Holidays With Grace

By Geneen Roth

 

A friend of mine once asked a 6-year-old girl what she wanted to be when she grew up.

"A person with really long arms," the child answered.
"Why?" my friend asked.
"So I can reach across the table and eat all the chocolate chip cookies before my brother gets any."
"So, when you are 25, do you think you will still want all the chocolate chip cookies?"
"Yes," the girl said.
"Do you think that adults want the same things they did when they were children?"
"Absolutely."

When I heard this story, I thought about my friend Minnie who, when I started teaching her to eat intuitively, bought six packages of Sara Lee brownies and ate them all, even though she didn't really like brownies. Why, I then asked, did she choose to gorge on something that didn't even thrill her?

"Because," she said, "I wasn't allowed to eat them when I was a kid, and now that I can eat what I want, I'm making up for lost time."

Makes sense. But only if you believe that you are still that same kid. Only if you believe that you can make up for deprivation in the past by eating everything you want now.

Which brings us to the holiday season, when the child you used to be is in full command, ordering you to give her all the things she wasn't allowed to eat — fruitcake or Sara Lee brownies or sugar cookies with red and green sprinkles or anything else she wants. And while we are eating, we will feel free, which we never truly felt as children because the big people were lording it over us, telling us what to do.

The truth that we didn't want to admit back then is that kids do need adults to set limits, to say, "No, honey, you'll be sick if you eat the whole plate of cookies and then drink three glasses of eggnog." During the holidays, if we make decisions about what to eat based on the desires of the children we were, we get lost and dazed and fatter. It's as if we are possessed by so many desires, memories, and needs from the past that we can't figure out what the adult in us truly wants right then.

Mention the word Christmas or Hanukkah and a panoply of childhood images floods your mind: the food, the family gatherings, the beliefs about what needs to happen to make this a successful holiday. And then of course, there is the current stress — the hours of shopping, cooking, traveling — as you try to make this holiday fit your picture of the perfect celebration. But because nothing in the present moment can actually be perfect, you collapse on the bed exhausted and turn to butter cookies with colored sprinkles for comfort.

Although I realize I am treading on sacred ground here — no one wants to admit that they don't love the holidays as much as they are supposed to — I'd like to express two thoughts that could make you feel less calorically uncomfortable this season.

The first is that if you remember past holidays as perfect and glorious, most likely your brain has chosen to retain the Disney version of events rather than the truth of what really happened. Which is this: During the holidays, someone's feelings always get hurt, someone ends up with a cheap necklace instead of a beautiful amethyst ring, someone walks out in a huff. There is no such thing as an all-good season. We're imperfect beings and mistakes are made.

Don't try for perfection. Do the best you can within your limits and let the rest take care of itself. Despite the voice that tells you otherwise, you are not in control of the immediate universe. And since you can't achieve world domination, maybe you should try to control what you can control, which is what you eat.

My second thought is that you might ask yourself what you want now. If the answer is that you want long arms so that you can grab all the cookies or that you want to hide the plum pudding in your bedroom so you can eat it all before bed tonight, you know that the child in you is directing the show. That child is opening your mouth, putting the food in, grabbing for more.

Take a moment, take 15 moments, and write down some notes about your ideal holiday. Mention people's names and particular things you want to give (and what you'd like to receive). Name the foods you want to have. Now, read over your words and notice where you got those ideas. Are they the longings of a lonely child or of a satisfied adult? Do they resemble feelings you had the year your mother died or the year you got divorced or had your first child?

Notice if what you want now, from this holiday, has to do with this year, or does it relate to a holiday celebration that happened — or that you wish had happened — 20 years ago. Ask yourself if this vision is relevant to your life and desires now. Allow yourself to hear the child in your longing, if she is there. And if your longing is really a child's longing, be tender with that child. But don't confuse her with your adult self.

If, for instance, you find yourself alone one day of the holidays, it doesn't have to mean you are unlovable. A child might equate being alone with being lonely, but you don't have to see it that way. You can be alone and still be aware of the love that is around and in you.

If you are surrounded by people on the holiday, notice their faces, their laughter, their idiosyncrasies, but then also be conscious that you, the adult, may need to take care of yourself in ways that you normally don't when guests are around. You might need to take a walk or a nap. Or push away the last piece of cake. Or not automatically give that last piece away if you really want it.

Holidays can be illuminated, tender, horrible, painful, fragile, glorious times because they exaggerate our longings, our love, our generosity, and our selfishness — and they evoke dreamy dreams of angels and peace and miracles. But if we are aware that the holidays, like life, are often more messy than magical, and if we can combine our childlike longings with the tenderness and power of our adult selves, then we are more likely to ride through this season with a measure of grace in our lives and ease in our bodies. And that's what I call a mini-miracle.

19 responses to “Holidays With Grace

  1. i am in tears reading this months after the holidays. I am just really experiencing the sadness of growing up in a very austere household. My parents adored me, but they were not warm. I longed for warmth. We did not have treats. My mom was a healthy cook and we couldn’t afford junk food. When I visited a friend whose mom made sweet tea and stringy pot roast and homemade chocolate chocolate cookies, I linked scrunchy, warm mothers and schrunchy food. For the time I was eating their food, I felt like I belong and felt connected. I am seeing that what my heart really desires is the feelings of fun, spontaneity and warmth that were in the houses that had “treat” foods. Ever since I had children of my own, I have unconsciously divided foods into treats vs. non-treats, and I want treats. I see now that eating all the treats in the world will not make my mother scrunchy and warm. I am now responsible for providing those experiences for myself in a real way, not through food, which is a trickster. Can’ t keep going to the hardware store for bread. Now, my head understands this, and I am working on getting the information to my body and heart. Thank you, Geneen, for your life’s work. I read Women, Food and God when it first came out and just reread it. I am getting it at a different level and these articles are a lifeline for me. I count on hearing your voice of encouragement. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  2. “It’s as if we are possessed by so many desires, memories, and needs from the past that we can’t figure out what the adult in us truly wants right then.”

    That hit me in a ah-ha moment this morning. A few years ago I had a move that was difficult for me. In that move I gave up a lot. I haven’t stopped eating since. My tasks and daily responsibilities often trigger eating binges that I haven’t been able to explain. Why does a pile of laundry make me want to eat? Why does a long day of running kids around trigger extra portions at dinner. Why? And then it hit me this morning. I gave up a lot and I’m sad. I traded in a lot of things I enjoyed for a lot of things I don’t and I feel trapped and guilty for feeling trapped. Everyday is a food rebellion because I feel I can’t change the circumstances in my life. I allow myself to indulge in my food choices because I don’t allow myself to indulge in my life choices. It’s the one place I allow myself to do whatever the hell I want in the moment. I realize I’m rebelling with food and it is making me sick. I need stop restricting in life and I suspect it will help me stop binging on food.

  3. OH, Geneen. This is exactly what I needed to hear. The child inside me is constantly trying to get even with the adults who restricted her. Christmas is one of the key times when she is in control and wants pay-back. Of course, as an adult woman I am now in charge of the food buying, preparing, freezing, perfecting and presenting – on time on budget on the table and on trend. Each year I dread Christmas more. I would pay big for a pill to take me through the season in a soft pink bubble of sleep. I love you. More power to you. Jxxx

    1. You are so lovely! Thank you – I thought I was odd to want a big soft pink bubble to be in during the holidays! 😀 Well, it can be white, too! As long as I get to be on my own, in peace and quiet. I love our family gatherings, I am always in good mood then, but solitude is soooo lovely!

  4. What a great article! I am ‘digesting’ it now! Thank you Geneen for your words of wisdom and guidance that are always wonderful ‘food for thought’. I hope you have a very happily IMperfect festive season. Greetings from southern Spain.
    Melissa

  5. Very powerful, insightful, wise , compassionate. I need to read this a few times,and write out the answers to the questions. My childhood holidays were messy and wonderful. I miss being with my family of origin, even though I know there is arguing, and tension. It’s my belief that we are suppose to be together and something is wrong with me and or them that we are not. I have yet to make my own tradition. Holidays have been painful many times these last number of years. Thank you Geneen.

  6. Thank you, again and again. I could feel a part of me relax, that I didn’t know was very tense!
    Have a past, live your kindest (to yourself) present!
    Hugs,
    Gratitude,
    Nan

  7. This holiday I’m not going to exhaust myself by cooking a magazine cover-quality meal. I’m going to prepare something simple and delicious, not try to impress anyone, and not spend the rest of the day cleaning up.

  8. Yes I admit my inner child does run the show when it comes to what I eat. It’s hard for me to turn down sweets at a Christmas Party. Any recommendations on what to say to one’s self after the feeling of fullness has set in?

  9. Thank you! Is a beautiful meditation that Madrazo me go insiste and realize that the Christmas is not outside of us bit índice we nenes to work in ourselves in ordene to get the wanted happines. The food musa not gibe me that.

    Regards

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