It’s become an almost ubiquitous and unquestioned truth that the holidays are a stressful time of year. Especially where I live—in New York City—it seems that there’s a Fast Forward button that we all press as the holidays round the corner. Generally rushed New Yorkers become frantic, their interactions even more brusque. The already busy streets are filled with perpetually in the way out-of-towners rushing to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, or standing in line at Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes. And this general anesthetization during the holidays—which usually happens through mindless commercialization, a grin and bear it attitude during familial obligations, all to block out the acerbic loneliness eating a hole through our collective stomach lining—well, it seems that it’s really overpowered the spirit of the holidays.
Or is that the script we’ve been writing?
I came across a study published by Take 5 Media Company the other day that polled 1200 people throughout the United States to find out where they stand on the holidays. It confirmed the general storyline: that about 64% of the people polled were stressed about the holidays for financial reasons—“the holidays remind me of how broke I am”; over-commercialization came in second (42%) and loneliness, third (30%).
And what do people do to relax when they’re stressed? You guessed it: in every age category except for 45-54 (exercising) and 65-74 (petting animals), the #1 preferred method of relaxation is to check out on the couch and watch Netflix. In fact, only one age category (55-64) chose a non-solitary, interactive way of unwinding—by calling a friend—and they ranked it last. While we’re on the topic of friends, however, I thought it important to note that—well, it seems Americans aren’t huge fans of their families: people in twice as many states said they’d rather spend the holidays with their friends.
This doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture: stressed out people who’d rather be someplace else, crammed on the couch, watching Netflix and thinking about the amount of credit card debt they accrued in a Sisyphean attempt to make everyone happy. Call me an optimist, but I’d like to think that we haven’t all become impervious to the holiday charm—to the lovely tree markets perfuming the sidewalks, the blanket of snow adding a sparkle to the air, an opportunity to catch up with the people we love, and the chance for a fresh start to the New Year.
Since my job for the last three years has been to talk to strangers and listen to things they’ve never told anyone else, it felt like a good idea to extend Craigslist Confessional to the streets of New York City and get the details straight from the horse’s mouth: do people really hate the holidays? Are they as stressed out as myriad studies would have us believe? And if they are—well, why? Seriously. Be honest. It’s anonymous.
Before I tell you what I found, I’ll tell you first about my methods. Over dinner, I recruited my husband Alex and his best friend from middle school, Ness—who was visiting from Eugene, Oregon, possibly the friendliest place on Earth. They helped me hatch a plan. I told them about what I wanted to do: ask New Yorkers, notorious for speed walking and avoiding eye contact, to stop and talk to us on the street. To avoid getting answers just from the inhabitants of one tiny neighborhood in the island of Manhattan, we figured we’d try our luck the next day in front of the Metropolitan Museum, where we might also run into some tourists.
We walked over while Ness rehearsed his pitch (“Hi, I’m Ness, like the Loch Ness Monster,”) and I divvied up the cards and pens. We decided that we would ask two questions: how do you feel about the holidays? (and any other questions that would naturally segue from that) and what’s a secret that you can’t tell your family and friends about during the holidays? The second question, inspired by Craigslist Confessional, was meant to get to this sentiment: a lot of people feel lonely during the holidays because they feel the need to feed into the zeitgeist of happiness enjoyed by everyone else. Whatever may be weighing on them is out of bounds, and therefore might seem even more painful. I was curious to see how many people would be willing to share by writing their answers on the back of the note card and discreetly placing them in my ballot box/shopping bag.
I stood in front of the steps while the guys flanked me. We were mostly stationary and tried to ask a diverse group of people. When possible, we got state/country of origin and age range. The experience was meant to be anecdotal rather than scientific—so we tried to have fun with it and engage as many people as we could. About three hours and a hundred people later, this is what we found:
The vast majority of the people we interviewed (about 60%) are excited about the holidays and reported not feeling stressed out at all. Most of them said they looked forward to spending time with family. A woman in her twenties told me she particularly loves the gift sharing aspect of the holidays—“I actually just bought something for my mom,” she said, pointing to the bag she had in tow. A man in his sixties disagreed: he told me that he loves the holidays but hates the gifts—“like my daughter says, do we need more bath salts?”
Two ladies in their fifties shared their theory: the older you get, the less stressed out you feel. “You just learn to manage your expectations and your money better,” one said, while the other told me about Santa Saver, a program at her bank that pools money into a separate savings account during the year that she can only access during the holidays. A couple in their seventies agreed: “We love the holidays; it’s the happiest time of the year, and I think that’s because we don’t have to worry about money as much, and we can afford to buy everyone a gift.”
But about 30% said they felt pretty stressed out—a woman in her eighties told Alex that the holidays had crept up on her and she hadn’t had a chance to prepare; a Texan female in her twenties said she was too broke to buy gifts this year, and that stressed her out; a New Yorker told him that she was stressed about people coming to the city and the trains getting busier, and therefore, less safe. A woman in her thirties told me that she loves the holidays—it’s her favorite time of the year—but it’s also her busiest time at work. Even at work, she told me, she’s expected to get gifts for her coworkers, and “it’s a huge financial stress.”
The rest—about 10%—said they felt pretty ambivalent about the holidays. A male in his thirties said that he loves the social aspect of the holidays but that the commercial hype makes him disinterested. A Jewish woman in her twenties said that she doesn’t do gifts and is generally completely unfazed by the holidays. An older distinguished-looking gentleman told me he’s going to pretend the holidays don’t exist this year. Why? “Well, my wife just passed away. They’re pretty unbearable without her.”
It seemed that everyone mentioned holidays and gifts in the same breath—inseparably, and almost always as a source of their holiday disenchantment. Those who did partake in gift exchanging and looked forward to it tended to mention a huge caveat: online shopping helped alleviate the stress, and so did spending caps. Not one person we encountered was stressed out about spending time with family: in fact, everyone seemed to rather look forward to it, even if one person did add that “not too much family time” was key.
And how did we fare with secrets? Pretty well, as it turns out. Someone had cheekily scrawled “I love nude dance parties” in large, rolling print.
Someone else wrote: “I want to move to Italy in a few years, and live in Rome.”
“I hate my job.”
“An open secret: I can’t wait for a new President.”
“I am hopelessly jealous of my best friend. I secretly wish her marriage fails.”
“I am still kind of in love with Julian* (*name has been changed), my ex-husband’s nephew.”
“I am from Tibet and I hate the Chinese for what they’ve done to my country. Whenever I serve someone who is Chinese, I’m tempted to get creative with the food. But I don’t. Someone has to take the high road.”
And the one that really resonated with the three of us:
“Trying to recreate holidays away from home is actually the only thing getting me through finals this year. I miss my family so much.”
We found the people around us to be surprisingly cerebral and optimistic, and for the most part, willing to talk and openly share. We were all pleasantly surprised by the results of our impromptu poll. It seems that—stripped of great expectations—the holidays are generally a pleasant time of year for most of the people we encountered. One person said it best, “I look at it this way: the outcomes are the square root of expectations. So I’ve learned to manage my expectations and enjoy the people who matter: my family and friends.”