Women, the magic elves of Christmas . . . but no pressure

Xmas stressYesterday while waiting in line at the post office, I did an unofficial count: nine out of the ten customers ahead of me were women.

There we were, each weighed down with packages to ship to far-flung family members. I’m going to go out on an evergreen limb here and guess that these women were also the ones who had chosen and wrapped the presents in question.

I’m also speculating they were the ones who hung the stockings by the chimney with care and baked cookies for their children’s class party. And figured out workarounds for everyone’s dietary allergies for the Christmas menu. And remembered every December morning to stick each child’s piece of candy in the Advent calendar, because the kids  weren’t going to get nearly enough sugar the rest of the day.

In any case, we all had one thing in common: we looked very tired.

Last night one of my cousins posted on Facebook that she was sick of worrying about getting the perfect  present for everyone and just wanted to skip the “Santa crap” to get to what is at the heart of Christmas for her: Family and Mass.

I think a lot of women can relate. It’s not that we don’t love Christmas. We do, or most of us do. But the holiday comes with more baggage than Santa’s laden sleigh—the struggle to create the perfect Christmas (or to be perceived by others as having created the perfect Christmas), the worries about money and overscheduled calendars, the 11:59 Christmas Eve struggle to put together the ^^*(%#ing toy train set so it will be just right a few hours later when the youngest family members tear downstairs.

And it’s not that men don’t help with Christmas. Most do, in my experience. But there seems to be an unspoken and unwritten rule in even the most feminist-forward households that Women Are in Charge of Christmas. Women are the wonder-makers, the elves. We may delegate some responsibilities, but the red-nosed buck stops with us.

For me the stress results in a desire to slip away for a mug of hot chocolate, a good novel, and my annual Christmas Day nap—the only problem being that I want to do this routine every afternoon from about December 10 to January 1.

My girlfriends and I feel a good deal of pressure this time of year. Everywhere there are reminders that the yuletide clock is ticking—only six more shopping days till Christmas!—and we’ve yet to find the right gift for a teenage nephew or figure out the sleeping arrangements for all the guests who are coming to stay.

I just rediscovered something funny and true in this vein, from Rachel Held Evans’s excellent memoir A Year of Biblical Womanhood. It gets to the heart of what many women are feeling right about now when—did we mention?—there are only six shopping days left until Christmas.

There seems to be some kind of universal agreement that the advances achieved through women’s liberation need not apply during the holidays. It’s as though the first trumpet peals of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” sent blasting over the PA at Bed, Bath & Beyond are designed to trigger an internal short that shocks us all into Stepford mode, donning aprons and strained smiles and sweaters that have no business surviving another decade.

From the baking aisle to the post office line to the wrapping paper bin in the attic, women populate every forgotten corner of Christmas. Who got up at 4 a.m. to put the ham in the oven? A woman. Who elbowed you for the last reindeer pillow pet left on the shelf? A woman. Who sent the Christmas card describing her eighteen-year-old son’s incarceration as a “short break before college”? A woman. Who remembered to include batteries at the bottom of each stocking? A woman. And who gets credit for pulling it all off?


That’s right. A man.


P.S. If you haven’t read A Year of Biblical Womanhood, it might make the perfect gift for someone on your Christmas list now that THERE ARE ONLY SIX SHOPPING DAYS LEFT TILL CHRISTMAS.

As for me, I’m off to bake four dozen muffins for a faculty luncheon. Don’t ask.




  1. Maybe I’m one of the weird ones, but my wife and I both do shopping for Christmas. What makes it interesting is that we often do not discuss with each other what we are purchasing for the children, but put our heads together at the last minute to make sure there is a measure of equity in it all.

    We both perform the requisite tasks of elves. This year it fell to me to remember our December 6 observance of St. Niklaus Day. (I had gone to bed first that night and reminded my wife to set things out after the girls had gone to sleep, except our oldest outlasted her and she forgot; fortunately I checked the shoes before leaving the house. German households will understand.)

    We both wrap presents, albeit her precision and dedication to avoid the tearing of paper far exceeds my prowess at the task.

    Either of us may be found at the post office, albeit she would probably assign it as my permanent task if I weren’t working during the day.

    To the extent that there is cooking or baking, she definitely does most if not all. And everyone is happier that way. My contributions along those lines tend to be the grocery shopping, particularly if Costco is involved. I also mash the potatoes and carve things which require carving.

    Due to the very specific ornament placement criteria which I am convinced that not even a NASA scientist could comply with, my wife and daughters handle the decoration of the tree without me, except to employ my height to affix the star to the top of the tree, and to wrap lights around it.

  2. Lucky me, my gourmet chef son wakes up at 4 to put the turkey in the oven, my husband makes our ward-famous neighbor gifts of homemade toffee. My husband and I tend to go shopping together to stay on the same page. I’m sure I still do some things I could cut back on, but I feel like this year, I’ve figured out how to keep it a little calmer. And part of that is the housecleaning service I hired!

  3. It’s true. The men of my family are very involved, but ultimately it’s the women who make holidays happen with our clan. My mother, a self proclaimed feminist and university professor, always told me from a young age as we decorated the house or made our special holiday foods, “Women are the keepers of tradition.” It’s a nice sentiment, and at times I find myself agreeing with it both as a battlecry and as a sigh of malcontent depending on context, but golly it’s hard work…

  4. I am guilty as charged. If it was not for my dedicated wife, Christmas would have been very plain for our family. God bless kind and devoted women everywhere.

  5. This isn’t particularly true for me and my husband. I don’t decorate a stitch of the house, never send holiday cards, and I’m horrible at planning presents. He’s far more prepared in that realm and gives gifts very readily. My house was always beautifully decorated growing up, but I’ve felt no need to do the same.
    I think a lot of the elf gender-divide possibly stems from existing divisions– that those who cook for Christmas are the primary cooks anyway, those who go shopping do that most weeks… no matter who hosts the guests, they’d be the host any other time of year. I think it’s a symptom of a larger structure that is just more noticeable during holiday craziness.

  6. There are enough bad things in the world, that we don’t need hyperbole to get annoyed with injustice.

    Santa gets no credit for Christmas dinner, for singing carols, for the decorated tree. Santa gets whatever credit he’s given, in each individual family. In our home growing up, that was “Santa sacks” – new toothbrushes and underwear, a magazine, edible treats and a toy or two. Definitely not the big present.

    We were all well aware of who did the baking, decorating, big-gift-buying, etc. If you don’t like the amount of credit Santa receives in your home, that’s rather easily remedied, I would think.

    As far as the “women are the keepers of tradition” goes, I agree and often feel the beauty and irritation behind this sentiment. In relationships, the one who cares the least has the most leverage/power. In our home, the ones who care the most about Christmas being special put in most of the work to make it so. (That would be me and my youngest sister). The others (mother, other sister, two brothers) are perfectly content with mediocre, and tend to be less high-strung about it, but I would rather be stressed than be okay with a crappy Christmas.

  7. Today, I went to the beachfront withh my kids.I found a sea shell aand gave itt to my
    4 yewar old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell
    to her ear and screamed. Thhere wwas a hermkit crab inside and it pnched her ear.
    She never wants too go back! LoL I know this is entirely off
    topic but I hhad tto tell someone!

  8. I found this post while Google searching for links on the pressure Christmas puts on women and loved it. I am not religious but I still agree that family and whatever religious meaning your family has for this season (Hanukkah, Solstice, etc) are the core of the holiday and all the additional frippery presents additional work for those of us doing the emotional labor of the household. Thank you so much for creating and sharing and reminding us to focus on what’s meaningful!

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