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The Season of the Have-To’s

bigstock Christmas sad womanSmall talk turned to intense talk when I spoke with the members of a local women’s group. When I asked about holiday planning, what came back was a flood of anxiety. “No sooner is Halloween over, and I have to start getting ready for Thanksgiving,” said one.

“Yeah, and then there are the winter holidays,” said another.

“Tis the season of the ‘have-to’s,’” joked another.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

That prompted a chorus of “I have to decorate”; “ I have to cook”; “I have to clean”; “ I have to buy presents”; “I have to wrap them”; “I have to decorate the house”; “I have to spend time with people I don’t want to spend time with”; “ I have to go to the office party”; “ I have to send out cards”; “ I have to hold our annual neighborhood party”; “ I have to!”; “I have to”; “ I have to”; “ I have to…”

“Whoa!” I said. “That doesn’t sound a bit like fun. In fact, it sounds like a prescription for exhaustion and resentment. Let’s rethink the “have-to’s.” Once everyone took a deep breath, this group of creative and caring women came up with some ways to put the brakes on all those “have-to’s.”

Put things in perspective by separating the “have-to’s” from the want-to’s. If we’re honest, there are lots of parts of the holiday season that we would miss if they didn’t happen. You may feel, for example, that you “have to” put on a big Thanksgiving meal but, truth is, you do enjoy the yearly get-together of the whole clan.

Focusing on the work involved is what makes the meal into a “have-to” instead of a pleasure. By shifting our thinking to the positives and by asking for some help (see below), we can celebrate the traditions that bring us together.

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Do a reality check. Do you really “have to” bake six kinds of pies for Thanksgiving? Will the world really end if you bake only two? Do you really “have to” creatively wrap every holiday gift with tender loving care or will gift bags do? Do you really “have to” visit both sets of grandparents on Christmas Day or can you spread the visits out over the week? Will it ruin Christmas if you send out an email holiday letter instead of cards? Probably not.

Believing we “have to” do things in a perfectly perfect way or to meet others’ standards quickly transforms a want to into a “have-to.” Instead, let yourself think of ways to reduce the “have-to” tasks so you can enjoy the season:

  • Consider paper plates instead of fine china — unless part of the pleasure of the season is bringing out great-grandmother’s dishes, in which case it’s a “want-to.”
  • Only pull out decorations that really delight your family.
  • Limit the Hanukkah celebration to one festive night and simply light the candles with the blessings on the other seven.
  • Enlist everyone’s cooperation to limit the number of people to buy for. Some families only give gifts to children. Others draw a name out of the hat at Thanksgiving and only buy a gift for that one person instead of purchasing presents for the whole gang. Such decisions reduce the financial and emotional stress for everyone.

If you just can’t see your way clear to cutting things out or cutting them down to size, there are other ways to reduce the “have-to’s.”

Ask for help. Few of us have a staff of five to help stage the holiday meals or get-togethers. Lacking a cook, maid, butler and cleanup squad, many people simply sigh and do it all themselves. It’s exhausting. It sucks the pleasure out of the event when we have to worry about doing everything from the decorating to the meal to the cleanup.

Ask the family to spend an evening decorating the house. Make the meal potluck. Ask a select few to stay late and help you clean up. (Some of my best conversations with friends and family have happened over the dishpan when everyone else said “good night.”) Asking for help doesn’t make you a poor host or hostess. It makes you a sane one.

Accept help. Don’t be a martyr. If someone says they will bring deep fried kumquats for dinner, say an enthusiastic thank you. If someone else wants to bring their favorite vegan, free-range tofu, the proper response is “Delighted to have it!” No, the meal won’t be color- and taste-coordinated, but so what? The offerings will be part of the adventure and the people who like those sorts of things won’t feel deprived.

If people offer to stay for cleanup, don’t shoo them out the door. Express your appreciation and give them a specific task to do. As my grandma used to say, “Many hands make light work.” If everyone does a little, you don’t have to do a lot. And everyone can feel good about being good to you.

Taking charge of “have-to’s” frees us up to do what is really important during the holiday season. Cut down on the time spent running around and feeling stressed and you can do the things that you really like to do to make the season special. You don’t “have to,” but you might want to bake cookies or read holiday stories with your children or grandchildren instead of putting up every decoration you’ve accumulated. You don’t “have to,” but you might want to spend more time with friends instead of going to the mall.

Whichever winter holiday you and yours celebrate, free yourself of as many of the “have-to’s” as you can. Give yourself the gift of time to do the things you want to do to affirm the true meaning of the season.

The Season of the Have-To’s

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). The Season of the Have-To’s. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.