steve ivory (2014)

Steven Ivory

*There is crazy in the air.

You can feel it. Smell it. It reeks of, “I know it’s last minute, but we thought we’d come visit you guys for Christmas. We’re staying at your place…” Or: “I thought you said you were bringing the yams…” It’s the angst-filled declaration, “I can’t deal with this….”

For me, insanity has the distinct, surreal redolence of Mrs. Field’s cookies. More than 20 years later, I still recall the intoxicating aroma of her dough baking as I stood in the middle of West Hollywood’s Beverly Center mall and noticed retailer after retailer get its last customer out of their store, lock the doors, lower their security gate and turn out the lights. The mall was closing. Oh, no.

I’d taken two crowded escalators up from a multi-level parking garage filled to capacity. On every level I drove in search of parking, there were drivers arguing with one another from car windows while others honked their horns, battling over spaces they all insisted they “saw first.”

Inside the bustling mall, I held tight to the concept that I could do all my Christmas shopping in one day.

I might have succeeded had I not started at three PM on Christmas eve. Five PM came too soon. The Beverly Center slowly began folding up around us and shoppers began to lose it.

Initially, some of us sheepishly shook our heads at those shoppers running to reach different stores before they went dark. But the sight of frantic, anxiety-filled human beings spooked others and they, too, began to panic.

A voice in the crowd pointed out that Bloomingdales, a world away at the other end of the mall, still had its lights on; shoppers tried to make it there. Inside a little junk shop, I anxiously looked over merchandise like someone in search of their car keys, threatening to buy as gifts stuff that would not have cut it as party favors.

Finally, the sight of a woman having a conniption on the floor of the mall did more than tell me it was time to go; ultimately, the entire experience made me vow to never do any of it again.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year can be just that. However, it can also be filled with pain, guilt, remorse, loneliness and dysfunction du jour.

I call it Christmas Crazy: people, places, things and situations that were fucked up to begin with, during the holidays are slathered with an added emotional glaze.

Thus, what began as a quaint, sentimental conversation with a sibling about the good ol’ days becomes an argument over who did more for Mom; who will contribute a holiday dinner’s side dish becomes a pawn in an ugly, emotional game of self-importance.

Make no mistake, there is a vortex of family and/or friendship shit that will somehow find you and, before you know it, suck you in whole.

And you don’t have to buy into or put up with any of it.

I’ve found the best way to beat holiday stress is to simply avoid it. This can be difficult—-like saying no to that third piece of pumpkin pie-—but it can be done. One way you do it is by making a plan.

Say you want your holiday season to be festivity-filled. Don’t count on the party to come to your door. Don’t wait for folks to come up with stuff, and don’t plan your fun with a known flake. Instead, take responsibility for your good time: Literally design your holiday season. Outline your activities and do them with family or friends with whom you enjoy spending time.

Then again, perhaps you’d rather not do anything for the holidays. You just wanna lay low and veg. If that’s how you truly feel–and aren’t secretly hoping someone will rescue you from a season-long pity party–then draw up a plan. There are some wonderful times to be had doing absolutely nothing.

Let folks know you’re not doing ANYTHING. It’s important that you don’t allow yourself to be “guilted” into doing what you don’t want to do. You don’t have to float with someone else’s of a good time, like a boat adrift at sea.

Don’t think you have to hang out with people or do things simply because THEY say it’s what you’re supposed to do during the holidays, or because they are family.

Next time you say you can’t understand why Shalamar never got back together, consider forcing yourself through yet another holiday meal with a family member you don’t exactly hate, but have ceased to get along with. Yeah. You get it now, right? Just say no.

That’s what I did. After that shopping debacle years ago, I decided I’d no longer give or receive gifts for Christmas. Sounds extreme, but it wasn’t simply a matter of starting the shopping earlier; the process always stressed me out.

So I stopped it. It took a couple of years for family and friends to “get” it, but they all found a way to strike me off their lists.

Moreover, I decided I’d no longer get all caught up in doing things in the name of the holiday season simply because others felt that’s what I should do. For me, that meant communicating clearly how I feel about doing this, going there, etc.

I used to be vague. “Well, maybe I might join you guys…” No more of that. After consideration, it’s either yes or no. And with my decision there is no guilt. None.

I’ve learned how to truly enjoy the holidays for what I believe they’re supposed to be about—compassion, joy, laughter, reflection and gratitude for the good that we have and are, with the vow to be better in the coming days and years.

This holiday season, do whatever you want to do. Just make certain it’s what you want to do.

As for Black Friday, I’ve redefined it. I’m Black. It’s Friday. I’m good.

Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]