The holiday season can be wonderful, giving people an excuse to decorate their homes with color during the dreary winter days, give gifts to loved ones, show appreciation to those who help us, demonstrate generosity or service to those in need, eat favorite foods, share traditions, and spend time with family and friends. There is a lot to love about December.
Of course, there is also a lot of stress during the holiday season, as all of those special activities require time, effort, and often money to pull off. I recently saw a meme that said, “It’s time to switch from my everyday anxiety to my fancy Christmas anxiety.” Indeed, many people are feeling stressed as they struggle to fit in holiday shopping, card mailing, cookie baking, concert attending, school celebrations, hosting, gift wrapping, and other activities into already-busy lives.
While holiday stress is common, those of us living with a chronic condition such as rheumatoid arthritis/rheumatoid disease (RA/RD) often experience a whole other level of emotions during the holiday season. The pain, inflammation, and fatigue that come with RA/RD can make keeping up with everyday life a struggle. Therefore, while adding extra activities can be anxiety-producing for a healthy person, this can be flare-inducing and even downright impossible for a person with RA/RD. Sometimes, we just can’t do it all.
Holiday season guilt
This is a harsh reality for me, as I am often guilty of setting expectations for myself that can be dangerously high. When it comes to the holiday season, I want my children to have the wonderful traditions that I benefited from participating in as a child, I want to help those who are less fortunate, I want all those who help me throughout the year to know how much I appreciate them, I want to open my home to friends and family, and I want to give meaningful gifts to the ones I love most. That’s a pretty tall order.
Over the nearly two decades I’ve been diagnosed with RA/RD, I haven’t gotten much better at lowering my expectations. Instead, I’ve found ways to share the work. For instance, I host our extended family for Christmas Eve, but I order prepared food so that I don’t have to cook. I also pay to have the house cleaned so that I’m not putting extra pressure on my joints by sweeping and vacuuming in preparation for guests. I enlist my husband’s help in giftwrapping (and deal with the fact that he and I have different standards when it comes to wrapping presents), and I have my children put address labels and stamps on Christmas cards. I prefer to shop at local stores when possible, and have found that many of them have websites from which I can shop online and then just pick the items up, without having to spend all that time on my feet in the store selecting gifts. I also request gift wrapping services whenever they are free of charge.
More important than sharing the work, however, has been setting firm boundaries. When we first moved into a house large enough to accommodate our extended family, we hosted both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. While it should have been fun to fill my decorated house with loved ones, I was miserable. I was able to have the house ready and food heated (again, I order prepared food to cut down on the work) for Christmas Eve, and we had a lovely evening. However, early the next morning we awoke to excited kids anxious to discover what Santa had brought them. Far worse than a lump of coal, I realized I’d been given a terrible activity hangover from hosting the night before. Yet I had to push through the fatigue, inflammation, and achiness to get the discarded wrapping paper and bows picked up, the tables set, and Christmas dinner ready. It was hard to experience much holiday cheer.
The next year I told our extended family that we would love to host Christmas Eve, but that Christmas Day my husband, kids, and I would enjoy a quiet day at home. Every year since, that’s just what we do. We stay in our jammies as long as we like, we make a simple brunch when we feel like it, the kids play with toys all morning while I enjoy a mimosa, we watch a Christmas movie, take a nap, and if I’m feeling up for it, we go for a walk. It’s a relaxed, unplanned day that enables me to recover from the weeks of frenzied Christmas preparations.
Having a quiet day in the midst of the holiday hubbub has been so enjoyable, we’ve extended it to New Year’s Eve as well. Several years ago we attended a New Year’s Eve party. As I was getting the kids dressed, trying to get my covered dish travel-ready, and sticking bottles of champagne under my arms to head out the door, I felt exhausted, swollen, and slow. I love all the people who were at the party, but I couldn’t enjoy being with them because the fatigue was overwhelming. The following year, we declined invitations and instead spent New Year’s Eve in. Our new tradition is that we buy favorite finger foods (shrimp cocktail, crackers and cheese, etc.), set the table with pretty dishes, dress up as we see fit (my daughter often opts for a dance costume while last year my son was Zorro), and we celebrate the new year with sparkling grape juice (for the kids) and champagne (for us) while having a quiet night at home.
While these relaxed holidays at home are just what I need to survive the festivities while contending with RA/RD, it wasn’t easy to carve them out. I had to tell our family and friends that we wouldn’t be seeing them, and I have had to repeat this over the years. It can be uncomfortable, and sometimes people are disappointed or vexed. However, it’s worth getting to rest so that I can actually enjoy the holidays, while creating some special traditions with my husband and kids in the process. I’ve found that living with RA/RD means I can’t always do all that I want to do. However, every once in a while, coping with this disease helps me create something even better than what I’d thought I’d wanted.