Day 9: The Magic of Less ‘Holiday Magic’

Isabel Spooner-Harvey used to make latkes from scratch: grating the potatoes, wringing out their water, frying them over a hot stove.

The effort was gratifying. But then she had three children in three years, followed by a separation from her husband. For the stay-at-home mother in Madison, Wis., the need to make the holidays special — the gifts, the gatherings, the cards, the latkes — started to feel like a burden to shake off rather than a joy to bestow.

So this year, when Ms. Spooner-Harvey celebrates Hanukkah, she will keep her frying pans clean and order latkes from the deli. “The fun part is being at the table together,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where the food came from.”

While other people aren’t immune to the pressure to make “holiday magic,” mothers feel it most acutely, said Michelle Janning, a professor of sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. Besides being generally “socialized to be the ones responsible for the well-being of family,” mothers often feel an emotion Dr. Janning calls “imagined future nostalgia,” in which they picture their grown-up offspring reminiscing fondly about childhood.

So even for those who love the holidays, the pressure to perform them perfectly can lead to stress and exhaustion. Lamenting these expectations in snarky group texts and comment threads and personal essays, some women, like Ms. Spooner-Harvey, have adopted a Marie Kondo approach: relinquishing rituals that no longer bring them joy.

Lauren Asensio Demake, a social worker in Franklin, Mass., Konmari-ed her brain when she dispensed with holiday cards. As a college student, Ms. Demake loved sending the seasonal missives. But after marrying, she said resentment surfaced when “it was still seemingly expected” she would be the one sending them to both her and her husband’s kin. What was once fun turned into a dreaded chore.

Ms. Demake described the decision to stop writing cards as “liberating.” “Getting rid of the things I felt like I had to do helped make this season more enjoyable,” she said.

Also joining the resistance is Courtenay Baker, a divorced mother of four in Mount Vernon, Iowa, who works as a project manager and dance teacher.

She doesn’t send cards anymore, doesn’t do Elf on the Shelf and has given up on Pinterest-worthy cookies and décor. Rather than spending hours baking, she watches Christmas movies cuddled with her family. Rather than fussing over garlands, she leaves out a box of decorations and lets her children hang them (or not).

“I don’t have to cross things off my to-do list that were never on there,” she said. “There’s a stress relief in acknowledging the part about the holidays that is perfect is being with the people you care about.”

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