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Why you shouldn't feel guilty for skipping holiday traditions

As we proceed through December, let's be free of what other people think we should be doing to make the season bright, though if there's something on your "never done" list that you'd like to do, there's still time to do it.

Photo Credit: Doug Young

I have never baked holiday cookies.

There. I’ve said it. Never, not once, as best I can recall, have I participated in one of the greatest of our nation’s traditions, a dereliction of tradition that feels as un-American as Vladimir Putin.

It’s my holiday shame.

What’s yours? The thing you think you should do to show that you’re in happy sync with the season? The thing other people would be astonished to know you’ve never done?

Or to put it another way: What’s the holiday thing you’ve never done that other people imagine your holiday is incomplete without because theirs would be incomplete without it?

I’m no holiday Grinch. I like the season and believe in traditions. They’re a way of connecting us to each other and to the past, and if the festivity sometimes feels forced, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When holiday traditions work right, they give us a nudge to pause in the frenzy and savor the little things, like — just guessing — cookie dough and green frosting.

Because I believe in holiday rituals, I usually put up a Christmas tree. It’s a small one, shorter than I am. Although I like seeing the towering trees that I glimpse through the windows of strangers, I don’t want a Christmas tree that takes more work to erect than a skyscraper.

My holiday philosophy: If you love it, do it. If you don’t, don’t feel obligated.

And if you haven’t done it, don’t feel ashamed, no matter how many people give you a look soggy with pity and say, “Really? You’ve never done that? But it’s so much fun!”

On Tuesday, I asked my Facebook friends for the the holiday “fun” they’ve never had and may feel a little embarrassed to admit. The answers, from people of various ages, genders and family status, covered a wide field:

Never hung stockings.

Never been to the Walnut Room.

Never been to an ugly-sweater party.

Never made a gingerbread house.

Never ate chestnuts or watched “Miracle on 34th Street.”

Never watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” in its entirety.

Never been caroling.

Never made a standing rib roast, or any fancy cut of meat.

Forgot to have my kids (twins so it would be at the same time) sit on Santa’s lap to get that photo of them sitting on a strange, old man’s lap while sobbing.

Never saw “Messiah” or “The Nutcracker.”

Being of Swedish descent, I’ve never had lutefisk. Nor do I want to.

A friend who is Jewish answered my query by noting that she never “hankered much for the trappings of Christmas,” but, she added, “just between you and me, I always wondered about that waking-up-Christmas-morning feeling. Never had that experience.”

Some respondents said they wouldn’t mind doing the thing they hadn’t done. Others were proud of having resisted the call to conformity. A few felt the pressure of not having met holiday muster.

“I think the shame is related to a feeling of obligation,” says the woman quoted above, mother of two young daughters, who has never prepared a fancy cut of meat at Christmas. “You feel like you’re supposed to be doing all these things because the culture says you are. But you simply don’t want to do some of them, which runs afoul of your deeply ingrained need as a human to be a part of things.”

I trace my holiday cookie dereliction, like all my culinary deficiencies, back to my mother. A few years ago, inspired by the relentless media stories on memorable holiday meals, I wrote a column on her forgettable holiday meals.

She was with me when I wrote it, visiting in Chicago, and I can still see how hard she laughed as we recalled the marvelously mediocre Christmas meals she cooked for our family of 10. Sitting down together at the table mattered; what was on the plates not so much. We had fun anyway.

And my mother did not bake cookies, which may explain why I didn’t inherit the sense of cookie-baking as a vital part of the holidays.

As we proceed through December, let’s be free of what other people think we should be doing to make the season bright, though if there’s something on your “never done” list that you’d like to do, there’s still time to do it.

I’d recommend the Joffrey Ballet’s version of “The Nutcracker.” Hold the lutefisk.

Mary Schmich wrote this piece for the Chicago Tribune.

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