‘Tis the Season to Feel Guilty

The Thanksgiving bird is but a memory. The holiday’s great miracle has occurred: Some lucky bastard foods have gone to the Heaviside layer to be reincarnated as gobbler sandwiches, stuffin’ muffins, and creamy turkey tetrazzini. Transubsturkeyation, if you will.

Black Friday bruises are turning a yellow-purple as they begin healing. People are massaging their trigger fingers in anticipation of Cyber Monday.

In other words, the Christmas season is upon us. And so is my annual epoch of guilt.

See, in late November, I’m always filled with an unassailable certainty that this year will be the grandest, biggest, fanciest, most memorable of all my Christmas seasons.

Every year, the Monday morning after Thanksgiving, I make myself a mug of hot mulled wine, even though I’m not particularly fond of mulled wine. I tell Google to play the Carpenters Christmas Portrait album and sit at our 1960s red Formica kitchen table. And I make the lists. Lists with a capital “L.”

There’s the “Christmas Cookies That Will Knock Everyone’s Socks Off List.” An ambitious lineup of sweets that would make even the most skilled Great British Bake-Off winner quake. I then pick a theme. Perhaps a world tour of Christmas cookies? Or an all-chocolate extravaganza; that’ll please The One. As I decide, I take a sip of mulled wine (and shudder at the ungodly combination of Merlot, brandy, maple syrup, and spices at the groggy hour of 7 AM). But it’s a classic drink, I think, and if it was good enough for the residents of Dickensian England, it’s good enough for this humble Roxburian.

Then, I usually consult our cats. This year, it’s our newest, Georgie, and his older sister, Graycie, both of whom are staring, waiting for their breakfast. I say, “This year, I’ll add pfeffernüsse and sandkaker to the roster–just for the hell of it!” Bored, Georgie paws one of his springs and chases it as it skitters across the floor. Graycie continues to glare. She wants her treats. “Me-now,” her meows seem to say.

Once done with my Cookie List–I always aim for 13 cookies; a dozen for the 12 days of Christmas and an extra to make it a true baker’s dozen–I turn to my “Exclusive Will You or Won’t You Be on My Christmas Card List.”

The complexity of my handmade design always determines the size of my list of recipients. I’ve wanted to do something with raffia for some time–I have countless skeins in a box in the basement. I got it! Perhaps individual watercolors of Roxbury’s town green with eight reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh above. The reins and Ole St. Nick’s beard will be made from–what else?–my stash of raffia.

Considering the complexity of the design, I’ll have to prune my list severely. No more than 150 cards. Two hundred, if I have extra time. My handwriting on the envelopes will be an ambassador of the Yuletide spirit, each loop and whorl of ink–from the fountain pen The One bought me years ago–acting as a rebuke to the impersonality of the Digital Age. I can already envision mantels adorned with our cards, my witty yet heartfelt messages bringing joy and the occasional tear of holiday sentiment.

A Victorian Christmas of a black cat looking at a sheet of music.

I move my burgeoning Christmas workshop to the family room, where I plan to have a fire roaring in the fireplace very soon–the moment The One wakes up.

I curl up on the couch with my laptop and spend hours searching for weird and wonderful Victorian animal Christmas cards. Once I have a dozen or so, I collect them in a folder on my desktop. My plan? To design homemade wrapping paper, making the cats look like Georgie and Graycie. Then off I’ll trudge through freshly fallen snow to the local printer, where they’ll produce one-of-a-kind gift wrapping.

Of course, my designs will be printed on artisanal, recycled sheets that whisper, “I care about you, dear friend, and our planet.”

A Victorian Christmas of a cat painting "Merry Christmas" on a log. Around are woodland animals.

Exhausted (even though it is just past dawn), I take to bed, which wakes a still-dozing The One. I instruct him to light a fire while I regain my strength from all my plans, plans so grand, so inestimable they’ll put those of Mrs. Russell in The Gilded Age and her real-life counterpart, Alva Vanderbilt, to shame.

Yet…if this year is like every other for the past three decades, I’ll sleep till noon, slobber filling my CPAP mask until I almost drown. When I wake, the fire will have gone out, and I’ll stand in front of it, scratching my ass cheek, trying to summon the effervescent cheer I felt not three hours earlier.

As December wears on, my plans will start falling into mes toilettes.

Within days, my holiday cookie colossus will shrink from 13 to nine to six, then by mid-month to a tin of Walker’s shortbread I’ll pick up at the Big Y.

My hundreds of exquisite handmade cards will turn into a box of generic “Season Greetings.” And, what’s worse, it’ll collect dust on the corner of my desk, as The One and I promise each other THIS weekend is when we’ll finally address them. But still, we’ll wait, and suddenly, it’ll be too late for them to arrive before Christmas, and we’ll change tact. “E-greetings,” we say to each other. Eventually, even that feels wearying, so we give ourselves a reprieve and promise to mail New Year cards.

The gifts–the supposed centerpiece of Christmas–will be whittled down until the only person on my capital L list will be The One. And since there’s nothing either of us needs or wants, those intentions will be banked, along with all the past would-be birthday presents, to be withdrawn in bulk for a future trip to Lisbon, Uruguay, or London.

And as my Season of Cheer becomes my Season of “Oh Dear!” I’ll sink into a seasonal sadness that no amount of sitting in front of a daylight therapy screen can fix.

An ornate blue-and-gold Christmas ornament hanging from a Christmas tree branch.

That’s why this 2023 holiday season really will be different. How, you ask? (I bet you think I’m going to say something like, “I’ll push through!” or “I’m going to show up for myself and do what I know in my heart is right!” Or “I’ll set my cap and intentions and manifest the perfect Christmas!” Bullshit. All bullshit.

No, this year, I’m walking into the season knowing I’m not going to bake one damn gingerbread man or decorate a single sugar cookie with royal icing. I’m sure as hell not sending a small forest’s worth of cards to people I speak to once a year. And I’m definitely not acting like Santa (Lord knows, I have the girth, though) and handing out a trunk full of presents.

Nope. I’m going to hold fast to the notion that for every batch of cookies not baked, there’s a local bakery benefiting from my last-minute pastry platters. For every card not sent, there’s a phone call made; a connection rekindled that conveys more than a paper sentiment ever could. And for every gift not wrapped, there’s the gift of presence—my undistracted attention because, this year, it won’t be frittered away by all the damn things I intend to do and my self-recriminations when I fail.

And maybe–just maybe–launching into the holidays without expectations and the anticipation of crippling guilt might make this the jolliest of seasons ever.


David Leite's handwritten signature of 'David.'

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. I completely understand the issue. I have given the decorating and tree details to my adult children, who actually wanted the jobs. Baking and sweets are still my job, but it is something I actually enjoy doing. And, of course, there is the big Christmas dinner I’ll end up making. Usually, it’s because no one planned anything but still expects a big dinner.

    Then it’s the gift list. Half a dozen kids all want stuff I’ve never heard of or can’t afford. And, since I have the white beard and built-in padding, I end up playing Santa. Luckily, the kids are getting old enough to know it’s Grandpa and not really Santa.

    Somehow, we always seem to muddle through, and everyone is happy, overstuffed, and looking forward to the next year.

    1. Vincent, that’s a great way to look at it! Doing the best you can, muddling through, being overstuffed, and looking toward the future. I wish you and your family a wonderful holiday season.

    2. David, you just took me through all my Christmas fantasies and wiped them away in your writing. I am now feeling relaxed and ready to prop up my feet in front of the fireplace and coast through the season. ‘Tis a gift to put the holidays in perspective. Ho! Ho! Ho!