot of people. I have never thought of them as a job, stressful at times yep, hard to coordinate at other times occasionally, but once I arrive I enjoy the event to the max. I hope I never lose the joy I feel about the holidays, and I hope I never feel like they are work! One of he best times I have had around the holidays was ringing the bell for the Salvation Army!!!! It renewed my faith in people, and I got to see first hand how generous people can be!!!! Surely I can be more generous with my spirit

  19. Hooray, Kate, and amen to so much of what many have written. Thank you for giving us permission to re-consider, weigh, evaluate, make choices (rather than react). When the kids were elementary aged we decided one year that there would be no TV between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Best time ever! We took long walks, sat in front of the fire and read books, played games–and no one was assaulted with the constant STUFF being peddled. Now that they have their own kids I see them simplifying and making similar choices for their littles. And for us, keeping the original Christmas story at the center of the celebration through music, books, our Nativity sets reminds us of what we’re celebrating.

  20. Our biggest Christmas stress-reliever has been being upfront with our young kids about Santa from the very beginning! Best decision ever. They still enjoy the holiday, and without all that deception and lying (and guilt), so do we!

  21. I am very stressed this year. I hate the corona thing…and am so worried that someone will get sick. I love all this that normally stresses you but I can not do it this year. We did not get a vacation so no family photo either for my cards. We were supposed to be in Disney this week for my birthday but that is cancelled also.

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