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‘Tis the Season: A Treatise on Holiday Guilt

We’ve all been there. The moment at a holiday or special gathering where it all hits the fan. The gift falls short of expectations, the family member dredges up old misgivings in a tactless manner, the child becomes inconsolable after a day of seemingly endless freedom. We’ve all experienced these, in some form, and yet, we continue through the motions, continue to put on the show in an attempt to make it fit what we believe it should be. The consumerist nature of all holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. have been espoused upon ad nauseum. Here we will look at that greatest driver of human suffering, the leading force behind much action, guilt, and why we all fall prey to it on specific days.

I will be using ethnocentric examples in this piece, but believe the sentiments reach far beyond my limited experience, no matter the form of the celebrations taking place. This will be done by looking at the driving forces of family, societal norms, and the misconception of time. I hope to show, by the end of this piece, that “holidays” as they stand, exist only to increase guilt in perpetuity and why it is so hard to find freedom from the shackles of expectation.


The most common touching stone for why people insist on holiday celebrations remains family. A chance to catch up or share in festivities with those we otherwise ignore in our day-to-day activities. A chance to show material appreciation for those we love. Yet, how many times are these experiences wrought with resentment and expectation, “If we don’t go, mom will be mad,” “they came last year, so we owe it to them.” The very act of an appearance becomes tantamount to self-flagellation. This urge to appease exists regardless of our own personal standing within the familial structure, our own relationships with those involved. Around the winter solstice, it can be cause for silence from the offended party for the entirety of the following year.

Beyond the outward expectation and forced interaction, within the smaller structure of the household itself, family can be the guilt-driven force behind resentment for the entire season. The entirety of paychecks spent to provide the illusion of care to meet an agreed upon societal expectation. This societal expectation is ingrained in Christian and adjacent Americans since birth. All of the media we consume, in whatever variety, tells us what our Christmas should look and be to ensure a happy family and holiday. This is what leads to the beggars online for money for presents, the insincere acts of charity only surrounding holidays, and a feeling of worthlessness on the part of parents for failing to meet an unattainable picture of perfection.

This perfection is unattainable because of its perceived existence. The perception is accepted as reality and when met with reality itself, the latter finds itself lacking. We push and we pull to nail it down, but whether caused by our own ability or by the unmet expectations of others, generally the idyllic holiday is never attained. The best most of us can hope for is a holiday devoid of too much animosity and tears, even this can be unavoidable given the structured nature of the picture. We struggle and we strive and we consistently, almost inevitably, feel as though we’ve fallen short.

So where does this familial guilt stem from? There are a few answers to this question. The first being, we are trying to create the picturesque holiday for our family we were denied as children. The void created by constant comparison to others, previous years, or a mix of the two only attempted to be filled by an influx of “stuff.” This “stuff” intended to be a representation of care and appreciation, but given the expectation, the moral standing for such actions is unsound at best. Ensuring that every child gets an equal amount of “stuff” so as not to cause undue comparison, the “stuff” seen as representative to the parent, and thereby passed onto the child, as indicative of affection. The second, and more widespread answer, is that there is a feeling of owing. Reciprocated exchange being a sign of mutual affectation. Again, this leads to the ever-present weight of finding the right “stuff” to express something for the intended party. Guilt-fed anxiety becoming the name of the game, ensuring no one will feel left out…that everyone receives at least some “stuff” …that the lack of means will not lead to lack of “stuff.” As stated above, this guilt can rarely be assuaged, naturally or otherwise…there will always be an issue with the “stuff” in some way shape or form.

This familial structure and expectation built around a specific day, or series of days, is utterly laughable when looked at objectively. There is rarely, if ever, anything stopping us from expressing affection or giving gifts to those we wish any day, any time, for any reason. The guilt stems from this expectation, the feeling that we do it because we must, thus draining any true sense of affection or consideration from the entire act…our motivations are impure, thereby making all residual actions impure by proxy. Family affirmed only by “stuff,” lack of which always requiring explanation.

Societal Norms

There is, surrounding almost all we do, a societal imperative or drive to maintain the status quo. This no more evident than with holidays. What are generally considered normal activities, the foods consumed, who is involved, all dictated by adherence to the unwritten rules of these norms. As much as we would like to think ourselves special or unique, it is the following in step of these norms that allow us to feel like members of society. This is good on the face of it, this forms the basis of community, however, when holidays and special occasions arise, there is a psychotic need to fall in line, like an abusee consistently returning to their abuser thinking “this time will be different.” Just as in such a relationship, this is never the case, and takes an extraordinary amount of effort to deny the reality of it.

Winter solstice have existed for ages, a way to celebrate amid the coming death of the harvest and the sun. So too, do the winter holidays remain as such, but to a much more crazed degree. Those who claim to “love Christmas” are merely those who would rather life fit into that picturesque ideal mentioned above. The rest of the year may be hell, but I will fill this house with wreathes and poinsettias to ensure that is denied. Horrible music and movies to drown out the insistence of reality. If this isn’t done, or at least not to the degree agreed upon by society, you are now labelled a scrooge, a party pooper, “let people enjoy things,” they cry. “What’s wrong with me?” the non-lover wonders, stricken with guilt at not falling in line, an atheist caught in catholic mass.

The psychosis of the masses sets in when it is everywhere. TV, movies, every store. Celebrate! Celebrate! Celebrate! “Why?” we ask. “Because we must,” the eternal reply. We bleed eternally from the wounds inflicted, never quite in balance, always wondering if there’s something wrong with us, not falling in line as we do. The sane in the asylum are cast aside in favor of the general fervor, generalities not excusing the constant existence of reality. The season ends and the other foot inevitably drops.


We close out by discussing time. More accurately, the subjective importance placed on specific dates. The norms not met on these dates, expectations skirted, filling one’s cup with endless guilt. The importance of birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays only exists in our minds. The dates themselves constantly shifting on the timeline, making every celebration an approximation at best. Bertrand Russel talked at length about the human need for holiday, but in the British sense of rest and break, not the American sense of sacred calendar dates.

Every day we make a choice as to who and what we celebrate. Who and what we choose to share our love with. Every day we have the opportunity to celebrate and make merry, as it were. Every day can be filled with love and joy and appreciation. By sticking to random spots on a calendar, we have diminished ourselves as a species and filled our time, not with love and light (as we are so wont to believe), but with guilt, anxiety, and apprehension for not reaching the heights we’re told we must.

If we could see time from an objective standpoint, realize each moment is sacred and worthy of celebration, perhaps we could remove the inherent guilt, remove the abuser from the equation entirely, and this season of death could truly be filled with light…instead of the highest suicide rate of every calendar year. Love is always a choice. Inclusion and exclusion, equally so. What choices are you making tonight and tomorrow?

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