De-Cluttering Holiday Traditions

Marie Kondo has a famous question that many people use when they are de-cluttering their homes and deciding whether or not to keep an item: “Does it spark joy?”

How many of us have holiday traditions that may have sparked joy once upon a time… until they became an expected and joyless chore? Are these traditions adding to and enriching our lives? If not, perhaps it is time to de-clutter them.

When I was a new teacher, I carefully and lovingly wrote out holiday greeting cards to every member of my school staff, in addition to mailing cards to all of my friends and family members. It felt wonderful to take the time to record special things that I appreciated about each person, and to thank them for the positive impact they were having on my life. I made myself a nice little checklist of everyone with whom I worked. This simple act of gratitude took about four minutes per card, and it made me feel incredibly happy. It filled my heart, helped me to watch for the best in my colleagues, and truly sparked joy.

After a few years, it became my tradition, and as I took on more tasks leading up to the holiday season, I found it harder and harder to complete the cards on my checklist, not just for staff members but also for friends and family members. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the cards had stopped sparking joy and had become a chore that I felt obligated to complete.

One year, I only had time to deliver about half of my cards to staff mailboxes before the morning bell rang, and could not complete my deliveries until my afternoon break. On my way to the staff mailboxes to deliver the remainder of my cards that afternoon, I overheard a colleague complaining to another colleague about not having received a card. He was bitter because he felt that I was “playing favourites and obviously had no respect for him”. I felt devastated and confused by his interpretation of events.

It was at that moment that I really stopped to reconsider my card tradition. Something that had once sparked joy and added to my spiritual and mental health was now apparently creating hurt feelings, and I was frankly resentful about his reaction to not receiving a card. Nobody likes to feel as though their efforts are being taken for granted.

Sadly, when the kind things we do for others become expected, they are often no longer appreciated or valued. Equally sad is the way in which doing kind things can lose their appeal once we feel obligated to do them.

This unexpected remark by a colleague prompted me to ask myself some tough questions. Why was I spending so much of my time writing cards for people? Was it really about sharing my love and gratitude at this point, or merely about a sense of social obligation and people-pleasing? Was I actually experiencing any of the happiness I had once felt when I started my card tradition? What else could I be doing with this precious time? How else could I incorporate gratitude in a way that did not cause my hand to cramp up and my tendonitis to flare?

The truth is that holiday greeting cards are not a bad thing in and of themselves. Taking a moment to share love and gratitude is always a good thing, and if that takes the form of a greeting card, then so be it. If writing cards still sparks joy in your heart, then you should do it. The real lesson here is to give ourselves permission to let go of that which no longer serves us. Sometimes it takes an unkind remark to wake us up to what really matters.

In my current life, I buy or make just a few select holiday cards. I no longer have a must-write checklist of colleagues, friends, and family. Willow and I send cards to the people that we truly want to receive our messages of love and gratitude. We don’t stress about the rest. Willow is not being raised to believe in obligatory card-sending as a non-negotiable holiday social expectation. She gives cards from her heart, and they mean so much more as a result.