When All That Glitters Is Not Gold: Parenting Writer Magda Pecsenye on Dealing With Holiday Pressure
Filed in: Your Brain
The holidays are a magical time—or so every movie, song on the radio, and marketing email tells us they ought to be. What’s left out is that they often come with incredible amount of pressure—both at work and at home—to be happy, to take on too much, and to have a holiday season that’s “perfect.”
Parenting writer Magda Pecsenye wrote Get Christmased—a workbook for creating a holiday season that feels right for you—in response to this very issue. When she’s not coaching readers through the end of the year, she runs her own flash consulting business (In her own words: “For $250, I’ll solve any process-related problem you have in around 24 hours. I don’t do anything having to do with technology or cars, but anything else? Try me.”).
We recently tried the workbook, and talked to Pecsenye about the inspiration behind it.
Get Christmased begins with a dose of hard truth: “Christmas is the most hyped holiday in the world—which means it’s also the most confusing and painful holiday. Whether you believe that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, a festive day for giving presents and spending time with family, a co-option of the solstice, a big consumer fraud, or just a day off work (or not!), you are probably overwhelmed sometimes with the whole season.”
The workbook’s mission is simple: to help readers cope with feelings of pressure, anxiety or stress around the holiday season, without making any assumptions as to their religious identity, ethnicity, or family makeup. It’s a practical, and welcome, way to break down what is too often a whirlwind of events, expectations, and wild spending.
Pecsenye has a unique approach to giving advice, which she explained when I caught up with her on the phone a few weeks ago: “I started writing an advice column for parents in 2005, when I had two little kids of my own. At the time, most parenting resources on the web were advocating a specific perspective. People would tell you, ‘You have to use this sleep method,’ or ‘You have to use this feeding method.’ But there was no place quite like my site, where I would say ‘Why don’t you pay attention to your kid, and just try a bunch of things and see what’s good for you?'”
The idea to write about holiday pressure came out of a trend she noticed from readers. “Every year, people were getting so tied up about it. During the Christmas season, our culture is telling people that they have to feel a certain way. And readers were having a really hard time letting go of guilt or resentment they had in order to live through this time.”
The workbook starts with the basics: a series of fill-in-the-blank prompts asking you to think deeply about what your ideas and assumptions around Christmas are. Sample questions include:
“When I was little, Christmas was ______________.”
“Now that I’m an adult, Christmas is _______________.”
Eventually, the harder questions come:
“If there were three things I could change about the month of December, they would be: ______________.”
Once these ideas and assumptions have been established, readers can think critically about how to avoid pitfalls that trigger anxiety and stress during the season.
The fill-in-the-blank style is strategic, Pecsenye says. “I’m kind of crazy about rubrics. I love them. It’s like a baked potato bar: How many different ingredients can I add? I think that everybody likes to have a little bit of guidance, while also having a little bit of possibility.”
And the workbook certainly lives up to its promise of guidance—it is thorough, taking on everything from the pressure of thinking that how we spend New Year’s Eve will somehow set the tone for how we spend the rest of the next year, to the singular bummer of having a birthday that falls too close to one of these major end-of-year holidays.
The workbook takes care to distinguish the actual Christmas holiday from the “cultural Christmas,” which has a way of seeping into the lives of people who have no intention of celebrating December 25.
“I have so many readers who are Jewish or Hindu or who were raised atheist or secular humanist, who never celebrated Christmas at home, who still feel like there is an expectation to make an amazing Christmas season for their kids,” Pecsenye says. “I was raised in a fairly religious household, and one December when I was around three, in the checkout line at the grocery store with my mom, this lady started talking to me. She was like ‘Do you know who’s coming to your house?’ I had no idea what she meant. I looked at my mom and said ‘Baby Jesus?’ And the woman just flipped out—she was like ‘No! It’s Santa Claus.’ So even if you’re religiously celebrating Christmas, you are still fighting the cultural Christmas.”
The workbook meticulously guides readers through potential tough spots, from family issues, to kids, to money troubles, to anxiety and depression. For each, Pecsenye offers tips, advice, and support for how to think about them in the context of the season. And the approach is as creative as it is comprehensive—she even collaborated with a friend on an “Advent Calendar for Depressed People.” But what appears most often through the 100 or so pages of the workbook is the reassurance that you don’t have to do anything, and you don’t have to worry about doing everything right.
“I’ve internalized this lesson from my mom,” Pecsenye says. “‘If you can’t win, don’t play.’ I just stopped caring. I stopped caring about what people thought about how I did things with my children. That was how I was able to start writing the advice column, too: I don’t care what other people do with their children. What I care about is how they feel about themselves as parents. Are you happy with how you are making these decisions? And I started thinking about Christmas in the same way.”
Her willingness to examine the uglier parts of the holiday season, which initially might feel depressing or difficult, is refreshing—and a welcome reminder that for many, this time of year is a struggle. “If you are in a situation in which you feel like you have to fake it, you can know for sure that a lot of the other people in the room feel like they have to fake it, too,” Pecsenye says.
“I think that saying, ‘This is a really tough time of year because I’m divorced and I never thought I was going to be a single parent, and I feel like I am disappointing my kids’ is very honest, and gives somebody else the space to say, ‘I really miss my mom. She died three years ago and I don’t know if I’m ever going to get over it.’ It gives somebody else the space to say, ‘I grew up in an abusive family and I never had a real Christmas, and I don’t have a real home to go to.’ Everybody’s got pain, and if you can recognize that, then you can all tread gently and make it easier on each other.”
Despite its embrace of heavy subject matter, the workbook isn’t a downer. Part of that is Pecsenye’s wry humor. One of her coping suggestions for people struggling with depression this time of year is: “Stay meta. Understand that everything about this season is an utter fabrication, from the music piped through the sound systems everywhere you go, to the foods we’re supposed to be eating, to the emotions we’re supposed to be feeling, to the relationships we’re supposed to be modeling our relationships after.”
And in fact, there is something freeing and—dare I say—exciting about admitting that the holiday hype is both exhausting and impossible to live up to. Pop culture has understood this fundamental truth for years, Pecsenye says. “Look at the Christmas movies that everybody loves: They’re all about how Christmas is really screwed up. In Home Alone, the whole premise is the nightmare of being alone for Christmas. Or A Christmas Story: It’s about being completely misunderstood by everybody around you. All of these movies are about having a horrible Christmas, because Christmas isn’t the way everybody thinks its supposed to be.”
So what should people do to ensure that their holiday season feels restorative, festive, and right for them? Rather than offering generic how-tos, the workbook presents a menu of options, from emphasizing Advent over Christmas Day, to creating new holiday traditions of your own, along with guided prompts (“During the Christmas season and on Christmas Day, I’d like to feel ______________.”).
Pecsenye advises readers to choose a theme for the season and focus on that exclusively. The theme could be anything—suggestions include everything from “Festivity” to “Luxury” to “Quiet.” Then, she recommends choosing one or two activities that fall under this theme, whether it’s a daily practice or a service project, that will make you feel in control of how you are spending your time and how you’re feeling at the end of the year. The same approach is applied to decorations, daily routines, gift-buying, and your calendar. Before you know it, your holiday season is planned and customized according to your own wishes.
“I love Christmas, and have always loved Christmas,” Pecsenye writes at the end of the workbook. “But I’ve also been the loneliest I’ve ever been and felt like a complete fraud at Christmastime.” Get Christmased is ultimately about making space for the full range of feelings about the holiday season—both good and bad. And in this busy, hectic time of year, that truly feels like a gift.