Emily Sue Harvey: Surviving holiday tradition madness

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The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. — KATE CHOPIN, The Awakening


Emily Sue author photoWhen holidays and special family events approach, something mystical happens to folks. And I’m no exception. In years past, these were joyful and ebullient opportunities for me to express my love for family and friends. Traditions happen—they naturally evolve with time and rituals. We love and cherish them. We protect them and fight for their survival.

But what about when traditions cease to be fun? When they become the tail that wags the dog?  For instance, until recent years, when I heard the first strains of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a strange compulsion would grip me and I would sort of — lose it, diving into a frenzy of cooking and baking traditional dishes and goodies, things my mother and grandmothers had set before me in bygone, golden childhood days.  I would shop till I dropped for just the right presents — ones usually returned or exchanged, I noticed.

A few years ago, I realized I no longer enjoyed the madness that struck each year prior to these time-honored, traditional happenings. I was forced to face the fact that it — the pandemonium — no longer worked for me. I ended up depleted and defeated, both physically and emotionally.

It was time for an overhaul.



You don’t have to slaughter the tradition; simply customize it to fit. Thing is, in the cooking arena, I couldn’t just do token things. Oh no. Being somewhat a perfectionist and overachiever, I had to pack a ridiculously enormous coffer of delectables to feel I’d done enough.

In my case, it took a will of steel to alter my perception of how much loving was enough. You see, to me feeding equated loving.  After all, hadn’t my grandmother’s holiday and reunion tables bulged beneath the love offerings? The image was, in a sense, sacred.

But I forced myself to reevaluate my perception. And I found that I didn’t have to cook fifteen pounds of Mound Candy and ten dozen Peanut Butter Balls to make my grandchildren happy. Guess what? A five gallon cheerful holiday tin of Rice Krispies/Snickers balls have them leaping with joy. Or a basket chocked full of store bought assorted candy bars—the good, gooey kind— tumbled them into ecstasy. And bakery cakes are wonderful! Another lifesaver is to cook festive dishes ahead, during idle times, and freeze them. They can be popped into the oven an hour before serving. There are many ways that I can treat my folks and preserve my energy at the same time.


Yep. That’s what I said. Simply chill out. That may not sound so phenomenal to some but to me — being somewhat of a stickler and high flyer — it works wonders. The initial exercise is to sit down, take deep breaths, and clear the mind of former perceptions of the proper things to do. Tell yourself its okay not to live up to the past. It’s okay to not clean yourself into a stupor for company.

I still find myself waking up on tradition-event days and freezing from all the ‘stuff’ staring me in the face. Hey! I remind myself, I don’t have to have three meat entrees for dinner. A nice roast with fragrant gravy will be gracious plenty. Or I can pull out one of those cooked and frozen ahead dishes I prepared weeks before for such an occasion.

And most important, I remind myself that being together is the important thing, not the trappings. Sure, you want to have a nice setting and it can be done with the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Sweetie.


I’m unashamedly a holiday maverick. I know, I know—it’s more exciting tearing into gaily bedecked presents than getting cash gifts. And yes, I know that wrapped surprises represent more thought, but awhile back when a health crisis forced me to succumb to the notion of giving cash rather than fighting holiday shoppers and scrounging in sales bins saved not only my sanity but my overall  health! That decision obliterated the sheer anxiety of shopping for endless loved ones. Yes, I knew that it wouldn’t be their first choice. But guess what? After a few years’ conditioning, they look forward to not only a gift the right size and color but one that gives them the choice of the big what. Another bonus is that there are no returns!

The greatest luxury of all is that my loved ones have all of me at our traditional events, a me not diminished by tradition overkill. A me who can enjoy loving without equating it with feeding — who treasures simply being and preserving meaningful times in life.

And lastly, they can enjoy a me who dares to gift herself with a healthy mind, body, and spirit!

Emily Sue Harvey is the author of the recent Story Plant title Cocoon, as well as five other Story Plant books. You can read more about her here.


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On December 14, 2012
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