Leigh Munchak is the only person in her family who likes the pearl onion and cream sauce. She makes it every year on Christmas because, what the hell, she deserves it. So two years ago — when she dropped the sauce before serving Christmas dinner to 14 members of her family, shattering the porcelain gravy boat and flinging hot cream all over the floor, causing her mother to slip and fall on the kitchen tile — it felt like a real holiday low point.
Munchak always hosts Christmas at her home in Silver Spring, Md. When her family comes over in the morning, she’ll have a bagel spread at the ready, with fresh lox and an assortment of cream cheeses. Dinner consists of six or seven dishes, many of which have already had a pre-Christmas “trial run.” At the end of the night, Munchak usually ends up back in the kitchen: The holiday meal is always served on the “nice china” — and the nice china needs to be hand-washed.
Munchak realizes this is all a bit over the top, she says as she stuffs a plush snowman into a gift bag with some tissue paper. And this year she really is trying to do less. In lieu of her traditional oven-roasted turkey, for example, her husband will be grilling steaks.
Still, not all that much will change. She will continue to host what she calls the “full, formal Christmas dinner,” complete with maple-glazed carrots and a homemade chocolate tart. She’ll still have the 8-foot live Christmas tree, the 11 homemade stockings for immediate and extended family hanging from the mantle. She’ll still send the 65 Christmas cards: a process that began in early November, when she carted her red-and-green-clad children to their 20-minute woodland session with a professional photographer.
In 2017, HuffPost published an article titled, “Holiday Magic Is Made By Women. And It’s Killing Us,” arguing that women put a disproportionate amount of emotional labor into making the holidays “magical” — and suffer because of it. The piece went viral. It’s now a holiday-fixture on social media, popping back up around this time every year.
The article paints a pretty bleak picture of women at the holidays: Consumed by pressure to achieve perfectionism in the form of hand-stitched table runners and freshly baked gingerbread, the author, Gemma Hartley, suggests, women may experience heightened levels of anxiety, depression, even thoughts of self-harm. The piece leaves the reader asking the obvious question: If women are so stressed out by holiday work — 44 percent of women report higher stress levels over the holidays, compared to just 31 percent of men — then why do we keep doing it?
The pressure to “make memories” is a big part of it, says Sara Hashem Liles, an English and drama teacher based in Rockville, Md. This year, Sara and her wife, Kinda, paid almost $200 to take their two sons to the Polar Express train ride at the B&O Railway Museum in Baltimore. Just like in the book, kids board the train in pajamas to sip hot chocolate served by waiters in white chef’s hats.
“I just wanted them to have the experience,” said Hashem Liles. “[Our 2-year-old] won’t remember it, but our [6-year-old] definitely will.”
Heather Taylor, from Huntsville, Ala., takes at least one “Christmas-themed vacation” with her kids every year. One year, they went to the Smoky Mountains. Another year, they drove to Dahlonega, Ga., the backdrop for multiple Hallmark holiday movies. They always do a few smaller trips, too: walking the “tinsel trail” that leads to all the best lights around Huntsville, or visiting their local “Santa’s Village.”
“I think our day-to-day life is just so hectic, things are of course a little tense sometimes,” says Kinda Hashem Liles. “It’s nice to replace some of those not so great memories of fussing and yelling with solid, good memories of this time of year.”
It can feel especially important to provide children with “traditions” that become part of the holiday every year, says Leslie Bella, author of “The Christmas Imperative: Leisure, Family, and Women’s Work.” Christmas is prime time for what Bella called “family-making.”
Holiday rituals “demonstrate that we care for each other, and that this caring has permanence, history, and a pattern that will persist,” Bella told The Washington Post. “It shows that we are all bound together.”
Ruken Isik, from Rockville, Md., just doesn’t want her kids to feel like they’re missing out. She immigrated to the U.S. 13 years ago from Turkey. Isik was raised Muslim, but has decided against raising her kids with any religion. Now her 6-year-old son, who attends a public elementary school, regularly comes home with various Christmas-related instructions. This year, he told Isik, “We need to make gingerbread cookies for Santa.”
“I’m like, ‘Sure, I’ll do that,’” she says. “When he grows up, I want him to have these memories. I don’t want him to say, ‘We didn’t have this,’ or ‘We didn’t have that.’”
The pressure to make holiday magic can be especially intense for women with parents — especially mothers — who were expert holiday-magic-makers themselves. Munchak’s mom always made a big Christmas meal for the whole family, Munchak says. She’s sure that’s at least part of why she’s so determined to do the same thing.
Sara Hashem Liles’s parents were always “good at Santa,” she said. All Santa’s presents would be wrapped in the same wrapping paper, distinct from all the other gifts, and addressed in handwriting that could not be easily traced back to her parents. Every year, they would take her to see a special Santa in downtown Richmond, who somehow always knew Sara’s name.
“It was just a really happy time for me,” she said, “and so I want to do that for our kids.”
But it’s not all for the kids, says Hashem Liles: She devotes a lot of time to Christmas because it’s fun. She starts listening to Christmas music a few weeks before Thanksgiving and has a long list of Christmas movies she insists on watching every year.
“I am Clark Griswald,” she says. (Her must-see list includes National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation.”) “He is me, I am him.”
For Kinda, who works as an event planner, certain holiday-related tasks are a source of pride. She knows she’s good at designing stationery, so she always handles the cards, spending hours playing with layouts online. At the height of her “Pinterest phase,” she says, she made holiday “goodie baskets,” each with its own set of cookies, chocolate-covered apricots, and homemade brown sugar sugar scrub — all wrapped in plastic with custom-made labels and fonts.
“Yeah, we realized we went a little overboard that year,” Kinda said.
Favorite holiday tasks generally seem to break down along gender lines: Almost all the women in heterosexual partnerships who I interviewed said their male partners had “their own thing” in the holiday prep process — and consistently, that “thing” was the outside lights.
“I don’t really know why that is,” says Munchak. “It’s just something my husband really cares about and wants to get right.”
Taylor’s husband is responsible for all outside lights and “inflatables,” Taylor said, of which they have many. She doesn’t want to be anywhere near him as he hauls their 12-foot Snoopy-on-an-airplane onto the roof.
But while male partners might take responsibility for certain holiday tasks, women said, the majority of the emotional labor — the work that goes into making sure everyone is happy — always seems to fall on them.
“My husband is perfectly happy to help out on the things he deems necessary, but while he doesn’t necessarily think I’m going overboard, he does think a lot of it is unnecessary,” says Munchak.
Sometimes she wonders if there’s a point to all the work she does. “I’m like, ‘Do I really need to be doing this? Are people actually enjoying this?”
Then her 4-year-old son runs into the room and asks if he can wrap some presents.
“This one is for [my brother],” he says, carefully affixing a shiny gold bow to the paper. “I readed his name.” He skips off to put the present under the tree.
“I mean, look at that,” she says. “This is why I can’t give it all up.”
So as Munchak whittles down her holiday to-do list, she’ll probably keep buying and wrapping presents. Other items, though, she can definitely do without. Like maybe it’s time to forgo the fine china.
At the very least, she says, this year everyone will wash their own plate.