The Winter Shift


I’ve felt a shift this season, one that’s been desperately needed for a long time. I don’t know whether it’s the upheaval of the pandemic, Glennon Doyle’s podcast, or maybe I’m finally old enough to listen to my intuition, but this holiday season feels different in the best way possible.

winter holidayThe Most Magical Time of the Year?

Growing up in a safe and secure home, the holidays were magical. I now realize that it didn’t come naturally; it was my parents who worked ridiculously hard to cultivate that magic. We had loads of traditions, baked goods, warmth, and holiday spirit. As a mom, I’ve felt that same responsibility and privilege to recreate this seasonal enchantment for my children. Because as everyone will always, always remind you, they are only young once and this is the most magical time of the year!

But that privilege can quickly escalate into obligation, stress, an infinite to-do list, and if you’re anything like me, a meltdown around December 22nd about the consumerist nature of the holiday and the amount of things we didn’t need. Holidays as a mother became joy tinged with stress, non-existent self-care, and a budget blown on stuff that would often end up in the Goodwill pile by July. And then after all the build-up and hustle, I’d spend the next few months in a winter funk, cursing the bleakness of winter in the Pacific Northwest and the cabin fever we would all experience inside. It was enough to start giving me a small sense of dread when the leaves began changing color.

Taking it Down to the Studs

But 2020 and the winter of 2021 were flipped upside down, stripped to the bare essentials, and spent without the usual family. It was surprisingly pleasant. It felt smaller, more purposeful, less concentrated on buying the right present, and a heavier emphasis on pouring love into the community. And the winter? The one I usually despise? I leaned into it like never before; I took a page out of the Danish playbook and embraced the concept of hygge. It just required a bit of a shift, and one that I’m carrying forward with me this season and already recognizing how noticeably lighter and better I feel.

I started by removing all the things that felt like chores and keeping the ones that bring joy. The choice to be able to downsize and cut back is a privilege that is not lost on me, and I’ve resolved to take it seriously. Sending out holiday cards when I never  remember to keep track of everyone’s address is stressful? Out. Making ornaments and Christmas crafts with the kids for distant relatives is fun. We enjoy it. In. That Elf on the Shelf that I know brings lots of joy to lots of families but makes my anxiety come alive? Never. Cooking and showering on Christmas are both out. We will stay in our pajamas and eat sugar cookies and heat up a frozen lasagna, because not making a big deal out of dinner last year was rejuvenating. Taking the kids to pick out one of the top gifts on their list to give to the toy drive? In. Asking for donations to Portland’s Equitable Giving Circle and Meals On Us PDX in lieu of gifts? Feels so much better.

And this year, when my father asks for carbon monoxide detectors or undershirts or something equally eye-roll inducing, I am not going to stress about finding a gift that I deem meaningful that will ultimately leave him wishing I’d just bought him the detectors. Spoiler alert, family, you’re all getting the gift of time this year. In an effort to support local businesses and reduce the amount of material clutter, we are spending the bleak winter making memories. I can’t remember what I gave my brother last year, but I bet he will remember us making fools of ourselves in the escape room that I’m gifting him.

And the same principle goes for my children. We’ve talked to family about the need to keep gifts to a minimum, and people have been respectful. My daughter will lose interest in American Girl dolls eventually, but I hope she’ll remember the time we got dressed up and went out for tea and scones. And, well, my four-year-old son has asked Santa for a life-size car wash, and I have no idea what to do with that, so if you have any suggestions, please reach out immediately.

Rethinking Winter

We are deep into the season and all potential meltdowns have been staved off thus far. Fingers crossed. And as for the winter season that follows and can feel so dismal, I’m going in with different energy this year. Even a low-key version of the holidays is still rife with gathering, celebrating, and a little bit of hustle, which makes the need for rest even more vital. Like most things in nature, we as humans are meant to rest. We are not meant to sprint through all seasons of life. Rest is needed to grow. This is a time of reflection, quiet, stillness, and staying in so we are geared up for warmer days ahead.

So this year, all of my screen time rules are gone. We will be watching movies in our fuzziest socks, eating the baked goods we’ve been making, and hunkering down Scandinavian style. We will be taking walks, even in the rain, because we need to connect with nature, but just generally taking it really slowly. I anticipate multiple puzzles.

This time of year can’t always look exactly the way we envision, but I believe in getting closer. I hope we can all keep what means the most to us and ditch the rest. I don’t want my kids to associate the holidays with my stress and existential crises, and this approach has helped cultivate a richer season with more gratitude and connection. I hope for you and your family, with whatever you do or do not celebrate, you find the same.

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Emily Corak has spent the last three decades in the Pacific Northwest and prefers to live in Vancouver because parking in Portland terrifies her. A mom to two kids, ages 3 and 7, Emily has been an educator for the past decade and she currently works with middle school English language learners. She wasn't planning on becoming a mother, but she's glad she was so careless because it turns out she really likes being a mom. Most days. Emily is now going back to school for her MFA in creative writing after deciding she had more to offer the world than breast milk and unsolicited grammar advice. When the world allows, she spends any spare cash on plane tickets, and she lives for books, tea, and all things Top Chef. She occasionally writes about anything and everything that comes to mind, and you can find her work here: